Fight to change NFL mascot is about respect

There’s an R-word that Native Americans are talking about, and it’s not reparations.

In fact, hundreds of Native Americans plan to gather outside Levi’s Stadium on Sunday to protest the R-word, which happens to be the team name of the 49ers’ opponent from Washington, D.C. Since the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled six trademarks held by Washington’s NFL team earlier this year, the “Change the Mascot” movement has received national attention.

Despite all of that, this debate seems to be about another, much more dignified R-word: respect.

Respect can be defined as deference to others’ rights and privileges as a human. It’s something that everyone in the world is entitled to. It’s something that American citizens hold in high esteem, and it’s something that we should begin to show consistently across California’s diverse communities and cultures.

There is an obvious lack of respect when we allow public schools to brand themselves with racial epithets. Education is a means to eradicate prejudice and inequality. It’s ironic that we allow public institutions of learning to be represented by a manifestation of those things. Subtly institutionalizing prejudice with team names like the R-word definitely perpetuates what we are trying to get away from.

So let’s not fool ourselves with arguments about the R-word representing courage and bravery. History has not been kind to Native Americans, and allowing the subtle institutionalization of that sentiment is no way to make things right. Rather, explicitly forbidding such a thing is a small token of appreciation that California can and should afford to Native Americans.

This past legislative session, I authored a resolution urging the NFL to change Washington’s team name. I hope to extend that effort next year by introducing legislation to ban the use of offensive Native American team names at our public institutions.

So never mind that hundreds of institutions have already joined the likes of Stanford and Marquette in jettisoning similar mascots. Never mind that the U.S. patent office ruled that the R-word was “disparaging to Native Americans” and not entitled to taxpayer-financed copyright protections. Never mind that studies have shown serious cultural and psychological consequences associated with the promotion of the R-word. And never mind that even the dictionary recognizes the R-word as a derogatory slur.

This debate is about much more than the R-word. It’s about respect. Let’s start talking about choosing the right R-word and pay tribute to Native American culture by doing what we can to preserve their heritage properly.

Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville, represents the 30th District in the state Assembly.