Christopher Potz’s recent post on offensive team names reminds of something I’ve been meaning to say on the subject. Activist groups pushing for the elimination of team names like Redskins, Indians, and Braves have made a strategic error that likely damages their case in the eyes of the public: they refuse to distinguish between derogatory and non-derogatory references to American Indians. “Redskins” is clearly offensive to anyone who gives it much thought; but “Indians” is pretty neutral, and “Braves” is arguably complimentary. As long as activist groups insist on the elimination of all these names, the public is likely to ignore them. Given an all-or-nothing choice, they prefer all to nothing. The mere fact that a team name makes reference to an ethnic group, or to that group’s warrior class, does not indicate racism; if it did, then activists would be equally upset over the Patriots, Minutemen, and Vikings. If the activists hope to make a difference, they need to adopt a more moderate stance favoring the elimination of only the truly offensive names.
(PETA has made a similar error in its advocacy of animal rights. Many Americans might favor marginal changes that improve the condition of food animals on factory farms and research animals in labs. But they are not willing to go vegetarian, forgo the health and safety gains from research, and rename the Green Bay Packers because its name is a reference to the meat-packing industry.)