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A War on Words Loses Sight of What Matters

January 07, 2002|STEVE LOPEZ

Let's look at it from Dale Atkeson's point of view.

The guy plays pro football for the Washington Redskins in the 1950s, scores a rookie touchdown on a 99-yard kickoff return, and rides through the twilight 40 years later in a little Toyota pickup with a plate that says "1 REDSKN."

There he is in Manhattan Beach now, 71 years old, and it's been seven years since wife Wanda sprung the vanity plate on him as a Christmas present.

Then one day before Christmas past Dale opens a letter from the DMV, which is never a good idea, and finds out the "1 REDSKN" has got to go because it's been deemed racially offensive.

In a culture that's ever-more crude and indecent, the long arm of the law had reached past Howard Stern, hard-core gangster rap, and prime-time sex to whack Dale Atkeson for innocently celebrating a brief moment of his own history. All it took was one complaint by an American Indian, and suddenly the DMV was more efficient than you've ever seen it, as my colleague Peter Hong reported in Friday's Times.

Forget the Delta commandos and the rest of the troops that have been sniffing after Osama bin Laden in caves. We should have sent the California DMV after him.

"I'm not gonna hire no lawyer," says Atkeson, who figures he's got a better chance of returning a kickoff in this year's Super Bowl than winning his appeal to DMV bureaucracy. "My main idea was to just complain about this political correctness stuff."

Dale's wife, Wanda, who may get the next DMV target letter (her license plate is "RDSKN2"), is right behind him on that. With all that's wrong in the world, she says, who would go through the trouble to chase after a 70-something guy in a Toyota?

Wanda says she and Dale are afraid to take their grandchildren to the movies, they're so worried about the offensive language and carryings-on the youngsters might be subjected to. How many kids, by comparison, are going to be corrupted when Dale hits the streets of Manhattan Beach in his pickup?

"It's too bad these people have so much time on their hands," Wanda says. I assumed she was referring to American Indians, but maybe it was the DMV. Or both. "And it's a shame they couldn't put it toward something more productive."

Makes sense to me. But we've only heard one side of the story, so I got hold of the guy who made the complaint. And now let's look at Dale Atkeson's "1 REDSKN" plate from Eugene Herrod's point of view.

Herrod, 50, is a retired private investigator living in Buena Park. He's a descendant of a Muskogee-Creek family from Oklahoma, and he's hooked up with Advocates for American Indian Children, crusading to enlighten the public on slurs.

"If you're familiar with the etiology of the term redskin, its derivative is when bounties were collected on American Indians," Herrod says. "The bloody scalp was referred to as the redskin."

The DMV banned Redskin derivatives in 1999 after a complaint by Herrod, and the ban withstood three appeals. In one, a judge found a "REDSKIN" vanity plate offensive to good taste and decency.

In November, Herrod found Atkeson's "1 REDSKN" while scrolling the DMV Web site and filed the complaint that got the dogs barking after the former football player.

"You wouldn't call the Washington team the Wetbacks, would you?" Herrod asks. "Would you have the Brownskins, the Blackskins, or the Atlanta Negroes?"

Herrod says he doesn't suspect Atkeson means any ill will with his license plate. But he's not inclined to let him off the hook, regardless.

"A racial slur is a racial slur, and when people are enlightened, they won't be as inclined to make them. Martin Luther King said it best when he said the most dangerous thing is sincere ignorance."

Bigotry endures in a thousand ways in America, and Herrod's intolerance of it is certainly commendable. But he doesn't speak for all American Indians on the subject of what is and is not a slur. Cal Codynah, of the Southern California Indian Center, says he's on Herrod's side and believes most of the community is. "But some have said they see Redskins as a source of pride, back to when the team was in its heyday. And others say who cares, big deal, let's move on to other issues."

In Washington, D.C., the Wizards used to be the Bullets, but some people thought the bullet was a negative image. I don't know whether, on a hot summer day along the Potomac, polite people are now inclined to say someone is sweating wizards. But whose standard are we supposed to use in deciding what's insensitive, and do we really want to ban everything that might be offensive to anybody?

If so, how far back should we go? Should statues of George Washington come down because he owned slaves?

If the nation's capital can have an NFL franchise called the Redskins in 2002, a geezer who played for the team almost 50 years ago ought to be able to sport about with a "1 REDSKN" license plate.

In the war on the ugly and profane, there are far, far bigger targets.


Steve Lopez can be reached at

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