U.S. Supreme Court OKs Trademarks with Racial Slurs, Could Undercut Efforts to Force Washington Reds*ins Name Change

A U.S. Supreme Court decision approves the use of a racial slur as a trademark, according to a National Public Radio story.

Members of the Asian-American rock band The Slants have the right to call themselves by a disparaging name, the Supreme Court says, in a ruling that could have broad impact on how the First Amendment is applied in other trademark cases.

That opens the door for other slurs to be trademarked, for instance the Washington Reds*ins. Indian Country Today ran a story: Supreme Court: Yes, You Can Trademark Disparaging Racial Slurs Like R-Word quotes an official with the Washington football team as being “thrilled” with the decision. Others plan continue to fight sports teams’ use of Indian mascots.

The Indian Country Today story said:

Change The Mascot, a group of Natives and allies advocating for the repeal of the Washington NFL team’s name, said the ruling does not change the definition of the word ‘redskin’ or its impact on Natives. …

As a result of the new social science concerning the detriments of Indians mascots on children, in 2015, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate “retirement” of Indian mascots.

“These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians,” former APA President Ronald F. Levant wrote. “These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”

Band member Simon Tam explained to the New York Times how the name “The Slants” came to be. Tam asked friends what they thought all Asians had in common. The first person to respond said that all Asians have slanted eyes.

“I thought that was interesting,” Tam told me, “because No 1., it’s not true. But No. 2, we can talk about our slant on life on what it’s like to be people of color.” The Slants, he said, are hardly the first rock band to reclaim “stigmatizing labels” in order to “throw them back” in others’ faces: “I grew up with bands like the Queers, Pansy Division — groups who take it and flip these assumptions on their heads.” In his experience, “Asian-Americans generally get it,” he said. “They think it’s funny. Sly.” It was white people who sometimes choked on it — but that, for Tam, was what made it such a great conversation starter.

That seems reasonable enough. The Slants are reclaiming their story. It would be a very different story if a group of white supremacists got a band together, put on makeup to look Asian, and called themselves The Slants. I am not saying that would or would not have changed the court decision, just that it would be a very different story.

There is a parallel with the controversy that erupted at the Walker Sculpture Garden. With the Walker, the purchase of the Scaffold sculpture represented a white artist telling a Dakota story — an incredibly painful story of the hanging of the Dakota 38 — without any discussion with Dakota people. That story would have had a very different tone had a Dakota artist done a sculpture around the hanging.

It comes down to power. In the case of the Slants, they are reclaiming their voice and power. In the case of Scaffold, it was a reminder to the Dakota that they had no voice and no power. And in the end, the Dakota did reclaim their power and story and succeeded in getting the sculpture removed.

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