Even amid years of protest, the racist name used by the Washington NFL team was celebrated, yelled out at games and sold on countless pieces of apparel. Most people didn’t give it a thought.

Now the slur is on its way out. We should all wonder what took so long to sweep away the racism that was right in front of us.

Native American activists have fought for a change for years, making the case clearly and repeatedly that the name is offensive and has no place anywhere in a civil society, much less at the head of a franchise in the country’s most successful pro sports league. No honest person can say they were wrong.

Ultimately, it was the team’s sponsors who forced the move. Among others, FedEx, which owns the naming rights for the team’s stadium, asked Washington to change the name. Nike stopped selling team apparel.

The sponsors themselves were responding to the deep reckoning over race and racism that has overtaken the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis in May.

Floyd’s murder sparked protests throughout the country that continue today. It has led to an examination of the behaviors and structures that form and perpetuate racism, on the surface and deep into our institutions and culture.

The team names and imagery that turn Native Americans into caricatures are a symptom of structural racism, and their continued existence is a testament to how easily the concerns of minorities can be pushed aside.

Maine – hardly alone – has a lot to answer for in its treatment of Native Americans. But it has taken their concerns on this issue seriously – last year, the state became the first to entirely eliminate Native names and imagery from school athletic teams.

It took a lot of difficult conversations, and not everyone is on board. But people who were in a position to make a difference, at school after school, listened and learned. They may have brushed it off before, but once they were made aware of what those team mascots meant to others in their community and around the state – others who had different life experiences – they made a change.

That conversion was easier in some cases than in others. It should have been easier for the Washington team name, one that was so dripping with racism one could never imagine its being chosen today, or any other comparable slur’s being used in its place.

But it wasn’t easy. Too many of the people who were in a position to make a difference looked at it and saw no reason to act.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the country has persistent inequities in health care, housing, employment, education and criminal justice that can be explained only by structural racism.

It’s right in front of us. The same willful ignorance that allowed the continued, prominent use of a racial slur in the NFL helps keep those inequities in place. It’s time we swept them away.

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