If Washington’s NFL team can finally ditch its racist name, why can’t these local schools do it? | Jenice Armstrong
Two Pennsylvania high schools — Neshaminy in Bucks County and Sayre in Bradford County — and Wayne Valley High School in Passaic County, N.J., use the same racist slur that the Washington team did.
The Washington Football Team’s new nickname, the Commanders, is a fine one. It’s strong. It’s bold. Almost anything would have been better than the racist one it had before. I’m ashamed of how long it took for my hometown team to do the right thing.
Now, it’s time for other sports teams to follow suit.
I don’t just mean professional teams, such as the Atlanta Braves or the Kansas City Chiefs, which have come under fire because of the teams’ and fans’ use of Native American imagery. High schools and colleges with problematic nicknames and imagery need to rebrand as well. Two Pennsylvania high schools — Neshaminy in Bucks County and Sayre in Bradford County, and Wayne Valley High School in Passaic County, N.J. — continue to use the same awful nickname ditched by Washington.
They’re far from alone: The Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a Harrisburg-based advocate for inclusive education, released a study revealing recently that more than 55,162 students attended Pennsylvania schools with Native American nicknames and mascots. That included at least 397 Native American students among an estimated 1,139 statewide.
It used to be that people could get away with claiming that they didn’t know better. They do now. And as the saying goes, when you know better, you do better.
“The term redskin is derogatory and always has been,” pointed out Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. “There are many who want to hold onto racist imagery no matter what.”
Lassiter added, “They say the name is cultural pride. Native Americans and Indigenous people say it’s racist.”
According to Pennsylvania State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), the term refers to the remains of Native Americans slain because of “white supremacist-based, government-funded bounties for the killing and mutilation of Indigenous peoples.” He has compiled a list of about 60 schools in the Keystone State that have other problematic nicknames. Rabb also is working on a bill that would, among other things, ban the practice of using Native American-inspired mascots.
“It’s about basic human dignity,” Rabb told me Monday. “As a Black person who is used to being treated as a second-class citizen, if we don’t speak up as the moral compass of this country, then we are complicit. This is the same thing that they’ve done to us for centuries, too.”
He added, “I would love to see youth leaders in schools throughout the state that have racist mascots and team names band together and demand that adults in their respective communities do the right thing and stand down and allow for the process to change these names quickly and in an inclusive and in an intentional manner.”
Instead of relying primarily on young people to be change agents, I wish administrators would embrace the evolution instead of standing in the way. Washington let fans in on the process and allowed them to make suggestions for new names. School officials should let students and alumni come up with something to their liking. Done right, rebranding the names of high schools sports teams could potentially be used as a teachable moment — not just for the students but also for the communities they serve.
Neshaminy in Bucks County has been embroiled in drama over this issue for years. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ruled in 2019 that the school needed to stop using “any and all logos and imagery in the Neshaminy High School that negatively stereotype Native Americans.” Activists were shocked last summer when a Commonwealth Court reversed the order.
“There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’ve done something wrong and that you didn’t understand that it was wrong. But when you now understand that it’s wrong and you hold onto it, that’s where the problem lies, and that’s what Neshaminy has done,” said Donna Fann-Boyle, cofounder of the Coalition of Natives and Allies. “I, myself, have presented them with hundreds of pages of information. They know what they’re doing is wrong. We had a hearing with the Human Relations Commission.”
She hopes that the incoming replacement for longtime Neshaminy school board president Stephen Pirritano — who stepped down late last year — will be more amenable to change.
I hope so, too. The way it is now is not a good look. This isn’t your grandpop’s America anymore. The nation is diversifying rapidly. To thrive, the next generation will need to respect the sensibilities of those from different backgrounds in ways previous generations got away with not doing. As a society, we can’t rely solely on parents to impart those values. Students need to also see them modeled at school. The Washington Football Team spent years hanging on to its inglorious nickname. Team owner Dan Snyder vowed that he would never change it, but now he has, showing that evolution is possible.
Now it’s time for school sports teams to do the same.