The things we say and do reveal a lot about us.
Gov. Scott Walker declined to veto a legislative measure that extends protections to race-based school mascots. The governor explained that regulating mascots may infringe on the freedom of speech. After the United States Supreme Court declared that corporations are persons and have the same freedom of speech as individual citizens, I suppose it seems totally obvious to some people that other societal institutions will also have freedom of speech — including government itself.
Following that logic, now it must make sense for the Legislature’s Republican majority why the Second Amendment is read the way it is: After all, if individual citizens have the right to bear arms, then so does the government. Perhaps that logic would also help explain why government has gotten less transparent and accountable: If individual citizens have a right against unreasonable search and seizure, then so does the government. It’s no wonder the governor also established the hybrid public-private creature called WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation): If individual citizens have the right to start a business, then so must the government. This thinking turns the logic of America’s founders on its head.
As a Native American, the most troubling thing about the new law is that now an offended student must present a petition with a significant number of signatures from the school district in order to invoke an agency action. But if free speech is the determining factor, then even if a student actually got a majority to sign a petition — wouldn’t that still violate free speech?
This use of faux democracy to place hurdles against equal protection of Native Americans reminds me in no small measure of a similar development during the last century. In the early Nazi period the German student union, the Deutscher Hochschulring, excluded Jewish students from its membership, so ultimately the question was put to a democratic exercise in which a supermajority of German students voted to continue to exclude Jewish students. Imagine that. To this day the actions of Nazi Germany have continued to say a lot about 20th century Germany and its people.
Before this latest "free speech" argument, we most often heard that Native Americans shouldn’t be offended because the mascots actually honored them. I guess in the majority’s minds the conquest and colonization of the Native American is so complete that we have even lost the right to decide for ourselves when we’re offended or honored.
Another argument we have heard is that changing these names affects a long tradition of yearbooks, letterman jackets, school signs, and community pride, etc. But what about the Wahpeton (N.D.) Wops and the Pekin (Ill.) Chinks? When their respective ignorance was about to be proudly displayed for the eastern and western press, those names and mascots were changed in a heartbeat — never mind the trophy case. The Alcorn State Scalping Braves dropped the "scalping" and changed the mascot, revealing much about the historically black college, the state of Mississippi, and their relative level of enlightenment when compared to the majority in the Wisconsin Legislature.
The race-based mascot itself shouldn’t have to offend you; the open use of racial stereotypes should offend everyone. In the end, your mascots say more about you and your society than they say about me and mine. I just wish, for the benefit of America and her children, they didn’t speak so freely.
Richard Monette is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.