Indians’ Chief Wahoo a remnant of racism

By Justice B. Hill
Updated: May 27, 2009

CLEVELAND — See a photo of a swastika, a hangman’s noose or a white man robed in a white sheet, and you see the face of racism, a racism that runs deep into America’s marrow.

The country has tried to discard its racist symbols. It has rightly shoved most of them into its past; America has tried, as best as it can, to forget what racism has produced. It has succeeded, mostly.

Except in Cleveland.

Here, you find a remnant of racism plastered everywhere. It shows itself in the image of Chief Wahoo, a cartoonish mascot the Cleveland Indians parade everywhere to promote the ballclub.

Shunting aside political correctness, the team owners and fans have clung to a stereotype so abasing of Native Americans that it shames a hard-luck city that needs no farther shame.

Go ask historians, and they will be hard-pressed to tell you of a Rust Belt city with racial baggage heavier than Cleveland’s. Words like “progressive” and “enlightened” have never applied to this piece of hell on Lake Erie’s shores. “Narrow-minded,” “bigoted” and “mean-spirited” are words that tell you all a person cares to know about this blue-collar metropolis.

I say that not out of malice toward Cleveland. I’m a child of the city – its school system, its churches and its neighborhoods. I know the deep abyss it crawled out of in search of racial harmony and to heal old hurts.

Yet the city and its people refuse to abandon Chief Wahoo, now more than a half-century old. But they can find no spiritual salvation till they rid themselves of an image as racist as “Little Black Sambo.” For no real reason, they hold firmly to this toothy caricature as if it were a badge of honor.

None of them seem to care a whit that Chief Wahoo denigrates a people’s culture.

Year after year, the team and its fans have disregarded the pleas of Native Americans to bury this symbol of hatred and racism. Tribes have picketed Progressive Field; they have organized boycotts of Indians games; they have sought to reason with people.

Nothing has worked. Chief Wahoo survives.

Indians fans are as at home with this racially indefensible image as they are with the iconic Bob Feller. That’s the pity of it, because racism should have no home anywhere in the United States, a country that prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures.

The noble concept of a melting pot reflects more myth than reality when looked at in Cleveland, a city with entrenched ways that enjoys thriving on the far fringes of mainstream.

Most Americans agree the divide between racial myth and reality has narrowed; the two are no longer light-years apart, although the two also aren’t as close as that 7-Eleven around the way.

The distance widens when people know right but do wrong. And it is impossible to find right in racist symbols like a Nazi’s swastika, a Klansman’s robe and Chief Wahoo. They are nothing but wrong.