Community Engagement

Statement on the Need for Respectful and Inclusive Symbols of Community Life

Timothy Ready, Director

In this second decade of the Twenty-First Century, we should be beyond the point where those who run our institutions and shape our culture maintain symbolic representations of community life that caricature the racial and ethnic heritage of those who are not in the majority. As Director of Western Michigan University’s Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations, I am calling on everyone, especially those in leadership positions, to respect the heritage and culture of Native American Indian peoples--and of all peoples who enrich the fabric of our communities, state and nation.

Michigan communities, like communities all across the United States, are becoming increasingly diverse. Less than three years from now in the year 2020, children who are not of European origin and who have long been considered “minorities” will become the majority in the United States. The transition to “majority minority” for the population as a whole has already occurred in many cities and in several states, and will happen nationwide in only 25 years.

This demographic reality underscores a point related to common decency and respect that has always been true but can no longer be ignored.  For our communities to remain strong and united, our institutions and our culture must honor, respect and build upon the cultural heritage of every racial and ethnic group. Those who run our communities’ institutions and shape their cultures must not condone, let alone sponsor, cultural symbols that historically have been used to demean and that today are still considered offensive by many.

For this reason, it is critically important that our core symbols of community life unite and not divide us. Team names, mascots and other important representations of community must not caricature or stereotype anyone’s racial or ethnic heritage. This is especially true for those symbols that represent school communities whose young members, by their very nature, are impressionable and will learn the implicit and explicit meanings communicated by those symbols.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the government does not have the authority to ban trademarks that are offensive to certain groups of people. This decision will permit the professional football team based in Washington, DC, to keep its trademark logo and team name, even though they are offensive to many. The Constitution protects the right to free speech, no matter how offensive. That said, the Constitution’s protection of offensive speech should not be confused with what is wise, respectful, or a healthy cultural foundation for inclusive community. 

Nowhere is the issue of inclusive symbols of community more important than in school communities. For this reason, I call on the leadership of public schools that have team names and related symbols that are considered demeaning or offensive to any members of the school community to replace those names and symbols with ones that are inclusive and respectful of all.