Sep 30, 2010 - Issue 395
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The Washington Redskins and the NYC Islamic Center Controversy - The African World - By Bill Fletcher, Jr. - Editorial Board

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I know what you are thinking. If this guy can make the connection between these two very different issues, he deserves a prize. Well, readers, hold onto your hats and let�s see where this ride takes us.

There are many things about the insane, Islamophobic debate concerning the proposed NYC Islamic Center that have struck me. Among these is the fact that this Center has been proposed for a while and there was no controversy, at least until the pot was stirred by opportunists. The other curious feature of this �debate� has been the use of the word �sensitivity.� I have been struck by how demagogues of different varieties, in attempting to sound sincere, have suggested that they have no problem with a mosque or cultural center but that it is somehow �insensitive� to place it near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The idea that it is somehow insensitive is predicated on the fundamental belief that the attack was an attack carried out by the masses of Muslims or by some Muslim entity that represents the billion plus Muslims on this planet (sort of along the lines of when the Japanese government ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941). The facts demonstrate, of course, that this is not what transpired. So, if one recognizes that the attack was carried out by a small band of clerical fascists using the cover of Islam in order to advance their agenda, this is no different than the Ku Klux Klan hiding behind Christianity in the terror that they carried out over the years against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Asians, Latinos, and labor union organizers. Christian religious institutions were not banned in proximity to any of these groups, at least last time that I checked.

Yet there is another aspect to this matter of �sensitivity� that makes me shake my head. Specifically, there is a selective use of the notion of sensitivity by vast stretches of white America. Putting a Muslim religious institution near Ground Zero is somehow insensitive, but the repeated abuses of Native Americans, whether in folklore, chants, ornaments, or the names of sports teams is somehow not insensitive.

What am I missing?

Think about it for a moment. The Native American population in the Americas at the time of Columbus was somewhere between 80-100 million people by most estimates. Within a century there was a massive die-off of Native Americans through genocide and disease, both brought over by Europeans. This die-off was in the range of 80%. So, we are talking about one of the most dramatic, horrific destructions of a population in human history. Yet, when it comes to Native Americans, how sensitive are white Americans?

This brings us to the Washington Redskins. With all due respect to my black and white brothers and sisters who are enamored of this football team, it is probably worth reminding everyone that �redskin� is a term that is equivalent to �nigger.� Native Americans and their allies have, time and again, made this point. They have made this point politely and diplomatically, as well as militantly and vocally. They have pointed out that having a team with that sort of name (along with teams in other sports, such as the Atlanta Braves in baseball) is, you guessed it, insensitive. Yet pleas for sensitivity have largely gone ignored. Native Americans have been told that they are over-reacting; that they should not take any of this personally; that it is actually raising awareness in the USA of the status of Native Americans.

Native Americans have, largely, felt that such responses are disingenuous at best. They are the ones that faced land displacement, genocide, and massive infections, yet when they have asked that a team simply change its name - an action that is not exactly unknown in the field of sports - their position is ignored, if not ridiculed.

So, when I hear any discussion about the insensitivity of placing an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero I am nothing short of dismayed. The placement of the Center there was a demonstration of the need for tolerance and of open opposition to the clerical fascists who abused the name of Islam. It was not a victory dance or a mocking of those who perished on 11 September 2001.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who have defended the retention of the name �Washington Redskins,� or those who so arrogantly and smugly do the �tomahawk chant� when the Atlanta Braves hit the field. Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president ofTransAfrica Forum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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