Korematsu Center lends support to fight against racist football team name

February 12, 2016

In a powerfully written call for racial justice, the Korematsu Center for Law and Equality has filed an amicus brief to support five Native American activists who are challenging a federal trademark for Washington, D.C.'s football team.

Joining the brief were the National Native American Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, and the California Indian Law Association, working with Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie as counsel. (Download and read the brief here.)

The team's name is a disparaging slur for Native Americans. The case, Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, is a challenge by the corporate owner of the Washington R--skins to overturn the cancellation of federal registration of several of their trademarks.

"Race still matters in this country," the Korematsu Center brief reads. Even though slavery and Jim Crow laws seem to be in the distant past, "the vestiges of racism are all around us. This case is just one example."

Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who lives in Arizona, and four other young Native Americans from Florida, Utah, and Oklahoma filed their petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in August 2006. Eight years later, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board voted to cancel the team's six trademarks, agreeing that the term was racially disparaging. The team then challenged this decision by filing a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. After losing there, the team appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in October 2015.

Robert ChangProfessor Robert Chang, executive director of the Korematsu Center, explained that trademark regulations stem from the Lanham Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1946. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act permits the trademark office to cancel or deny registration of disparaging marks. 

Canceling the team's trademark wouldn't stop it from using the name, he said. But it would remove the tacit government approval that comes with a federal trademark. "The government shouldn't be viewed as promoting racial discrimination," he said.

Pro-Football, Inc. "can still sell hats, jerseys, helmets, and footballs bearing the emblem of a racist anachronism," according to the brief. "PFI has the right to use dehumanizing speech, and no one is trying to take away that right."

In July 2015, the Korematsu Center also filed an amicus brief arguing against trademark protection for a Portland-based Asian American dance band calling itself "The Slants." Though the band had the admirable goal of reclaiming a racial slur, Chang said a ruling in favor of the band could set a dangerous precedent for the Blackhorse case. 

Regardless of the outcome of this latest appeal, Chang said it is likely that this issue will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.