Meeting the Moment

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

Why America’s Racialized Symbols May Finally Fall

ANGELA R. RILEY is a professor of law and core member of the CRS faculty who directs UCLA’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and is the campus representative on issues related to repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. She focuses her teaching and scholarship on Indigenous peoples’ rights, with an emphasis on cultural property and Native governance. A member of the UCLA Law faculty since 2010, she also serves as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, her tribe’s highest court. This essay expands on the June 19 New York Times op-ed regarding racist branding that Riley co-authored with Sonya K. Katyal.

After decades of struggle by Native American activists – and stubborn resistance from team owner Daniel Snyder – the Washington Football Team (formerly known as the Redskins) announced in July of this year that it would finally change its name. While mired in symbolism, this event also marks real transformation in the racial and social conscience of America.

It was in 1992 that the Cheyenne and Muscogee Creek activist and scholar Suzan Shown Harjo first petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the registration of the name of the Washington Redskins football team as a “disparaging” mark under the Lanham Act. (Harjo was later joined by Native American plaintiffs led by Amanda Blackhorse.) The lawsuit crept through the courts for decades. In 2017, it seemed any hope for a legal victory was dashed when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a punk band called the Slants in Matal v. Tam, holding that a ban on “disparaging” trademarks violated the First Amendment. In celebrating the band’s victory, the lead singer Simon Tam declared the case “a win for all marginalized groups,” asserting, “It can’t be a win for free speech if some people benefit and others don’t.”

But Tam was wrong. The Slants case was not a victory for many marginalized groups, including Native people, who continue to be subject to a long-accepted American tactic of selling products that traffic in racial stereotypes. In the wake of the Tam ruling, Snyder reacted with a public statement about the Court’s decision: “I am THRILLED! Hail to the Redskins.” Blackhorse’s response was equally passionate, asserting, along with a bevy of Native activists and scholars, “It may have killed our case, but it hasn’t killed our movement.” 

As it turns out, Blackhorse’s predictions were correct. The murder of George Floyd by police inspired activism by Black Lives Matter, and anti-racism protests spread throughout the world. In addition to calls for legal reforms, activists decried the continued presence of symbolic markers dotting the country that honor some of our nation’s darkest moments. As a legal scholar who has studied cultural property and Indigenous rights for almost two decades, it was remarkable to witness these profound changes. Monuments to former slave owners, statues of unscrupulous colonizers and holidays commemorating the lives of those who engaged in acts of genocide against Native people began to topple, one by one. In an effort to keep up with rapidly evolving American sentiment, companies swiftly followed suit. Numerous corporations responded by re-branding old products and distancing themselves from racialized symbols. The tide was turning.

Ultimately, Snyder found himself on the opposite side of public sentiment and under increasing political pressure. Corporations had already begun to adjust to shifting American attitudes, recognizing that they had a duty to exemplify the turn toward greater racial equality in America. After FedEx threatened to pull its sponsorship of a new stadium, Snyder finally capitulated to the name change.

Dismantling symbols that celebrate the dark chapters of America’s past is, by definition, symbolic. But it is more than that. There is a larger movement taking place in America, as citizens, corporations and yes, even sports teams, seek to engage in meaningful, structural change to open the door to a more equal and just society.