Redskins and Rebels

The Redskins are in town this month. Yay?

The team moved their training facilities to Richmond last year amid major fanfare. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has even created a separate section of their website with pictures and daily updates from training camp.

I get this - it's a big deal for a major sports team to conduct some pre-season warm-ups in Richmond. The town doesn't get enough credit for being a good sports city - there are plenty of Squirrels fans, for example, and there's a very active soccer contingent that supports a local pro team. (They formed the core of the big crowds that turned out for the World Cup last month.)

But it's getting harder and harder to get excited about an NFL team landing in town every summer when that team's name is so toxic many journalists and newspapers won't even print it. (When your team name is being compared to the "n-word," you have a problem.)

Yesterday, the Washington Post's editorial board chimed in with another call for change, noting that even the granddaughter of the guy who came up with "Redskins" is on board with a new name. Redskins owner Lord Voldemo--- I mean, Dan Snyder -- is digging in, and so far seems to have no interest in being a decent human being.

This "controversy" was very much on my mind when a Facebook friend posted an article about her Richmond high school debating the merits of their own mascot. Douglas S. Freeman High, located just outside the city limits in Henrico County, still uses the "Rebel" name for its sports teams and other events. (A note on the current home page welcomes new students to a preparatory program called "Rebel Camp.")

But apparently some students, alums, and parents want to resurrect "Rebel Man," a Confederate soldier, as an official mascot who will appear at games. While Rebel Man hasn't been seen at games for at least a few years, the imagery remains in certain corners of the school. For example, the home page of the basketball team (which, while it has a separate URL, appears to be the official page of the team) strangely includes a cartoonish image of an old confederate soldier under its "News" links.

A petition started by a 16-year-old student, Alecsys Brown, apparently gathered 1200 signatures in a few days. Brown's comments in the WaPo article about her efforts could be read as an indictment of Freeman's history teachers:

Brown, the Freeman student, said she started the petition to show that many of her classmates want to reinstate the school’s original mascot as a point of pride.

“They are really upset because the Rebel Man is not offensive in any way,” Brown said. “This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”

I'll go out on a limb here and point out that this is nonsense. The student here is echoing the Heritage Not Hate argument, one that's popular throughout the south, and one that ignores just how brutal a regime the Southern slavocracy actually was.

As I've hinted before, I have absolutely no tolerance for the Southern penchant to romanticize the Confederacy. To my students, I often point out that the entire early history of the United States could be described as a series of attempts to mollify a belligerent Southern region that fought tooth-and-nail to maintain their savage socioeconomic structure at all costs. But hey, it's all water under the bridge, right?

Maybe. Only the use of school mascots actually matters. Going back to the Redskins, the Center for American Progress released a report this month that suggests that racist school nicknames that rely on Native American imagery "perpetuate derogatory stereotypes," lead to a hostile environment for students of color, and "undermine the educational experience of all students."

It's true that resurrecting a Confederate mascot is not the same thing as using a racist name for the team. But papering over the terrible atrocities committed in the name of the Confederacy suggests that we're at least looking in the wrong place for heroes to emulate.

Thank goodness for savvier students like recent Freeman grad Charlie Bonner, who tried to change the mascot while he was a student. As he said in the WaPo:

“For many current Freeman students and teachers, seeing a Confederate soldier brings up images of violent inequality and their struggle to rebuild a decimated culture,” Bonner said. “We cannot lose sight of the real issue at hand: creating a school environment that is inclusive of all the students that walk its halls."

Words for the Freeman community -- as well as Dan Snyder -- to live by.