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JEFF JACOBY

Arguable: In defense of Chief Wahoo

The Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo.
The Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/File

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

There are racist emblems. Chief Wahoo isn’t one of them

Everything about the Indians is awesome except their very racist logo,” proclaimed a USA Today headline last Monday. Cleveland’s baseball team was at that point 18 victories into an amazing winning streak that would stretch to 22 — an American League record, and the longest winning streak in major league baseball in more than a century. But baseball writer Ted Berg devoted only a few sentences to the Indians’ brilliant performance before moving to his main subject: “the extremely racist logo they insist on wearing on their caps.”

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On any list of knee-jerk PC verities, the “obvious” racism of Chief Wahoo — the cartoon character that has been the Indians logo for seven decades — would be near the top. I get why people make that claim, but I’m going to argue that they’re wrong. Chief Wahoo is not in any way an emblem of bigotry or racial contempt. And those who censoriously insist it is are unwittingly downplaying the ugliness of genuinely racist images.

Chief Wahoo was created in 1946 at the request of Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball impresario who was then the Indians’ owner. Veeck hired a designer hired to come up with an emblem that “would convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.” (A few months later, Veeck would make a far more famous hire: He acquired Larry Doby, a star centerfielder from the Negro Leagues, bringing him to the Indians as the first black player in the American League.)

During the decades when the Indians were one of the worst-performing teams in baseball — decades that included my Cleveland childhood in the 1960s and 1970s — Chief Wahoo was pretty much the only thing about the Tribe that conveyed “pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm.” On the few occasions when I went to games at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the vast downtown arena where the Indians used to play, I loved seeing the 28-foot-tall likeness of Chief Wahoo at bat, illuminated at night and towering over Gate D.

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For decades, Chief Wahoo has been reviled as (to cite just a few headlines) “ridiculous and offensive,” “the most offensive image in sports,” “the grinning face of racism,” and “a national embarrassment.” On the culture-war battlefield nowadays, few activities are more popular than taking offense and playing the race card, so it isn’t surprising that bashing Chief Wahoo is almost as trendy as trashing the name of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

On the “Redskins” controversy, I’m happy to stand with the 90% of Native Americans who, in a 2016 Washington Post poll, said that the team’s name doesn’t bother them. They doubtless recognized what anyone not pumped up on racial indignation recognizes: No sports team adopts a name or symbol in order to bring contempt upon itself. Apart from handles that are merely whimsical (Red Sox, Jazz, Mighty Ducks) or geographical (76ers, Maple Leafs, Rockies), team names typically suggest traits associated with heroes and winners: the speed of jets, the ferocity of bears, the aggressiveness of predators, the tenacity of cowboys.

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That explains the abundance of Indian-themed team names in American sports at every level. Braves, Warriors, Blackhawks, Redskins, Indians — they are nods to a common view of native tribes as brave, tough, noble, and intimidating. If that’s a stereotype, it is a flattering one. It may not be historically accurate, but it could hardly be less of an example of invidious racism.

But Chief Wahoo doesn’t even reflect a stereotype. It doesn’t symbolize any view of American Indians. Nothing about the Cleveland team’s logo pigeonholes or defines Native Americans: It evokes no shibboleth or hackneyed prejudice, it plays into no popular notion or misimpression about Indians, good, bad, or neutral.

And that’s just the point that the Chief-Wahoo-is-racist crowd consistently and passionately get wrong.

Screeds against the Indians’ logo are frequently accompanied by this 2001 advertisement from the National Congress of American Indians:

The ad’s message is harshly unforgiving: Of course the logo of Chief Wahoo, with its toothy grin and feather, is racist, it says: as racist as a caricature of a buck-toothed, squinting Chinese man, or of a hook-nosed, bearded Jew.

But those comparisons are fallacious. Images of near-sighted, smirking Chinese and of devious Jews with huge noses are all-too-familiar slurs — nasty tropes of anti-Asian and anti-Semitic mockery, just as the image of a grinning, watermelon-chomping Sambo is a trope of anti-black mockery. But there is no negative stereotype of wide-eyed, laughing Indians. Chief Wahoo doesn’t reflect contempt for Indians any more than Bugs Bunny reflects contempt for rabbits or than the Boston Celtics logo reflects contempt for the Irish.

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Chief Wahoo is not and never has been the “grinning face of racism.” Like Fred Flintstone, Dudley Do-Right, or the bat-swinging, tonsured monk of the San Diego Padres, he is a cheerful, playful cartoon character, nothing more. The Chief Wahoo logo doesn’t hint at any bigoted subtext. Demonizing it as a racist emblem may feel good to those who enjoy parading their liberal sensitivity, but it does nothing to combat actual bigotry or promote tolerance.

Baseball is only a game. In the greater scheme of things it makes little difference whether the Indians (who clinched the AL Central Division championship on Sunday) win or lose. But it makes a lot of difference to our culture and public discourse whether false accusations of racism are promoted or resisted. Chief Wahoo is innocent and harmless. Critics should save their ire for something that matters.

The non-emerging non-white majority

Over the years I have pushed back against the much-ballyhooed notion that the United States is poised to become a majority-minority nation — that is, a nation with a mostly nonwhite population. Here’s how I began a column on the topic in 2012:

When the Census Bureau this month issued a press release headlined “Most Children Younger than Age 1 are Minorities,” the media snapped to attention. News outlets nationwide covered the announcement, hailing it as a “historic demographic milestone” (CNN), as the “dawn of an era in which whites no longer will be in the majority” (Washington Post), and as an “important turning point for the nation” (McClatchy) that would “starkly . . . change the face of America’s next generations” (Time).

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None of that was true.

None of that was new, either. The Census Bureau keeps dangling commonplace demographic data as if they were a dramatic racial revelation, and the press keeps taking the bait. The stories this month about minority births becoming the majority could have been recycled from a year ago, when the same thing was being reported — and with the same air of history in the making. “For the first time,” an AP story declared in June 2011, “minorities make up a majority of babies in the US, part of a sweeping race change . . . that could reshape government policies.” Three months earlier, The New York Times had told its readers that babies born to minorities were “on the verge” of becoming the majority of all US births.

I don’t object to the persistent drumbeat about the impending nonwhite majority because I think skin color matters. Far from it — I think the whole idea of racial categories is socially pernicious and scientifically bogus. To my mind, it shouldn’t matter to anyone whether an American is white, black, or aquamarine. I embrace the credo of Supreme Court Justice John Harlan: “Our constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

My problem with the hoopla about The End of White America has nothing to do with whether such a change would be desirable or deplorable — and everything to do with the fact that no such change is actually happening. The only way to conclude that America’s white population will soon be in the minority is to count all Hispanics as nonwhite. But Hispanics can be of any race — and a majority of Hispanics in America consistently identify themselves as white.

“There may be those who simply refuse to regard Hispanics as white,” I wrote in 2012:

perhaps because of bigotry or ignorance or because they never saw Rita Hayworth, Martin Sheen, Raquel Welch, or Andy Garcia. But then, there have always been Americans with curious ideas of who could and couldn’t be “white.” Benjamin Franklin was sure that German immigrants were not only nonwhite but unassimilable; Henry Cabot Lodge said the same thing about Russians, Poles, and Greeks. There was a time when US immigration policy classified Irish, Italians, and Jews as nonwhite, and when state laws required any resident with “ one drop of Negro blood “ to be listed as black.

To us, looking back, all those distinctions today seem ludicrous. A generation or two down the road, it will doubtless seem just as ludicrous that anyone would ever have thought of Hispanics as anything other than part of the broad, “white,” American mainstream.

Political discourse being what it is these days, a conservative who makes such an argument is promptly accused of bad faith and white supremacist leanings. So I was glad to see the same point driven home forcefully this week from a decidedly left-wing perspective.

Writing in The New Republic, democratic socialist John B. Judis concludes that predictions of an impending “majority-minority America” suffer from grave flaws. The gravest is their reliance on the assumption “that the same percentage of people who currently identify themselves as ‘Latino’ or ‘Asian’ will continue to claim those identities” in the future. But that is “highly unlikely,” Judis points out. For as ethnic groups assimilate into American culture, they almost invariably come to see themselves as white:

Whiteness is not a genetic category, after all; it’s a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as whites. “This town has 8,000,000 people” a young Harry Truman wrote his cousin upon visiting New York City in 1918. “7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.)” But by the time Truman became president [in 1945], all those immigrant groups were considered “white.” There’s no reason to imagine that Latinos and Asians won’t follow much the same pattern.

In fact, it’s already happening. In the 2010 Census, 53% of Latinos identified as “white,” as did more than half of Asian Americans of mixed parentage. In future generations, those percentages are almost certain to grow. . . . [Already] more than one-quarter of Latinos and Asians marry non-Latinos and non-Asians, and that number will surely continue to climb over the generations.

The bottom line, says Judis, is that America isn’t on the cusp of a majority-minority future. Most Americans describe themselves as white. Even those who don’t are likely to have children or grandchildren who will. In this country, “white” tends to be just another word for American. And “white” Americans increasingly come in more colors than ever.

Then again, white is beautiful

A rare white moose in Gunnarskog, Varmland, Sweden.
A rare white moose in Gunnarskog, Varmland, Sweden.EPA/TOMMY PEDERSEN SWEDEN OUT

The eerie whiteness of leucistic animals, that is. I learned that term as I read The New York Times story over the weekend about the first-ever video footage of a rare white giraffe and her calf. The beautiful creatures aren’t albinos, the Times’s Yonette Joseph explained. Rather, they have “the characteristics of a genetic condition known as leucism, which inhibits pigmentation in skin cells. . . . The condition occurs across the animal kingdom. Birds, lions, fish, peacocks, penguins, eagles, hippos, moose and snakes have all displayed the trait.” The pictures accompanying her piece are stunning.

‘Why should we be deported?’

In 1905, Friedrich Trump, grandfather of the current American president, was ordered to leave Bavaria, to which he had returned after emigrating to the United States 20 years earlier. In a letter to the Bavarian prince regent — whom he addressed as “our adored, noble, wise, and just sovereign lord, our exalted ruler His Royal Highness, highest of all” — Trump pleaded to be allowed to remain:

[W]e were confronted all at once, as if by a lightning strike from fair skies, with the news that the High Royal State Ministry had decided that we must leave our residence in the Kingdom of Bavaria. We were paralyzed with fright; our happy family life was tarnished. My wife has been overcome by anxiety, and my lovely child has become sick.

Why should we be deported? This is very, very hard for a family. What will our fellow citizens think if honest subjects are faced with such a decree — not to mention the great material losses it would incur. I would like to become a Bavarian citizen again.

His request was denied, and the Trumps eventually returned to New York.

ICYMI

In my column yesterday, I told a story from 1956: How the US military went to great trouble to ensure that a handful of Jewish soldiers and sailors could worship together on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, even though they were scattered across the Arctic Ocean on Navy ships. The US military establishment is remarkably broad-minded when it comes to religion, and is willing to go to considerable lengths to support the religious needs of men and women in uniform.

Last Wednesday’s column argued that it is a mistake for states and cities to bribe companies with tax breaks, subsidies, and assorted financial goodies to lure them to relocate from other jurisdictions. The hook for the column was Amazon’s announcement that it intends to build a second headquarters somewhere in North America — an announcement that set off a frenzy of competition by officials nationwide to win Amazon’s favor. Amazon is a great enterprise, but governments shouldn’t be cajoling private companies with publicly-funded giveaways. Time and again those companies promise the moon. Time and again, taxpayers get ripped off.

Wild Wild Web

This may be the most brilliant cover letter ever written by any job seeker, ever.

Hard to believe it’s been been 22 years since Gary Larson retired from drawing The Far Side — still unsurpassed as the greatest single-panel cartoon series. Here are 30 classics.

She’s pretty, she’s modest, she recites verses from the Koran — and she’s a doll. Meet Jenna, the hijabi Barbie.

A visual history of lunchboxes. (I like the Thermos with the periscope theme.)

Eating ice cream for breakfast makes you more intelligent, a scientific study suggests. You do believe in science, don’t you?

Five very short videos starring Cirocco Dunlap. These are dark, funny, and very clever.

How to talk Minnesotan.

The world’s first oil-painted movie — 65,000 oil paintings, to be exact.

The last line

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” — Seven (Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker | 1995)


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.