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The majority that isn’t moral

A new poll of Native Americans doesn’t justify the name of Washington’s NFL team

Just because a people who have confronted institutionalized racism for centuries manage to brush off one small piece of that oppression, it doesn’t mean institutionalized racism is a swell way to live.

So before team owner Daniel Snyder’s euphoric end zone jig is up, before his no-malice, no-harm supporters raise their fists and give thanks for a new empirical rationale to keep the name of the Washington football team, we need to ask the missing survey question:

Should a poll influence a moral decision?

The Washington Post polled 504 Native Americans across the country and found that 90 percent say they aren’t bothered that the name of the pro football team in the nation’s capital is an offensive term for their race. Does that mean people who want the name changed are wrong in their belief that an NFL franchise shouldn’t use a racial slur based on the stereotype of a people’s skin pigmentation?

No.

Never.

Critics of even conducting a poll – and I’m one of them – say that it turns a civil rights issue into a referendum on the amount of offense a particular race can tolerate.

“Other communities have never been asked to justify their existence or deny their degradation through poll-testing, by plebiscite,” said Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights since 1996. “Not the African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian community. No one. The idea of putting up thresholds for Native Americans that don’t exist for other minorities or ethnic groups is absurd. They have to clear a bar on this? Really?”

But arguing that the poll shouldn’t have been conducted is beside the point. Whether we like the result or not, this isn’t a majority-rules issue. Moral issues aren’t settled that way. Whether it’s integration, gay marriage or women’s rights, public opinion often lags behind morality.

If ethical decisions were decided by majority rule, the poor and the weak would have no moral standing; indeed, every minority group would be outvoted.

That doesn’t deny the existence of the opinions. It just means that public opinion is an evolving animal. What we think in the moment doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s morally right.

From colonization to slavery to a country’s decision to go to war, we have always changed our minds and adjusted with the social mores of the day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt tiptoed into World War II, treading water against Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist movement, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sixty percent of Americans were not in favor of integrating the military in 1948. A Harris poll conducted after Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vietnam speech in 1967 found that just 25 percent of African-Americans supported his anti-war stance and a scant 9 percent of the public at large agreed with his objections to the war. Gay marriage numbers are the exact opposite they were just 10 years ago.

In the 40-plus year controversy over the name of Washington’s football team name, it’s possible that some will attempt to use this poll to end the debate. But that’s the same simplistic logic and callousness that got us here.

Every major tribal organization has called for it to change – possibly a sign that public opinion could eventually match the moral position. Teenagers warring with their own school administrations have gotten rid of more than a dozen Native mascots in just two years.

Public opinion can be a component of decision-making. But to frame one’s own level of moral outrage on what percentage of a people we have actually aggrieved hints at a fundamental lack of understanding of the issue.

In the end, moral stances are often unpopular because they make people uncomfortable. And people don’t like to be uncomfortable. Friends I used to be close with will cling to this poll for affirmation, because confronting their own racial insensitivity scares the hell out of them.

The majority of these people are basically good and decent folk. And they need to protect their belief that they are good people. Good people do not slur Native Americans. They honor them. And even the ones they do hurt, they don’t mean it. Psychologically, therefore, they can’t come to the conclusion that this is wrong. In that way, being told by a poll they are offending just 10 percent of a population feels like a godsend.

“Because they went to the community most directly affected, that poll is going to be a shield for Snyder and others as they attempt to forestall this change,” said Henderson. “But what did it really mean? One woman said she was not bothered by the name because ‘at least they are remembering us. We’re not in the history books.’ Somebody calls you a slur and it’s better than being forgotten? Is that where were are?”

Yet, when 9 out of 10 say the team’s name doesn’t offend them – and just 27 percent say they are somewhat or not bothered that much – aren’t the majority of Native Americans implicitly telling us to stop being offended for them?

“Hardly,” said Patima Park. “It makes me feel that much more invisible, a relic from another time they don’t have to consider today.”

Park is the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, a proud Lakota mother of two boys ages 10 and 13. On a day when she has had to deal with issues of sex trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence in her job, she grows emotional.

“These mascots, images, names – they’re all a direct cause and effect. The social science from American Psychological Association surveys tell us that,” she said. “Many of our people don’t know about or can’t see that because, well, 51 percent of work-eligible Native Americans in the Twin Cities are right now unemployed and don’t have time to deal with it. But it’s there. It hurts our kids. When are they going to see it hurts our kids?”

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.