The name game

The Massachusetts State Legislature is considering a bill that would mandate that schools with names related to Native Americans must change them. The bill, which is having a public hearing today, would prohibit the use of Native American mascots — including names, symbols, and images in public schools in the state. The issue isn’t a new one. Critics of the use of such symbols and names have pushed for this kind of law for some time. The Cleveland Indians of baseball and the NFL Washington Redskins are probably the two greatest flashpoints in this cultural controversy at least at the national level. I’ve always felt that these images, some of them like the Cleveland team’s Chief Wahoo, are demeaning to a group of people that have had enough heartache in history. I would have replaced them a long time ago. They are a product of an earlier time period when Carnivals let you pay a quarter to see bearded ladies, Siamese twins, and cows with two heads.

But some raise the question of whether the government should be involved in requiring the changes. State Representative Randy Hunt is of the opinion that it is a matter for local authority to resolve. “it should be left up to school boards and parents to work out.” He says.  “If they think the names are not up to community standards, they should change them. Local control is the way to go on this; it should not be a state mandate.”

I have a lot of respect for Randy Hunt. I have voted for him in the past and consider him a friend. But  think he is wrong on this one. When left to “community standards” it will always come down to what the majority wants.  There is no room for effective minority in-put. When Hunt says that the issue of whether to get rid of what can be perceived as racist imagery, is “opinion based” he is correct. But the opinion of the majority shouldn’t be the way to decide these kinds of questions. Especially at the local level. Left to opinion, I suspect that a lot of basic rights would go away.  If the majority, for example, doesn’t like a particular piece of artwork displayed at town hall, or perhaps the political slant of a local newspaper, would they be eliminated?  Conversely, if the majority favored not allowing a particular religious group to erect a building for worship services, would that be fair? If the majority in a community didn’t like inter-racial marriage, would that be a basis for preventing such a thing to take place?

Just about every issue we confront is “opinion based.” We need to be careful that the majority opinion doesn’t always carry, especially when it comes to areas related to cultural sensitivity. In the case of mandating by legislative action an end these negative images of minority groups in our schools, I’m comfortable that this is the proper role of government.



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