Last week, President Obama signed a bill that seems a perfect exercise in “political correctness.” Amazingly, in a time of legislative deadlock, the bill had passed the Senate unanimously.
The new law removes from federal statutes what are considered derogatory racial terms. For example, “Oriental” is replaced by “Asian American.”
This move gets right at the heart of political correctness. It means that people should not be addressed or labeled by terms they consider offensive. It’s politically correct, because it is bad politics to call people by a name they dislike or associate with discriminatory treatment.
These terms change over time, so that a term considered at one time to be acceptable may be rejected later. “Negro” was used to dislodge the racist “n-word,” but it is now to be officially abandoned.
People, who used the older terms innocently without any conscious discriminatory intent, may want to keep using those names. The change seems to imply they are racists, when they are not. Of course, some, clinging to old labels, are racists.
For whatever reason, innocent or malicious, these people may be ripe targets for candidates who attack political correctness.
Nothing shows the problems with trying to find the correct name for a group than the use of the words “Native Americans,” now required to replace “Indians.” It reflects the impossible task for government or any agency to dictate language.
In a couple of national surveys, tribal members said they preferred to be called “American Indians” or simply “Indians” rather than “Native Americans.” They did not create the new official term, and the law simply ignores their sentiments.
Some Indians say they prefer to be called by the name of their tribe, say, Navajo or Sioux (even though that’s not entirely accurate either), rather than a general name. It’s a bit like a person being known as an “Italian American,” not a “European American.”
How about the word “Indian” itself? One writer says that Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull called themselves by that name, so the tradition should not be abandoned.
People from India might be called “East Indians” as contrasted with “American Indians.” Anyway, the context gives the meaning away.
The surveys and common usage of Indian names suggest that Washington cannot effectively authorize official names that will be used. Will the law have to be amended in a few years when what’s acceptable changes?
In Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory was whittled down by Sooners and other white settlers, and the Indians were denied the state of their own they had sought. Does calling them Native Americans fix that?
Where this often seems to matter is the names of sports mascots. There’s a move to change the name of the Washington Redskins. A recent national survey of Indians shows that 90 percent don’t care if the team has that name. For many, there are more important issues affecting Indians, but they get far less attention.
In North Dakota, the ice hockey team has been known as the “Fighting Sioux,” though, apparently, there had been no Indians on the team. The NCAA ruled the name must go unless all Sioux tribes approved its use.
In violation of a formal treaty with the U.S., Congress had stripped the Standing Rock Sioux of most of their land. The Supreme Court later said, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."
The tribe did not give its approval to keeping the name, and the team became the “Fighting Hawks.” But fans keep on wearing Fighting Sioux jerseys. The label “Native Americans” probably matters little.
Even Maine has been touched by the naming issue. Whether the Skowhegan Indians ought to change their name has been debated.
Two tribal representatives left the Maine Legislature in 2015, saying state government ignored their interests on hunting and fishing. They were disheartened after Gov. LePage ended a formal consultation arrangement with them.
The effort to avoid giving offense to Indians or African Americans and other racial groups reveals defects in government thinking about minorities.
Nobody is going to dictate language usage in American English. It’s a living language. Congress has better things to do with its time. How about unanimous Senate support for voting rights?
Many see the new terms as an effort to improve relations between white Americans and groups subject to discrimination in the past. It looks like an easy way to make amends. Still, even if the new law shows a long-missing sensitivity, changing names alone only avoids dealing with real issues.