U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will begin evaluating public school mascots. The move comes after years of complaints from interest groups that some mascots are culturally, racially, religiously, sexually, and otherwise disrespectful and offensive.
“Although we’ve come a long way as a country in overcoming harmful stereotypes and images, there is still work to be done,” Holder said.
The Civil Rights Division has launched a special taskforce, the Committee on Sensitivity and Fairness in Education Mascots and Symbols, to review complaints and sponsor studies.
Despite some criticism from Republicans and Democrats, Obama has defended the move, noting “the importance of respecting the sensitivities of all Americans.”
Although relatively few and far between, Holder pointed out, there have been some major controversies over offensive school mascots. As an example, the attorney general noted, a civil rights organization filed a complaint against Carter Road High School in Topeka, Kan. for what it called a racist team mascot.
The group, the American Council for Justice, criticized the Carter Road High School Indians mascot as being an affront to Native Americans. The Topeka school board eventually conceded and required the high school to adopt a new mascot.
“We don’t want future incidents like this one which threaten the social fabric of every community,” Holder said.
The Justice Department taskforce will be composed of community leaders from across the country, including Barbra Lorenz, director of Feminist Freedom Forever. Lorenz’s activism has specifically focused on male-oriented mascots, such as the Branch Way High School Cavalrymen in Buffalo, NY.
“This team name is an institutionalization of the male-oppressive power structure,” said Lorenz. “I guarantee you that at every football game, whenever a male in the stands sees a player with the word ‘Cavalrymen’ across his uniform, he is filled with ideas of male superiority over women.” She added there is probably a connection between male-oriented mascots and cases of sexual assault.
Carpenter Dare, another member of the taskforce and president of the National Association to Advance Gay Rights, called the Cavalrymen mascot too masculine and demanded a more gender-neutral symbol for Branch Way High School.
“Our high schools need to move past the traditional, oppressive, culturally imperialistic male/female social construct and into a more enlightened spirit of gender freedom and expression,” Dare said.
“We want to see a symbol that is sensitive to the gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, queer, bisexual, asexual, sexually confused, third-level sexually expressive, and sexually questioning students.” He suggested changing the mascot to one whose sexuality is ambiguous so as not to convey any school-sponsored preference for one particular gender or sexual orientation.
Saud Zaxon, executive director of Satanists for Harmony, expressed his support for school mascots which portray devils or demons. But, he cautioned, such mascots could be designed to mock Satanists.
Calling it a “teachable moment,” Zaxon said these mascots give students and parents the chance to learn more about Satan-oriented figures than simply their depiction as team emblems.
“Schools with mascot names like ‘devils’ and ‘demons’ give us an opportunity to teach students that Satan is more than a symbol, he’s a great and complex emotional figure whose teachings should be studied and understood,” he said.
Holder said his committee will investigate animal mascots as well.
“We’ve got to be mindful of those who are victims of animal attacks,” he said. “If your friend or loved one were mauled by a tiger, how would it make you feel to watch a football game played by a school whose mascot is a tiger?”
He added: “I am committed to ensuring a supportive, welcoming environment for all students, teachers, parents, friends, and persons in cars driving by sports fields of schools with mascots.”