Activist Speaks On Bomani Jones’ Cleveland Indians Shirt

The controversy triggered by Bomani Jones speaks volumes on how we treat American Indians

Illustration: Vocativ
Apr 08, 2016 at 12:13 PM ET

On Thursday, ESPN’s Bomani Jones appeared on the Mike and Mike Show wearing a shirt with the Cleveland Indians’ font and colors. However, instead of “Indians,” the shirt read “Caucasians,” complete with a grinning blonde white dude and a dollar sign in place of a feather poking out of the back of his head.

Jones, evidently at the behest of his employer, later went back on the air to provide context for his sartorial choice. According to TMZ, someone at “ESPN freaked out and asked Jones to cover up his shirt” during the broadcast.

After TMZ’s article ran, an ESPN representative confirmed it: “As the show progressed, we felt Bomani had made his point and had openly discussed why he was wearing the shirt, and we wanted to keep the focus to the topics of the day.”

Jones then pointed out how ridiculous it is that, in 2016, American Indians are still subjected to continued existence of the Cleveland Indians’ racist mascot, Chief Wahoo.

“The reason they won’t get rid of Chief Wahoo, which is completely indefensible, is they could still sell stuff with it,” Jones said. “They can say they’re gonna de-emphasize it, but they’re not just gonna set money on fire. I thought [the shirt] was the exact same thing, and I could see the value in the design, so I was like, hey, we might as well give this a run.”

Vocativ spoke with Jacqueline Keeler, a contributor for Indian Country Today and the co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, an activist group “dedicated to fighting the public misappropriation of Native American imagery and identity.”

In response to the news that ESPN had told Bomani to cover up his shirt, she said “we would really like to have them have the same response when Chief Wahoo appears during their broadcast. I think that should be covered up.”

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Keeler noted that the city of Cleveland recently passed an ordinance that will remove any and all “banners displaying the team’s controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo, from the city’s public utility poles in the downtown central business area.”

Despite the team’s attempts to downplay Chief Wahoo’s presence, such as switching to the block-C as their official logo, “You can’t scale back racism. It is what it is,” Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed said. “If you look up there at those banners downtown you can see Chief Wahoo and we want it gone. Whether big or small, we want it gone.”

“It’s like having a confederate flag,” Reed added. “There is no appropriate level of it.”

The Sporting News asked the Cleveland Indians if they had any plans to get rid of the offensive logo and a spokesman said that while they were “very cognizant and sensitive to both sides of the conversation,” they presently “have no plans of making a change.”

While Keeler was appreciative of Jones’ show of support, calling it “wonderful” and adding, “I love acts of solidarity and intersectionality. I really appreciate it. I think it’s wonderful and we need more,” she also noted that American Indians have been protesting at opening day for the last 50 years even though Indians fans, decked in faux-native garb, jeer and taunt them.

“My parents and a group of young people in Cleveland started protesting in 1968,” Keeler said. At the time, “there was a large native community there because of relocation. Cleveland was a relocation center in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s when the federal government was terminating tribes and relocating the population to urban centers; Cleveland was of those relocation centers.”

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But now “there are no federally recognized tribes left in Ohio. They were removed to places like Oklahoma and the Shawnee and many of the tribes,” Keeler said. And “to go there is to go to a place where a genocide took place.

“The reason why Native People are not visible there is because of the genocide and the price that Native People paid.”

Philip Yenyo, one of the protest’s organizers, told Keeler that “growing up here you can’t get away from that smiling face of racism.”

“He doesn’t feel welcome,” Keeler said. “He doesn’t feel like he can go to a ballgame until they get rid of that mascot.”

Keeler did agree with Jones’ assertion that the Chief Wahoo mascot would not be permissible if it were any other ethnic group. She described a protest her organization held at Nike’s corporate headquarters, where they were told that since both the community and Major League Baseball seem to accept the logo, they were more or less fine with it as well. Keeler asked if a professional team was still “mascoting another ethnic group like African-Americans, Jews, Asians in an incredibly grotesque fashion would Nike be okay? Nike wouldn’t put their swoosh next to those images. No they would not.”

“There is a double standard,” she said. “And that double standard is due to our low numbers. That’s a really horrible reason to ignore a group of people—because of genocide.”