After I published the piece below about the “Redskins” I had a few interesting and thought-provoking exchanges on Twitter. Folks raised examples I confess I hadn’t considered, though I don’t think they contradict my basic point. Still, important food for thought and it at least allowed me to refine my take, if not change it.
The first question was what if there were a Memphis Maccabees or the Houston Hebrews? Would that be a problem?
@joshtpm Interesting. How would you feel about, say, “Maccabees” as a team name with an appropriately cartoonish mascot?
— Avraham Bronstein (@AvBronstein) June 19, 2014
To give some of the cultural context, Maccabees at least isn’t just “Jews” but references an iconic group and aspirational moment in Jewish history. And in the Jewish world and in Israel, the name and iconography has actually been used a lot in sports. (Yeshiva University’s team name is the Maccabees and there’s the Maccabiah Games, which are essentially a Jewish olympics, held every four years in Israel.)
Then others said, what about the Vikings or the Celtics? Do those have to go to.
I confess that the example of the Celtics didn’t even cross my mind when I was writing the piece.
All that said, I think my basic argument covers these points and makes clear why they are different. First, to deal with a technical point, Vikings aren’t a people or an ethnicity. It’s an activity. Vikings were Scandinavians like the English were pirates. It’s not an ethnic group.
The Celtics though gets us right to the point. And for good measure let’s add the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
What stands out in both these cases is that these teams are rooted in communities that are or were heavily Irish.
In the case of the Celtics, certainly during the 19th century there was a long history of discrimination against Irish immigrants. But the Celtics basketball team was founded in 1946, well into the era when the Irish were becoming the dominant ethnic group in the city, certainly in politics. The same basically applies to Notre Dame, a Catholic University founded in 1842, which developed in an era when American Catholics were heavily weighted toward the Irish immigrant community.
As I said in my first post, the Redskins are not a team based on a reservation in South Dakota. They have nothing whatever to do with any Indian community. And there you have the real difference. It’s not just a matter of the way African-Americans get more leeway to use the N-word than whites. The whole meaning of it is simply different in a way that is so obvious as almost not require explanation.
As to the tweeter who asked about the Memphis Maccabees? Good question. This did sort of challenge my sense of the issue. But I answered by saying it would probably depend on whether the teams were in any meaningful sense Jewish in character.
So no. I don’t think there’s some double standard. The reason no one has ever made a stink about the Celtics being called the Celtics is because it would presumably be Irish people making a stink but they haven’t because the Celtics are, in the specific sense that I noted above, an Irish-American team. Big difference.
Clearly context matters. History matters. Indians or Native Americans aren’t just any group in American history. Their role is singular in something like the way African-Americans are. But even with all that, the other examples people bring up are all qualitatively different and just don’t apply.
Postscript: As noted above, both the Celtics and ‘Fighting Irish’ are teams historically associated with Irish-Americans. One reader said that the name ‘Fighting Irish’ actually emerged from an institutional response to prejudice against their largely Irish student body. I did some poking around on Google and there are a few different urban legends. But from the measure of detail included, this history seems most factual and reliable. The gist is that it slowly grew up as a favorite among the student body. But the university leadership were initially leery of it fearing it confirmed bigoted stereotypes of Irish immigrants as criminals and brawlers. Eventually, though, they came around.