For nearly ninety years, Native Americans have protested that a racist slur was the name and mascot of the Washington, D.C. NFL team. Activists referred to the team’s name as the “R-word,” comparing it to the N-word. For years, team owner Dan Snyder has adamantly refused to change the name. In 2013 he said, “We’ll never change the name…It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” But on July 13, the team announced it was retiring its racist name and logo. Many have explained Snyder’s sudden reversal as caving in to pressure after several of the team’s main corporate sponsors, including FedEx, PepsiCo and Nike, finally came out in favor of a name change.
But the real reason for the change is not some newfound sensitivity of the corporate sponsors. Like Snyder, they too ignored the continuous protests of indigenous activists for years. The explosion of nationwide protests after the brutal murder of George Floyd is what changed things. When for weeks, hundreds of thousands of people, especially Black youth, poured into the streets across the country to oppose the systemic racism in this society, many corporations and institutions tried to win approval by removing entrenched symbols of racism.
NASCAR finally banned the Confederate flag while the state of Mississippi finally voted to remove it from its state flag. Quaker Oats Company, owned by PepsiCo, eliminated the racist brands, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Schools and other institutions named after racist historical figures are undergoing new name changes, and many statues commemorating racists continue to be taken down.
These changes are long overdue, and they are significant because they were unimaginable just a short time ago. However, it’s important to remember that name changes alone will not transform society deeply, or in any lasting way. For corporations, and the government, the main purpose of these symbolic reforms is to convince people that the system is still capable of addressing people’s grievances. If and when those illusions are shattered, movements can attack the deeper systemic racism and injustice of this society, the economic exploitation and marginalization that is the bedrock of this system of profits. Let’s hope this elimination of symbols is only the first step in this fight against the deep racism of capitalist society.
featured image credit: Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons