Ignorance is bliss ... for supporters of the Washington Redskins

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In April, an American billionaire and owner of a West Coast-based National Basketball Association franchise worth a purported $575 million made racist statements about African-Americans. The penalty for his remarks was swift and final: Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and fined a hefty $2.5 million. 

Meanwhile, another American billionaire from the opposite end of the country and owner of a National Football League franchise worth a purported $1.56 billion continues to disparage Native Americans by defiantly using the racist term “redskins” as his team’s moniker. The penalty for Dan Snyder’s bigoted behavior? A tacit endorsement by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

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These are two very similar cases with two very different outcomes. One triggers instantaneous and widespread outrage; the other is granted a free pass. There is no mystery to this grand disparity. It is simply the result of plain old ignorance. 

Take a look, for example, at any American history book. The history of racism against African-Americans is taught to students from grade school through college. Ask any stranger on the street about racism in America — chances are you’ll hear stories of slavery, abolition or present-day anecdotes of people like Sterling, all of which involve African-Americans.

Now consider the case of Native Americans. Most Americans can recall learning about Indians and pilgrims, federal reservations and notable Indian figures like Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Pocahontas. However, when asked about the term “redskins,” most non-Native Americans would refer to the NFL team, the Washington Redskins. 

In more recent years, it has come to the attention of the general public that the term “redskins” is, at the very least, offensive to many Native Americans. The racist nature of this term should be enough to discourage its continued use and support. After all, if the word “red” were to be substituted by “black” (as in “blackskins”) there would be no end to the outrage from all levels of society.

There was a time when remarks such as those made by Sterling would be tolerated. Hatred toward African-Americans was demonstrated not only through disparaging language but also through torturous physical abuse. The same often applied to other ethnic minority groups, including our nation’s first inhabitants. 

During America’s formative years, white settlers were paid by the colonial government out of the public treasury to hunt, scalp and kill Native Americans. The bounty was higher for males, but females and children were traded as well. The exchange was simple, like swapping animal furs for food at a trading post, except the commodity was Indian bodies and scalps. These scalps were called “redskins.” 

The current chairman and chief of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis, recently declared that “redskins” is “not just a racial slur or a derogatory term” but a painful “reminder of one of the most gruesome acts of ... ethnic cleansing ever committed against [our] people.” 

With the exception of schools in Indian country and collegiate Native American studies programs, the violent history associated with the term “redskins” is not taught in American schools. It is no wonder why the general public does not understand the reason this racial epithet is so offensive to millions of Native Americans across the nation. 

It is this ignorance that perpetuates the hatred that an entire race has endured for centuries. It is this ignorance that allows people like Snyder and Goodell to pretend that the name of the Washington, D.C., NFL franchise actually honors the Native American people. 

I believe in the American people. I believe in the American principles of acceptance and inclusion. It is my hope that when people truly appreciate the shameful legacy behind the word “redskins,” they will no longer stand behind the denigrating term. That clearly was the case when Sterling made his racist remarks — not one person stood behind him. Why should anyone stand behind Snyder’s racist team name? 

Faleomavaega, a nonvoting member of Congress, has represented American Samoa since 1989. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and Natural Resources committees.