WASHINGTON — You know a guy is in trouble when he hires Lanny Davis as his lawyer.
Davis has developed a specialty representing Third World dictators and questionable businesses since his days as a spokesman for Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So when Davis’ name appeared on a statement from the Washington Redskins on Saturday afternoon declaring that President Obama was wrong to question the team’s name, it was a sure sign that Dan Snyder is worried.
Davis, brought in this summer to help with the team-name controversy, expressed his disappointment “as a supporter of President Obama” that Obama was not aware of a decade-old poll finding that only one in 10 Native Americans were offended by the name. “We love our team and its name,” he wrote, and “we do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group.”
I like Davis and admire his creativity, but, to borrow a Clinton-era phrase, let’s parse this statement. Are the Redskins really defending the name with an out-of-date survey that allowed anybody — even somebody with less native blood than Elizabeth Warren — to identify as a Native American? And even if those results were accurate, are Davis and Snyder suggesting that racism is OK if it polls well?
To see whether it’s right to use “Redskins” as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Washington Tuesday for their fall meeting should attempt a thought experiment and substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews and see how it would sound. That should be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.
“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, said Monday at a news conference on the eve of the NFL meeting. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. … We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”
Gover was part of a gathering arranged by the Oneida Nation at the Ritz-Carlton, the site of the owners meeting. The tribe has been running radio ads calling for a name change, and the cause got a boost when Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press on Saturday that he’d think about changing the name if he were in Snyder’s shoes. Snyder is on record telling USA Today: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. Never — you can use caps.”
Actually, forget the Caps; let’s use the Bullets, who became the Washington Wizards to avoid using what was a less offensive word than Redskins. Davis decries the “selective” outrage against the Redskins but not the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago Blackhawks. The Braves’ Tomahawk Chop and Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo are indeed appalling, but the team names aren’t epithets.
“We’re asking the NFL to stop using a racial slur,” said Ray Halbritter, representing the Oneida Nation.
The best argument was made not by a Native American but by an African American, the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. “My great-grandfather was a runaway slave,” she said. “I went to segregated schools, just like many Native Americans. … I don’t see how anyone who has gone through our historic experience can fail to identify with Native Americans who are raising this issue. Need I remind them of the terms that have been attached to us in history and how the moment we hear one of those terms, you’ve got an uprising?”
That makes Davis’ defense sound all the more trivial. “The name ‘Washington Redskins’ is 80 years old — it’s our history and legacy and tradition,” his statement said — as though that trumps the Native Americans’ history and legacy and tradition.
Norton predicted that the offensive name won’t last much longer. “The name is going to go in the dustbin of history,” she said. “My only regret is that Dan Snyder, the owner of the team, had to be pushed this far.”
If Snyder feels otherwise, perhaps he can start making his way to history’s dustbin, and a new owner can change the name. Maybe then we’d win some football games.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.