This essay is my response to that question as a Jew. If a racial or ethnic group of people are called stereotypical names, simple justice can never be realized by that group. For Jews and Native Americans, the name calling dehumanized a people that contributed to genocide. In the present day, Native American mascots perpetuates racial stereotypes that lead people not familiar with Native Americans to dismiss them and their continuing struggle to overcome centuries of oppression. Those not familiar with Native Americans tend to think that mascots honor Native Americans or that it is not a significant matter because Native Americans are not around any longer.
The coronavirus pandemic is another reminder of why racial stereotyping is so pernicious. The President has taken to calling the virus, the Chinese virus. Recently, Rep. Judy Chu, the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, stated it was dangerous for the President to continue to refer to the virus in this manner, referring to an uptick in hate crimes committed against Asians. Journalists and academics have recorded a surge of hate crimes as well.
The Jewish perspective on stereotypes
Jews are very familiar with a people being scapegoated and labelled as the bearers of plagues or other calamities. Antisemites throughout the centuries have accused Jews as being Christ-killers. There is nothing more conducive to pogroms and other atrocities committed against Jews than to accuse them of being the persecutors of Jesus. This twisted antisemitism only grew in Europe over the centuries. Eastern Europe was the birthplace of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a screed asserting that Jews were intent on global political and economic domination. It is ironic how an oppressed minority could be powerful enough to be intent on domination, but I guess if a people killed Jesus, they could be capable of any type of atrocity.
The journalist Pavel Krushevan was the first to publish the Protocols. Antisemites committed a particularly brutal pogrom in Krushevan’s city of Kishinev, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1903 as described poignantly in Steven J. Zipperstein’s recent book.
The allegations of global domination most likely also arose as a result of the stereotype of Jews as greedy money seekers. Discrimination against Jews caused the stereotype of greed. Jews were confined to certain occupations, many of which centered on commerce. Jews were highly visible as merchants and bankers. Just as with Native American mascots, this image of Jews as greedy capitalists persists today. The Aalst Carnival in Belgium has featured insidious Jewish parade floats two years in a row; this year, it was Jews with ant abdomens and legs and last year, it was Jews holding money and grinning. UNESCO, a United Nations educational agency, withdrew its recognition of the carnival as a heritage event. Also, this year, a parade in Spain mocked the Holocaust with Nazi soldiers and Jewish prisoners happily marching and dancing down a street.
The experiences with Jewish mascots and stereotypes makes Jewish leaders particular sensitive to and outspoken against verbal and written abuse. Rabbi Daniel Stern, for example, stated in a sermon that the Torah teaches:
Verbal assaults can be so pernicious and poignant because they are not targeted at the external body which is naturally trained to heal over time, but rather with intent to harm the soul of a person, to diminish their self-worth, significance, and contribution. For this reason, the recovery process from the emotional wounds of hurtful comments can be complex and prolonged, and can never be confined to a financial settlement or mitigated by monetary compensation.
It is in the context of Jewish history and its religious teachings that I am so adamant against mascots and stereotypes that hurt any people. For a professional team in the nation’s capital and in a region in which I reside to perpetuate racial stereotypes rubs against the core of my Jewish soul.
Native American mascots do not honor, they demean and erase
The history of Native American mascots and stereotypes is insidious just as the taunts against Jews. American colonization was justified as a war against barbarous brutes. Writing about the name of the Washington football team, C. Richard King states:
Native American mascots have very little to do with Native Americans. They do not represent indigenous men and women. Much like blackface, such inventions and imaginings, meant to represent a racial other, tell us much more about Euro-Americans….They reflect and reinforce the fundamental features of racial and gendered privilege in a settler society, particularly a sense of entitlement to take and remake without consent and to do so without the burden of history, the challenges of knowing, or the risk of penalty.
The historical uses of mascots and stereotypes to assert domination have devastating psychological and sociological impacts. In a recent review of the scholarly literature, RWF reported that psychological studies and surveys concluded that mascots injure the self-esteem of Native Americans, particularly youth, and perpetuated negative attitudes among non-Natives of Native Americans.
Some may reply that a Washington Post survey found that most Native Americans (90 percent) were not offended by the name and mascot of the Washington football team. However, this February, Stephanie A. Fryberg and colleagues from the University of Michigan and University of California, Berkeley released the results of their survey which found that on the very same question, 49 percent of Native American respondents found the name to be offensive.
Why the huge difference? The Washington Post poll suffered from methodological flaws. It had a relatively small sample size and relied upon respondents to self-identify as Native Americans instead of confirming that the respondents were officially enrolled in tribes. In contrast, the team of psychologists led by Fryberg strove for accuracy by conducting to-date the “largest scientific study of the relationship between Native American identity and attitudes toward Native mascots,” according to their study. They recruited “a sample of 1,000 Native American participants, which is twice the size of previous polls and would achieve sufficient variation in Native American demographics and identities to test our hypotheses.”
The authors find that opposition to mascots and fake dances and chants increase the more respondents identify with their culture and participate in religious and cultural activities. For example, 70 percent of respondents that frequently engage in Native American culture find mascot headdresses offensive compared to 38 percent of respondents that do not frequently engage in Native American culture. The study found similar results on questions about the Tomahawk chop and when fans imitate Native dances.
Conclusion: I cease to be a Jew if I do not care about this
As a Jew, Fryberg’s study makes sense to me. If I was not observant or did not participate in Jewish life, I may not care that much about stereotypes. But since Judaism is important to me and I am a periodic participate in Jewish life and religion, the stereotypes offend because they do not represent who I am or the depth of my understanding of Judaism or what it means to be a Jew. Moreover, as a student of history and social psychology, I am crystal clear about the harms and hate crimes that mascots and stereotypes perpetuate. Just remember Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass to see how stereotypes crystallize hate and destruction.
Our country cannot be free of racism and its destructiveness until we dispense with sports mascots that perpetuate stereotypes. Not only must the Washington R-skins discard their name and logo, must also all the other professional teams with Native American names and mascots. All teams at all levels must do so and follow the lead of 2,000 high schools and numerous colleges that have done so.
I cease to be a Jew if I do not care about this. We are less human until we discard our collective racism. Change the name, change the logo, Rebrand Washington Football!