Celebrity chef Paula Deen admits that she used the word nigger “a very long time” ago in strictly private conversations, and she, like so many others, is immediately banned from broadcasting, but team owner Dan Snyder is not only responsible for the repeated use of the word "redskins" on hundreds of radio and TV stations, but is so proud of it that he publicly vows he will "never" change the team’s name. Why? What's different?
Deen is certainly not alone. Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was ousted over a few ill-chosen stereotyped remarks about black athletes. Don Imus was suspended for using the racially charged term “nappy.” Pat Buchanan was fired by MSNBC because of ideas – not offensive words – expressed in a book, but not on the air. Juan Williams, a minority himself, was fired by NPR for admitting some trepidation when he saw people in Muslim garb boarding airplanes. An ESPN reporter was fired for using the well known phrase "chink in the armor" in connection with Asian American athlete Jeremy Lin.
In connective with the Lin firing, WRC-TV anchor Jim Vance – a long-time friend and supporter of the football team – said on the air: “What I find curious is how some people I’ve talked to are offended by a derogatory term for Asians, but not by the word redskin. Folks, redskins is not a term of endearment, any more than the N word or any other racial or ethnic slur. From its inception and inclusion in our language, it was meant to be an insult."
Yet Snyder is proud to continue using a word which three judges found to be "a derogatory term of reference for Native Americans" and tends to bring them "into contempt or disrepute"; which the D.C. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments condemned as "demeaning and dehumanizing"; which both chairmen of the congressional Native American Caucus, and other members of Congress, blasted as "offensive epithets," "disparaging to Native Americans," and "racial slurs"; which several states have found too offensive to be permitted to be used on personalized vehicle license plates; and which has been denounced and condemned as the most racist of all terms relating to Indians – the R-word is to them what the N-word is to Blacks – by dozens of leading organizations representing American Indians.
Recently, the former chairman of the FCC, several former commissioners, and other broadcasting law experts concluded that "Redskins" is an "unequivocal racial slur," and warned that its deliberate, repeated and unnecessary use by broadcasters may no longer serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." As the public interest law professor who first developed the idea of using broadcasting law as a weapon against this racist word, based upon my earlier success in challenging the racist policies of some major DC-area TV stations, I agree. This could jeopardize the licenses of stations which continue to repeatedly use the term on the air.
The broadcasting law experts likened the use of the term to "obscene pornographic language on live television," and to broadcasting the names of teams like the "Blackskins" or the "Mandingoes." They concluded that "[i]t is inappropriate for broadcasters to use racial epithets as part of normal, everyday reporting. Thankfully, one does not hear the 'n' word on nightly newscasts."
Now several media outlets are even asking whether team owner Dan Snyder is paying spin master Frank Luntz "to spin his team's name," and predicting that such an attempt “will not end well.” Another asked more bluntly: "Is Dan Snyder Secretly Maneuvering to Change Redskins Name?"
On still another front, some members of Congress are pressing Snyder to change the name of the team or they will revoke his federal trademarks, and the D.C. City Council is preparing a resolution which will reportedly call upon DC-area stations to cease using the racist term on the air. This would make it more difficult for stations to defend themselves against a petition opposing the renewal of their broadcasting licenses, since stations must first assess community concerns and then respond to them.
Some defenders of the name have argued that, while the term "redskins" may be racist and derogatory when addressed to or used to refer to persons of a specific heritage, it is not racist or derogatory – and therefore may properly be used on the air by broadcasters – when it refers to the name of an entity such as a team, group, or organization.
But, for example, the complete and proper name of the former musical group Niggaz Wit Attitudes was never said on the air, even by black stations, and even though the N-word was used here to refer to a group and not in any racial or derogatory sense, and the group was made up of African Americans who freely chose the word "Niggaz" to describe and express themselves. In contrast, Indians are not on Snyder’s football team, and did not choose the name “Redskins” for themselves.
It has also been argued that, if they cannot use the word "Redskins" on the air, radio and TV stations cannot report the news, and that their freedom of speech, and the right of fans to keep up to date about the team, would be unduly restricted. But broadcasters certainly remain free to report all the news and developments about the team and its players by simply using readily-available non-offensive alternative words. For example, one can say "DC beat Dallas 28-0" or "Washington bested Philadelphia" or "Dan Snyder's team is in trouble with too many injuries," etc.
Indeed, some broadcasters, as well as some newspapers, have announced that they will no longer use the word "Redskins" in their reporting because it is racially offensive. In this regard, remember that broadcasters had no problems playing the music of, interviewing, or reporting news about the former musical group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, simply by referring to them as NWA, and not by the full and proper name they chose for themselves.
For those who might still doubt that “Redskins” is a derogatory racist term, the Huffington Post published what it termed my “eyebrows-raising challenge”: "walk into a bar frequented by Indians and loudly ask: 'How are all you redskins doing tonight'."
John F. Banzhaf III is a law professor at George Washington University Law School and a practitioner of public interest law.