Corporations Don’t Always Win

(Source: Fourth Estate)

A political issue can often be judged by the extent to which satire about it can be read with a straight face. We make fun of people who take satire seriously, but sometimes a serious response is the only one to have. Into this discursive space, let us welcome The Onion and its article titled “Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means,” which makes the following observations:

[O]nly if you allow the NFL franchise’s name to register in your mind does it evoke the thought of human beings devastated by the forced removal from tribal lands, intentional exposure to smallpox, and countless massacres. It has the potential to come across as a degrading relic of an ethnocentric mentality responsible for the destruction of an entire people and their culture, but that’s only if you take a couple seconds to recognize it as something beyond a string of letters.

America’s indigenous peoples and its most invisible community are not extinct yet, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the Washington Redskins continue to flog their moniker. Or from the way Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians touts its grinning, leering, feathered mascot. You wouldn’t know it from the drearily familiar manner in which the debate about their names bogs down every time its embers are raked over: in one corner, those who find these teams’ names offensive and racist, and in the other, those who shriek “political correctness!” and urge everyone to take the proverbial chill pill.

The Native American community might yet be able draw upon these movements elsewhere for inspiration and determine how and where—with a combination of strategies and tactics fine-tuned for the American context—they might best throw sand in the corporate wheels that currently grind them down.

There is a logic of sorts to the visible, persistent indifference of multi-million dollar sports teams, their fans, and the media that fawns over them, to such issues: their incentives are not aligned with those of the Native American community. There are no Native Americans on the boards of the corporations that sponsor the teams and that might initiate a loud, public, withdrawal of monies. There are no Native American senators or congressmen who will speak up or initiate congressional or senatorial commissions of inquiry. The teams in question have few Native American fans who might be offended and enlist political and economic support for their complaints. There is no constituency to be offended, no demographic to be investigated by management consultancy teams. There is thus no commercial imperative to change the behavior and rhetorical attitude of American sports teams. As First Peoples Worldwide notes in a broader context: “Let’s face it, Indigenous Peoples are all but irrelevant in most people’s lives.”

This lack of political power in the Native American community has ensured that in the extensive catalog of insults directed at indigenous peoples everywhere, these caricatures and derogatory terms are merely the latest entries. It seems destined to stay that way, for a community confined to impoverished tracts of land, and battling with poverty, alcoholism, and astronomical rates murder and rape has much else on its mind.

But as First Peoples Worldwide also notes, the National Football League’s reaction to the criticism of the Redskins, as indicated by its commissioner Roger Goodell and Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s terming the name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect” might just indicate a nervousness about the commercial impact of this debate and a renewed determination to hold on to the team name. A brand valuation by Forbes suggests the value of the Redskins brand is $131 million. Changing the name could be costly and points to how there could be a twist in the tale, hope from elsewhere:

Indigenous Peoples across the world are one of the fastest growing risk factors impacting corporate profits, especially those in extractive industries. As oil, gas and mining companies explore the globe for new production sites they are finding those resources on or near Indigenous Peoples’ land. In the past, that didn’t matter much. For the right price, governments cleared the people away, rented or sold the land, and companies profited handsomely. But now, it’s not that easy.

Resistance from indigenous peoples is growing and making corporate misdemeanors and insensitivity more expensive. The most prominent examples are the recent $18 billion settlement extracted from Chevron in Ecuador for drilling practices which damaged large tracts of the Amazonian rainforest and Talisman Energy’s withdrawal from Block 64 in the Peruvian Amazon because of resistance from the Achuar nation. Corporate rapacity, amazingly enough, has met with well-organized and passionate resistance and faltered. Its triumphs—and the defeat and immiseration of the indigenous—are not inevitable.

Perhaps there is hope that a new generation of warriors, equipped with modern tools of organizing and protest and backed up by local and global legal systems can halt the seemingly inexorable march of corporations and their political allies on indigenous peoples’ lands and sensibilities.

A sports team is not quite a mining or oil company but their financial concerns are the same. The Native American community might yet be able draw upon these movements elsewhere for inspiration and determine how and where—with a combination of strategies and tactics fine-tuned for the American context—they might best throw sand in the corporate wheels that currently grind them down.

 

Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College. His most recent book is Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at samirchopra.com.