Much Wahoo About Something

Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians displays the Chief Wahoo Indians baeball cap.

We are now entering year four of what some might call our national war over political correctness. In 2015, multiple Republican presidential candidates placed curtailing political correctness at the heart of their campaigns. In 2016, one of those candidates engaged his supporters with racially charged, politically incorrect rhetoric and won the presidency. In 2017, that president reignited the conservative version of political correctness, condemning football players, mostly African-American, for boycotting the national anthem in protest of racialized police violence. And we’ve begun 2018 with a debate about immigration from “shithole countries” and the dismissal of hundreds of thousands brought to this country illegally as children as immoral and deportable.

It is into this thicket that Major League Baseball stepped gingerly last week when it reached agreement with the Cleveland Indians to retire Chief Wahoo—the grinning, red-faced caricature of America’s first people that has symbolized Cleveland’s professional baseball club since 1947. The Indians will continue to sell limited issue Wahoo merchandise in northeast Ohio to retain its intellectual property rights and prevent mass marketing of the image by others, but the team will heavily reduce the logo’s circulation and will cease featuring it on its uniforms after next year.

One might imagine that an athletic team’s choice of mascot would not engender controversy or bitterness. That might be the case were it not for the deep-seated emotions caused by issues of race and sports in American culture. The day MLB announced its decision, a poll on Cleveland.com was running about 9 to 1 in favor of retaining Chief Wahoo, before settling a little above three-fourths support over the following week. A change.org petition collected over 15,000 signatures in support of the mascot and against “all the P.C. hype!” Polite opinion and corporate dollars are on the side of change, but the passion is with Chief Wahoo.

As with everything that can be reduced to a contest between elite values and everyman sensibilities, most of the discussion of the Indians’ mascot (and the more politically explosive issue of the Washington Redskins football team’s name) has stressed the issue’s complexity. But that’s not true. The facts and considerations are easy to comprehend.

First, Chief Wahoo is a grossly offensive, racial cartoon. It depicts a race of people identified by the team’s name in degrading fashion—the bright red face, the matted hair, the cartoonish feather, the gleaming, dumb grin so typical of racial caricatures. The logo traffics in explicitly racialized imagery. It is practically the textbook definition of a racist symbol. This is important to say not because it ends the conversation, but because once identified, it cannot be ignored.

Second, the Cleveland masses who have wholeheartedly embraced Chief Wahoo, who are pounding both the pavement and their keypads fervently in his defense, are not doing so to further racial ends, to express their distaste or condescension or superiority. This is the message of sportswriter and native Clevelander Joe Posnanski, who writes about the mascot (while emphatically praising its demise): “We didn’t choose the logo. It was passed on to us when we were young, and it got into our minds and hearts as baseball fans. We didn’t think racist thoughts when we saw it… And so we connected with the logo. Yes, they are doing the right thing by getting rid of him now, absolutely, no question about it. That doesn’t mean people who are sad about it are without compassion or sensitivity.”  But this is obvious too. The attachment to Chief Wahoo is an emotional one. It is a symbol of springs and Saturdays, hot dogs and home runs. It means to Clevelanders what Bob Feller, 1948, and Progressive Field do. It is about civic pride and three cheers for the home team.

The issue, then, is what you do with these two simple facts and how much you care about each. The question is not, as Posnanski ends his piece, whether it is “OK to feel a little bit nostalgic about losing something that you grew to despise.” The answer to that question is, of course, “yes,” but it is the strawman that fuels anti-PC attitudes—the belief that sneering elites are judging your attachment to a mascot or a flag, to a connection with your history. With that tale, the individual is absolved of making a moral choice, embracing the emblem is then a defense of basic identity rather than of its actual, objective meaning. Without it, the question is simply whether the personal significance should outweigh the public resonance.

Look again. Chief Wahoo opponents are not motivated by moral superiority. Major League Baseball’s official statement acknowledged the “long-standing attachment” of many Cleveland fans to Chief Wahoo before concluding that “the logo is no longer appropriate.” Every team has its sacred symbols and icons that they jealously guard to preserve a connection with the past. The difference here is the competing value at stake. Chief Wahoo is a racist icon. To support it regardless is to be indifferent to that fact, or at least to elevate one’s own private nostalgia above this ugly self-representation. Society need not condemn such an attitude as reprehensible to think it wrong.

That’s the problem with the anti-PC backlash. It treats “offense” as subjective and easily achieved in a soft society to avoid grappling with the actual moral choice regarding objective truths. It’s fundamentally wrong to characterize immigrants as rapists and murderers and wrong to denigrate African and Latin American countries as backwards cesspools, both because those statements are incorrect and because they are designed to tear down people based on color instead of judging them on character. Those views remain unjust and indefensible even if one’s motive for holding them is the understandable desire to clutch tightly to the way their town has always looked and sounded and felt. No one said progress could be achieved without some sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean the decision to move forward is any less clear.

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