There have been plenty of steps forward for those crusading to rid mascots that are insensitive to Native Americans in recent years. Now comes a collective step back.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights dismissed a complaint filed by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that aimed to ban Native American imagery in the mascots of all schools in the state of Michigan. Had the suit been successful, some 35 schools in the state would have been affected.
There are a wide variety of high school mascots who would have come under fire from the Michigan suit, but those directly in the crosshairs of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights were schools who use names like the Redskins, Braves and Indians, names that are considered derogatory in one way or another to Native American communities.
Now those nicknames appear safe, at least for the moment. In its decision, the DOE wrote that the information provided by the Michigan department was, “not sufficient for OCR to infer that racial discrimination has occurred or is occurring.” More specifically, the DOE pointed to the fact that the Michigan department had failed to provide specific examples of students or groups of students have felt racially discriminated against by the use of Native American-themed mascots.
That threshold has angered the Michigan state department, which pointed out that they know that harm is occurring simply because leaders of state tribes have complained about the stigma normalized by schools’ use of names like Redskins.
And while the state department of civil rights recognizes that intent to harm has never been the reason a school adopted a controversial Native American nickname, it told the Detroit Free Press that doesn’t mean it isn’t causing harm.
The path forward to ridding Native American mascots from Michigan schools may now be a rocky and uncertain one. While the state is likely to appeal the ruling, it would take a major shift to overturn the decision. That means long future campaigns to convince school districts to change mascots, as well as all the associated insignia that comes with it and decorates school uniforms, gyms, walls and halls.
That’s an expensive and controversial decision, as three Michigan schools who have made the shift can attest to.
"In every case, whether we've been involved or not, it's been a slow, controversial, difficult process,” Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokesperson Leslee Fritz told the Free Press.