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I just read about a tiny town in France called “La Mort aux Juifs,” which translates to “Death to Jews” (h/t DailyKos). And the mayor is firm that the name won’t be changed despite demands by the Simon Wisenthal Center: “Why change a name that goes back to the Middle Ages or even further? We should respect these old names.” He also claims that “no one has anything against the Jews,” evidently missing the actual point?

Does this situation sound familiar? Remember the Washington Redskins? Responding to suggestions that they change the team’s name, the team’s owner poohpoohed the hurt feelings or embarrassment it might engender, appealing to tradition to explain why he will “never” change the teams name :

After 81 years, the team name ‘Redskins’ continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come, […].

I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name. But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too,”…  

It’s hard to fault such cluelessness. What, indeed, does the name mean, especially to those it designates? What, in the larger picture, does it say about where we as Americans come from? It might just be those very considerations that prompted calls for the name to be changed.

In Wildwood, here in Missouri, the justification for retaining a disturbing street name, ‘Old Slave Road,’ was, you guessed it, history. In spite of proposals to rename the street after a former slave born on the plantation that had occupied the site of Old Slave Road, and who later, as a free man, fought in the Union Army’s Colored Infantry during the Civil War, locals and “outsiders” were not satisfied, and felt that they would be sacrificing “historical significance.”

All of this deference to history and tradition sounds nice, but begs the question about why these particular, rather nasty historical precedents and traditions need to be preserved in ways that suggest that they are now neutral. Nor does changing these names in any way whitewash the historical record; it would simply signal that there has actually been a change in human sensibilities and that it’s possible for us to rectify past errors and behave with sensitivity and civility in the public sphere.

The name “Mort au Juifs” certainly suggests the long European history of persecuting Jews, an historical record that also dates back to the middle ages, finally, horrifically, culminating in Hitler’s Final Solution. But, hey, the town’s name has always evoked genocide so why change it now.

As for “Redskins,” before it was a sports team, it was a triumphalistic term used by European Americans to denigrate Native Americans after nearly wiping them out. No doubt about who had their feet on who’s throat here, no sporting teams I know about are called “palefaces.”

And here in Missouri, we had quite a history of “old slaves,” although it’s difficult to understand why anyone wants to enshrine that fact. Actually, recent events suggest that it’s quite possible that the fallout from the Missouri’ past as a slave state isn’t confined to history.

In the last couple of days there have been heated protests in the St. Louis metro city of Ferguson. A young, unarmed black man, stopped for the monstrous crime of walking in the middle of a street, was shot multiple times by a police officer. The population of Ferguson is 65% African-American, yet 50 of its 53 commissioned police officers are white. Since the city refuses to release the name of the police officer involved, its possible that Michael Brown was shot by one of the three African-American officers, but that’s not really the point. As TPM’s Josh Marshall observes:

It’s easy to be reductive about these things. No single incident can be tied to this kind of disparity. And there are instances of black cops taking a shoot first and ask questions later approach to policing with black civilians. But at a minimum, when you’ve got police bringing out armored vehicles, tear gas and rubber bullets (in addition to the old-fashioned metal kind), it’s an extremely incendiary factor to have an almost exclusively white police force squaring off against an overwhelmingly black community, venting outrage at the shooting of an unarmed kid who was two days away from starting college.

When incidents of this type are still taking place regularly, can you really tell me that it’s all right to take pride in living on “Old Slave Road”? While Native Americans are struggling to recover from our sad, shared history, can you tell me that a few sporting fans can’t take a name change in stride in the name of human civility? As for “Mort aux Juifs,” I have nothing more to say, the name says it all, and like the other two examples, time has not rendered it meaningless.