The Michigan civil rights department has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights asking for a ban on the use of American Indian mascots and imagery in K-12 schools that receive federal funds. The state agency highlights 35 Michigan schools with such mascots or imagery as the basis of the complaint.
In its supporting argument, the department cites research showing that “the use of American Indian imagery reinforces stereotypes in a way that negatively impacts the potential for achievement by students with American Indian ancestry.” It also claims that the use of such imagery “denies equal learning opportunities for some students,” in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The Michigan department argues that the harm done to American Indian students should be sufficient for the federal civil rights office to ban their usage in K-12 schools that receive federal funds, except in extremely limited circumstances. If a school can use an American Indian image “in a way that is respectful” and “not reinforce any singular limiting image of Indian peoples,” the department suggests it could be allowed, “but only within guidelines provided by” the civil rights office.
As of press time, the federal civil rights office had not responded to a request for a comment on the filing.
In 1995, the federal civil rights office decided that an American Indian mascot at a high school in Quincy, Mass., did not constitute a violation of a federal civil rights law. But the ruling didn’t bar the possibility of finding other schools’ mascots in violation of civil rights law, according to Michael Burns, the then-deputy regional director of the OCR’s Boston office.
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged non-Indian schools to end the use of such American Indian imagery.
A few states have already acted. In 2010, Wisconsin enacted a law that allows residents of a school district to challenge mascot names that allegedly promote a negative racial stereotype. This past May, the Oregon board of education voted to ban K-12 public schools from using American Indian mascots or imagery, giving any school affected by the policy five years to make the change.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Mascot Imagery Civil Rights Target