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Ban American Indian School Mascots, Mich. Dept. of Civil Rights Says

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights filed a complaint Friday with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights (OCR) asking for a ban on the use of American Indian mascots and imagery in K-12 schools that receive federal funds.

The department's complaint claims that the use of American Indian imagery denies equal rights to American Indian students. It highlights 35 schools in Michigan with American Indian mascots or imagery as the basis of the complaint.

In a supporting argument by Daniel M. Levy, the department's director of law and policy, the department cites a host of recent research that finds the use of American Indian mascots and imagery result in "actual harm" to current and future American Indian students.

"A growing and unrebutted body of evidence now establishes that the use of American Indian imagery reinforces stereotypes in a way that negatively impacts the potential for achievement by students with American-Indian ancestry," the supporting argument claims.

The department argues that the sanctioned use of American Indian imagery suggests that stereotyping is acceptable, which "has an indirect negative impact on all students." It also claims that the use of such imagery "denies equal learning opportunities for some students," which would violate the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

"Continued use of American Indian mascots, names, nicknames, logos, slogans, chants and/or other imagery creates a hostile environment and denies equal rights to all current and future American Indian students and must therefore cease," the department writes in the supporting argument.

The department singled out the use of "Redskins" as a particularly egregious offender, a move that could upset certain football fans in the District of Columbia. It compares the term to the " 'N-word' for African-Americans," saying that the " 'R-word' should never be accepted in common usage, or be seen as anything other than an affront." (The filing does later clarify, however, that it isn't targeting the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, or any other professional sports teams with American Indian mascots.)

The department argues that the harm done to American Indian students through the use of American Indian mascots should be sufficient for the OCR to ban their usage in K-12 schools that receive federal funds, except in extremely limited circumstances. If a school can use an American Indian image "in a way that is respectful" and "not reinforce any singular limiting image of Indian Peoples," the department suggests it could be allowed, "but only within guidelines provided by OCR."

However, the department once again singles out the term "Redskins" as one that is "always impermissible" in K-12 schools that receive federal funds.

I've reached out to OCR for an official statement on the Michigan department's filing, and will update this post if/when I hear anything. Back in 1995, OCR decided that an American Indian mascot at a high school in Quincy, Mass., did not constitute a violation of a federal civil-rights law, as it found no evidence of students being denied any services on the basis of race or ethnicity. That ruling didn't, however, bar the possibility of finding other schools' mascots to be in violation of civil-rights law, according to Michael Burns, the then-deputy regional director of the OCR's Boston office.

Back in 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged non-Indian schools that used American Indian imagery to end the practice.

A few states have taken matters into their own hands in this regard. In 2010, Wisconsin enacted a law that allows residents of a school district to challenge mascot names that allegedly promote a negative racial stereotype. This past May, the Oregon state board of education voted 5-1 to ban K-12 public schools from using American Indian mascots or imagery, giving any school affected by the policy five years to make the change.

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