Op-ed: Redskins controversy distracts us from larger issues

David Meni, a senior majoring in political science, is the president of the GW Roosevelt Institute.

Football fans or not, it was a surprise to many Wednesday morning when the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled a handful of trademarks associated with the Washington Redskins.

The decision is a major boost to a growing group of voices – including President Barack Obama, half the Senate and GW students – that are calling for a different name for the team.

Without a doubt, the football team’s offensive name warrants a change. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the real issues within the Native American population.

This is a common pitfall of politically correct English: The U.S. will not have a fair society simply because we stop using words historically associated with unfairness. We must not misconstrue a “victory” – such as the decision over the Redskins’ trademarks – as actual social change.

While we debate the name of a sports team, the poverty rate on American Indian reservations is three times the national average. Less than half of Native American students graduate from high school. Health problems are rampant – including the world’s highest rate of Type 2 diabetes – and reservations are at risk of serious environmental harm. Little is being done, even among those who care so much about the Redskins’ name change.

Of the 50 senators who signed a letter demanding the team change its mascot, next to none have introduced or co-sponsored legislation to help those living on reservations. For example, the Native Adult Education and Literacy Act of 2014 would expand GED and literacy programs, which have operated on a shoestring budget for years, at no cost to the government.

The trademark decision is good news, as is the growing opposition to a clearly insensitive name. I can only hope that a mascot change for our D.C. team will also bring about increased awareness of the many problems still confronting the Native American population, and not just remain empty words.

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