The Cleveland Indians/Guardians: a teachable moment?

One of the eight Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Bridge

Systemic racism might be easier to grasp in a setting that doesn’t threaten anybody’s safety or livelihood.

Next year, the Cleveland major league baseball team will begin calling itself the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is the culmination of a long process of protest and negotiation, and unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about it. But whether you love or hate the change, it pulls many of the issues surrounding systemic racism together into one easy-to-grasp package.

Unlike more fraught battlegrounds like policing or affirmative action, changing the name of a baseball team does not affect anyone’s safety or livelihood. No one will die because Cleveland calls its team the Guardians, or would have died if they had continued as the Indians. Feelings on both sides may be heartfelt, but they are clearly feelings rather than material interests. To steal a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, the logo on Shane Bieber’s jersey “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

That said, the next thing to acknowledge is that the feelings on both sides are easy to understand and even sympathize with.

This is especially true of the Native Americans who dislike being turned into mascots. Native Americans were minding their own business in 1915 when a newspaper contest picked Indians as the new name for the Cleveland Naps, who had just traded their defining player, Nap Lajoie, to Philadelphia.

Imagine being a Native American parent who is trying to instill a sense of cultural pride in your children. Now picture White people running around in headdresses and warpaint while they root for a team that (in most seasons) has no actual Native American players. Let’s just say it doesn’t help. After your kids see random people at the mall wearing the stereotyped Chief Wahoo logo, it’s going to be hard to convince them that their heritage is serious and worthy of respect.

Admittedly, this constant low-level ridicule isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to Native Americans. It’s not on the same scale as, say, genocide or having the continent taken from them by force. But like those injuries, it’s an imposition from the outside; they did nothing to invite it or deserve it.

Once you’ve pictured that point of view, you may be tempted to declare Native Americans the good guys and those who love the Indians the bad guys. But that oversimplifies the situation.

Instead, try stretching your empathy to encompass Indians fans without pulling away from Native Americans. Being a fan may not be as central or immutable as a racial identity, but after more than a century, it also is a heritage. To the team’s fans, the Indians are Tris Speaker and Bob Feller and going to extra innings with the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The Indians may be one of the few enduring connections you made with your Dad, something you can still talk about when you visit him in the nursing home. Maybe what you remember when you think of the Indians is being 10 years old, and sneaking a radio under your covers to listen to a west coast night game after you were supposed to be asleep.

And racism? The Indians became the first American League team to integrate when Larry Doby joined the team only months after Jackie Robinson became a Dodger. Doby and Satchell Paige were key players in the Indians’ last championship in 1948.

But now, it seems, people are trying to make you remember all that with shame rather than nostalgia.

Back in 1915, making a mascot out of Native American heritage was a sin of obliviousness, not malice. It wasn’t about insulting any actual tribes, it was letting yourself forget that the tribes still existed or might care.

What’s more, probably no one who participated in that newspaper poll is still alive. Everyone who feels attached to the Indians today came to love a team already in progress. Many developed that attachment when they were too young to understand stereotypes or racism. The Indians were the family team; Chief Wahoo was their symbol. That’s all.

Nobody consulted you about it. You never made a decision to root for the team with the racist trappings. You rooted for the team that your parents or big brother or friends at school rooted for. Years later, people started telling you that it was a disrespectful misappropriation of somebody else’s cultural heritage. But that’s never what it meant to you. So why do people want you to feel guilty about it?

Welcome to systemic racism.

The main thing to understand about systemic racism is that trying to assign individual fault and guilt misses the point. Saying that a problem is systemic means that it doesn’t reduce to good guys and bad guys. Something in the structure of institutions pits well-meaning people against each other, and there’s no way to resolve the issue without hurting somebody.

Good guys vs. bad guys is dramatic. Systemic racism is tragic.

So: A long time ago, things got set up so that the civic pride of Cleveland would conflict with the ancestral pride of Native Americans. That conflict is entirely artificial: There’s no inherent reason why saying “Yay, Cleveland!” has to carry a sense of “Boo, Native Americans!” Things just wound up that way. And while we could go round and round about the intentions of the people who started it all, that’s just a distraction, because they’re dead. We’re not a jury discussing their punishment; we’re heirs trying to sort out their legacy.

That legacy, though, is not dead and buried like the people who created it: It causes an ongoing injury. The most obvious ongoing injury is to Native Americans, but there is also an injury to Cleveland and its baseball fans. Those five-year-olds who love their Chief Wahoo caps and jerseys will one day be 15-year-olds who look back and say, “Wow, that’s really racist.” What should be purely warm memories of childhood and family will instead be tainted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

And that’s a key lesson to learn about anti-racist activism: The point isn’t to assess blame or demand that people feel guilty or apologize. The point is to make the injustice stop. Change the structure of things so that well-meaning people are no longer drafted into an artificial conflict. [1]

So: Keep your fond memories of Sam McDowell’s unhittable fastball, or the incredible 1995 lineup of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, and Manny Ramirez, or even (if you go back that far) the amazing pitching rotation of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. Nobody needs you to feel bad about any of that.

The activists who campaigned to change the Indians name don’t benefit from your shame. They just want to make the ongoing injury stop. And renaming the Indians achieves that goal, both for Native Americans and for Cleveland. Native Americans get back a chunk of their heritage. And the five-year-olds who receive Guardians jerseys next year won’t ever have to reassess what they mean.

[1] I am not trying to say here that all racial conflicts are artificial. Clearly, some people actively seek the benefits that come from white supremacy, and a smaller number glory in pushing other races down, even when they get no benefit from it. But we will have come a long way if we can eliminate the purely systemic racial conflicts, which individuals are often surprised to discover they participate in.

What makes the Cleveland situation a good example is that it is so purely artificial. Attachment to the Indians has very little to do with hostility to Native Americans.

In many other examples, teasing legacy systemic racism away from active malicious racism can be tricky. Take the response to President Obama, for example. Americans had never seen a Black president before, so no matter what he did, it looked “unpresidential” to a lot of people, even if his White predecessors had done exactly the same thing. The lack of any prior images of Black presidents is a systemic problem, but at the same time, malicious political operatives were doing their best to stoke the unconscious reaction that there was something vaguely wrong about Obama being president, like maybe he wasn’t really born in America or something.

Ordinarily, systemic racism is hard to separate from the active individual racism that builds up around it. But with the Indians, it’s not so difficult.

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  • Donna Victor  On July 26, 2021 at 10:15 am

    Great Article…especially loved this quote….”And that’s a key lesson to learn about anti-racist activism: The point isn’t to assess blame or demand that people feel guilty or apologize. The point is to make the injustice stop. ..”

    • susanmbrewer  On July 26, 2021 at 4:15 pm

      Agree, enthusiastically.

  • Eileen Prefontaine  On July 26, 2021 at 11:04 am

    Thank you. Great article.

  • EFCL  On July 26, 2021 at 11:15 am

    Another home run, Doug! There are numerous quotable quotes in here. Thanks.

  • Andy Sadler (@A2BuckNutz)  On July 26, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for writing this one. I was at 2 of the games in the 2016 world series and I remember that 1995 line-up very well. I could probably tell you the batting order and the 5 man pitching rotation today. I could tell you more, but just wanted you to know that this change was needed. I will support the “Cleveland” part of the name just like the Tom Hanks narrated video mentions. I think the new name is a good one (also, nice article by Terry Pluto on about how it came about). I’m looking forward to getting some new gear next year. The part you wrote about this being an enduring connection with your dad… it was (as well as the Browns). He passed away from brain cancer quickly this past February. What you wrote is so true, and I did all those things like staying up late and listening to the games on the radio.

  • painedumonde  On July 26, 2021 at 12:00 pm

    You’ve really demonstrated that almost the entirety of the Cultural Wars are manufactured and arbitrary. I appreciate your article and will use your example to illustrate my values in future conversations because of its simplicity, yet great depth of meaning. Thank you.

  • Larry Benjamin  On July 26, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Thank you for your even-handed explanation of why someone who resents this name change isn’t necessarily racist. However, after this is pointed out, if the person persists with “but my friend/coworker/cousin is Native American and he’s not offended” or “why should I be inconvenienced just because a few America-hating liberals want to cancel my history,” that does cross the line into overt racism, because they are actively and deliberately perpetuating a harmful system for their own convenience.

  • Janet Amaral  On July 26, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    My high school mascot was called Apache Joe. I grew up in southern California, in a suburb of Los Angeles that was lily white. I look back now on the caricature, and the drill team uniforms (with faux ‘war bonnets’!) and yes, I am ashamed. However, I think that my being able to look back and understand why those things were wrong makes me a better person now, 45 years later. Yet another well written piece that makes me reflect.

  • Marvin  On July 26, 2021 at 8:22 pm

    Sports teams are named for someone or some thing that people thought were good attributes. Back when the teams were named after Indians, it was because the people who selected the name respected some attribute of Indians. So the Cleveland Indians was a name of respect — for a people known for their fighting ability. It was not a disrespectful name in the eyes of those who named the team.

    But the hoopla that comes along with the name can be racially degrading. And if today the Native Americans feel like the end result is degrading, we need to change the name.

    If the Cleveland Indians had changed their name to the Cleveland Saumari, I doubt that the Japanese would feel racially insulted. I could be wrong about this, but I think the majority of Japanese would feel proud that an American team had named themselves after something so important to Japanese history. If I’m right about this, it just demonstrates that sensitivities depend a whole lot on how much a society feels in control of its own destiny.

    • weeklysift  On July 31, 2021 at 7:47 am

      My high school team was the Blue Devils. I don’t think we were trying to honor the good attributes of devils. But your experience is your own, so maybe some schools thought that way.

      • Larry D Benjamin  On July 31, 2021 at 5:14 pm

        I think it was the other attributes of devils – fast, strong and dangerous.


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