The right side of history [Commentary]

When you read about this nation's past, it is quite obvious what the phrase "right side of history" means. We know, for example, that abolitionists, women's rights organizers and civil rights activists were on the right side of history. And quite often we feel a sense of disbelief and disgust that in bygone days so many stood on the wrong side of history for so long.

In the moment, though, there are always defenders of the status quo trying to obscure what the "right side" actually is. They often depict bigotry and inequality as the natural, immutable order. Worse, they sometimes stoop to what Washington's professional football team is now doing by defending the use of a dictionary-defined racial slur as its team's name. Incredibly, they condescendingly pretend that denigrating entire demographic groups is somehow beneficial to those very groups.


That is the obvious message of team owner Dan Snyder's continued insistence that calling Native Americans "Redskins" is a way to honor us. Ignoring social science research showing that his preferred slur actually harms Native peoples, Mr. Snyder's insensitive declaration is a teachable moment. He is showing that while there may be no universal definition of the "wrong side" of history, such a side is identifiable in the same way as obscenity. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, "You know it when you see it."

We know that, as NBA Commissioner David Stern said, no sports league in America today would allow a new team to be named after a racial slur. We know that the R-word was the term screamed at Native Americans when they were forced at gunpoint off their sacred homelands. We know that the ombudsman for National Public Radio was right when he said, "Every dictionary I could find describes the word today as derogatory." We know that major grass roots organizations representing Native Americans have repeatedly implored the team to stop using this slur.


In short, we know that the civil rights groups, public health organizations, sports icons, news organizations, Republican and Democratic members of Congress and the president of the United States are all correct when they suggest that standing on the right side of history means changing the team's name.

Remarkably, the Washington team's use of a racial epithet continues to be effectively subsidized at both the state and federal levels. Maryland provided approximately $70.5 million of the $250 million that it cost to open FedEx Field in 1997. However, there are hopeful signs that the bankrolling of this slur by taxpayers may be ending.

In the past three months alone, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has rejected two separate trademark applications because they contained the derogatory, dictionary-defined slur "Redskins." And it's currently reviewing the Washington NFL team's existing R-word trademark to determine whether the team will retain trademark status and legal rights to the term.

Through its recent rulings, the USPTO has already made clear what should be obvious to everyone with a conscience — that "Redskins" is not a term that anyone with common decency would use to address a Native American. The R-word insults and denigrates Native Americans and has no place in modern society.

Of course, as upset as so many are by the team's intransigence and refusal to drop the name, we also know we should not be particularly surprised considering the history of those who have owned the Washington team. George Preston Marshall made sure that Washington's NFL franchise was the last to racially integrate, and it only did so under threat of punitive action by the federal government.

Considering that, it is not shocking that the same team with such a sordid history is now continuing to market — and profit from — a racial slur against a minority group. This team, with such a record of standing on the wrong side of history now refuses once again to stand on the right side of history.

That said, just because we expect such behavior doesn't mean we have to remain silent (as the team and the NFL hope). Mr. Snyder's launching of a new foundation and funding it with a pittance from his personal fortune will not buy such reticence from Native Americans. More and more Americans from all walks of life are joining our "Change the Mascot" campaign. This cause is not going away and our silence is not for sale.

Ray Halbritter is a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises. He can be reached at


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