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The ‘Redskin’ defenders in Neshaminy have the right to use the shameful name | Opinion

The worst thing we could do is to restrict their speech.

A pair of Redskins celebrate a Neshaminy interception last week.
A pair of Redskins celebrate a Neshaminy interception last week.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff

In the 1820s, a group of settlers in central Illinois named their town Pekin because they believed that Peking, China, was at the opposite end of the Earth from them. A century later, the good burghers of Pekin created a new mascot for their high school: the Chink.

At basketball games, the Chink and Chinklette — a boy and girl dressed in “Oriental” costumes — would meet a member of the visitors’ community at center court, bow low to their waists, and present a flower. They also banged a gong to celebrate exceptional plays by the Pekin team.

I’ve been thinking about Pekin during the latest bout in the controversy over the Neshaminy School District’s own nickname, the Redskins. Like the citizens of Pekin, many people in the Bucks County district honestly believe that their nickname is harmless; others say it honors Native Americans.

But a brief glance backward proves otherwise. Just as Chink demeaned Asian Americans, Redskin was used as a slur against Native peoples. That’s the simplest reason why the school district shouldn’t use it today.

Nobody is sure when the term Redskin arose. But when bounties were offered for killing a Native American, hunters could often collect on them by presenting the victim’s scalp or skin. And, yes, it was called a red skin.

“The reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to purgatory,” announced a newspaper in Winona, Minn., in 1863. “This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”

As the last part of the remark illustrated, Native Americans were rapidly dying out. But whites attributed that to Native peoples’ being inherently inferior, not to the injustices they had suffered.

“With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them,” wrote L. Frank Baum, author of the children’s story The Wizard of Oz, in an 1890 plea for annihilating the remaining Native Americans. “Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”

Native Americans lived on, of course, in many parts of the United States. In the minds of whites, they survived mainly as symbols: of strength, aggression, and determination.

And so the Native American sports mascot was born. The first professional team to adopt the Redskins name was a football squad in Boston, in 1933; four years later, the team moved to the District of Columbia and became the Washington Redskins. Its fight song urged “braves on the warpath” to “scalp” opponents.

Meanwhile, thousands of schools and colleges adopted Redskin and other Native American mascots: Indians, Braves, Chiefs, and so on. Many of these names have been changed in recent years, amid mounting awareness and criticism. In 2015, California banned high schools from using Redskins as a nickname. But at least 49 high schools in 20 states still use it, down from 93 in 1989.

Their defense is always the same: No matter what the term used to mean, it means something different to them. In hearings before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which is challenging Neshaminy’s nickname, advocates argued that most of the school community supports the continued use of Redskins. Indeed, they noted, the PHRC initiated its action without a complaint from a local citizen.

So what? When a national Chinese American organization complained to Pekin officials in 1974 about the use of Chink, the school newspaper in Pekin — like the one in Neshaminy — called for the nickname to be changed. But it was rebuffed when a poll revealed that 85 percent of juniors and seniors at the school wanted to retain the Chinks.

And the following year, the Illinois Department of Health, Education and Welfare ruled that the Chink mascot wasn’t discriminatory because there were no Asian Americans at Pekin High School. How could it be harmful if nobody was harmed?

Pekin didn’t change its mascot until 1980, when the Chink was replaced by the Dragon. Hundreds of protesters picketed the school, insisting that the community retain its old symbol. “Old Chinks never die — they just Drag-on,” one sign declared.

And so the Redskins defenders in Neshaminy drag on this sorry spectacle, as they have every right to do.

The worst thing we could do is restrict their speech, which is precisely what the school did after the student newspaper decided not to use the word Redskins. In response, school officials required the paper to use the word on its editorial pages. When the newspaper refused, publishing “R—” in the place of Redskins, its editor was pushed out of her position for a month and its faculty adviser was suspended for two days without pay.

I hope we don’t repeat those errors by censoring pro-Redskins voices. Whether the school retains its nickname or not, everyone in the community should remain free to use the term (or not) as they see fit. Any new restriction will make the defenders of the nickname into martyrs. And it will reinforce the narrative of political correctness in which finger-wagging liberals impose their linguistic preferences on everyone else.

So if you like the Redskins nickname, keep using it. Nobody is stopping you, and nobody should. One day, you’ll look as petty and narrow-minded as the people in Pekin who tried to hold on to Chinks. The Redskins defenders in Neshaminy aren’t all racists, but they are defending a racist nickname. And they will live to regret it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools” (University of Chicago Press).