Two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown made some headlines by signing the California Racial Mascots Act, which banned the use of “Redskins” as a school’s nickname or mascot. At the time, it was hailed as a good first step for a state with a huge number of schools with offensively named mascots, in the hopes that the famously progressive state would become a leader in eliminating the age of derogatory athletics mascots. Two years later, the law has proven to have an, at best, muted effect and many communities are still left sorting out the fallout.
The law left a few clear loopholes that would allow schools to drag out the process of moving past those mascots and names for as long as possible. Although the schools were supposed to have chosen a new name or mascot by the beginning of this calendar year, there was no requirement to remove “Redskins” imagery from school gymnasiums and uniforms, and the ban on buying new uniforms with that imagery does not begin until 2019.
Calaveras High School in San Andreas is a case study in skirting the desired effect of the California Racial Mascots Act. Less than a year after the passage of the bill, Calaveras High School principal Mike Merrill sent a statement to the district’s board of trustees that in part read, “The dignity and pride that we have maintained in the use of our logo will not change.”
Although the “Redskins” moniker was officially removed, no name was selected as its replacement, and artwork depicting a stereotypical Native American with a feather headdress remain in the gymnasium, football field and website for the school.
Calaveras Unified School District superintendent Mark Campbell has, intentionally or not, gotten at the toothless nature of the law’s effect and schools efforts to undermine the purpose of the law.
“We are striving for compliance,” Campbell said in a statement to EdSource. “We have a Native American logo on the scoreboard and on the wall in the gym, and it’s on merchandise and letterhead, but there is nothing with the term itself.”
It’s hard to pain Calaveras as one of the well-meaning schools caught up in a debate it had no part in. The school played an important part in the public debate of the bill. Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, who played football for Argonaut High School and was a 2016 appointment to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, gave a damning account of the psychological trauma that playing Calaveras could bring on.
Calaveras is far from the only school avoiding the spirit of the law on the matter. Chowchilla High School simply changed their nickname to “Tribe”. The school still features a plethora of Native American imagery, and officials have hardly made an attempt to hide their disdain of the law.
“With the politically correct society we have now, we felt we had to comply,” said school board president Mike Cargill to the Merced Sun Star.
The law also made no attempt to legislate nicknames like “Braves” and “Indians,” which while not being regarded quite as slurs like “Redskins”, still generally correlate to stereotypical representation of Native American people and culture. There are still dozens of schools in California that go by similar names, like Napa High School, which has seen a firestorm over proposals to remove its “Indians” mascot.
Following the signing of the California Racial Mascots Act, activists pointed out Napa as a school particularly in need of change, and in February, a school district commission recommended that the nickname be changed. Outraged alumni flooded special meetings, and a vote on changing the nickname was tabled indefinitely.
Schools such as Winters High School, which voluntarily changed their mascot from the “Warriors” to a “W” and have phased out imagery such as feather headdresses and spears following discussions with the nearby Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, show that change is still possible. But laws that require a good faith effort to change on the part of unwilling schools have shown to be ineffective, and California still has a huge number of schools to reckon with.