The Critical Mass

Down goes Chief Wahoo

I was in Cleveland last summer to catch a pair of games, Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Red Sox. And because I needed a change of wardrobe.

I bought a new Indians cap. The one with the block C. To replace the handful of Chief Wahoo caps I’ve collected over the years.

The Indians and Major League Baseball announced on Monday that Chief Wahoo, an undeniably racist caricature of Native Americans, would no longer appear on the team’s uniforms. That’s been coming for a while, just one step in a long evolution. Indians fans who can’t give up on Chief Wahoo will still be able to buy plenty of souvenirs adorned with the smirking red face. It’s a tough job, eliminating Chief Wahoo, because he’s been a successful marketing figure in the baseball world for decades.

I myself own three jackets featuring Chief Wahoo including one, even more offensive than the modern image, worn on the uniforms of the 1948 World Series champion Indians. I’ve quietly retired two of the jackets, but I guess I’m guilty of evolving a little slowly myself. The third jacket is a beautiful leather coat. With a Chief Wahoo the size of a champion pumpkin on the back. A coat that’s perfect for this winter, as I sit in my house, looking out the window, watching the snow falling outside. Thinking:

I can’t give that up… It was a Christmas present. And it’s my warmest coat. This spring, I’ll put it away for good…

I’ve been reading comments from Indians fans who are dismayed that Chief Wahoo will no longer take the field with the team. These people seem decent enough, they don’t sound like racists. Chief Wahoo is tradition they say, he’s a friend, he’s been a part of the community for as long as most people can remember.

No. It’s as simple as this: A people’s culture is not to be belittled as a mascot. And after we put away Chief Wahoo, we go to work on the most-racist marketing opportunity in American sports, the nickname of the NFL team from Washington.

Twenty-four hours after my longtime favorite baseball team was stripped of its mascot, I can tell you: It didn’t hurt at all.

What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? That’s a culture as mascot. And perhaps a question for another day, while we evolve as a community. Yet it’s a question we’ll eventually have to ask. The urgency maybe isn’t there because Irish Americans, who were once a denigrated sector of immigrants, aren’t facing the same kind of discrimination today as Native Americans do.

You don’t think that’s the case?

Here’s what happened a few days ago in Phoenix, Arizona. Armed protestors waving American flags and Trump flags confronted people at the state’s Capitol building. They singled out dark-skinned people – lawmakers, state employees on their lunch break, and even children – calling them illegal and telling them to go home. Some were of Mexican heritage, some Native American. Light-skinned people were merely questioned if they supported “illegal immigration.”

In a video of the confrontation uploaded onto YouTube, a woman is heard shouting, “Those guys are illegal … They do not have any rights here. It is not their time. This is our time. Our nation. Our laws. Our streets.”

Rep. César Chávez, who was brought from Mexico to the United States as a child, said a female Trump supporter asked who he was and who he represents. “I’m an undocumented legislator,” Chávez replied. As he later explained to the Arizona Capitol Times, which covers politics in the state, he wanted the protesters “to understand that in this country, through a process, you, too, can be a part of a nation that provides opportunity to everybody. I wanted them to understand that an individual who came to this country undocumented at the age of three is now a member of the Arizona State Legislature.”

While defending a young student who was being harassed, Rep. Eric Descheenie said he was confronted by Trump supporters who asked if he was in the United States illegally. “I’m indigenous to these lands,” said Descheenie, who is Navajo. “My ancestors fought and died on these lands.”

When Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs later asked why no authorities were present to defend people who were clearly feeling harassed, she said she was told by an officer that law enforcement was instructed to stand down while the Trump supporters exercised their First Amendment rights.

That’s America today. And it’s getting worse, as we watch government agents breaking up families. Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a Palestinian man – a tax-paying, well-respected businessman in his Ohio community – who had been in this country for 39 years. “There are violent criminals walking the streets,” said Rep. Tim  Ryan, “yet our government wasted our precious resources incarcerating him.”

Baseball fans who love Chief Wahoo are not inherently racist. Yet circumstances in this country indicate they have to think a little harder about the larger issue. Whether it’s Trump fans expressing First Amendment rights, or baseball fans supporting their team, the difference may be one of degrees, but both groups are setting fires that must be extinguished.

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