Group Challenges California High School’s ‘Arabs’ Team Name, Mascot

CREDIT: Coachella Valley HS

Coachella Valley High School's "Arabs" logo.

CREDIT: Coachella Valley HS

An Arab-American civil rights group is calling on California’s Coachella Valley High School to change its “Arabs” nickname and stop using a mascot the group called a “harmful form of ethnic stereotyping.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) sent a letter to the school November 1 saying that the organization is “appalled at the use of a caricature depicted to be an ‘Arab’,” citing the mascot’s beard and hooked nose. The ADC suggested that the school must get rid of the controversial nickname. “By allowing continued use of the term and imagery, you are commending and enforcing the negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group, millions of whom are citizens of this nation,” the group said.

In response, the school district intends to discuss the issue at its November 21 meeting. The school’s administrators and alumni are defending the name as a local tradition that isn’t meant to be offensive. Rich Ramirez, the president of the alumni association, told a local news station that the nickname honors Arabs. “It wasn’t to discriminate, it was to say, ‘Hey, thank you Middle East, Iraq, Algeria.'” He continued, “This is the way it is, this is what we like to do. And we’re proud of being Arabs.”

Superintendent Daryl Adams was more sensitive, but reached a similar conclusion. “When I first came here, I raised an eyebrow (at the mascot),” Adams said. “Being an African-American from the Deep South, I’m sensitive to stereotyping. But in this context, when this was created it was not meant in that way. It was totally an admiration of the connection with the Middle East.”

According to Coachella Valley High School’s alumni association, the school has used the “Arabs” moniker since the 1920s. The name was meant to honor the “importance of the date industry in this end of the valley, but also because it fit in perfectly with the neighboring towns of Mecca, Oasis, Arabia, and Thermal.”

However, the prevalence of Arab town names in Coachella Valley doesn’t mean the area is home to a robust Arab-American community. Al Jazeera reported that the region has had an infatuation with all things Arab since the 19th century, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the area was suitable for growing date palms from the Middle East and North Africa. In order to lure tourists to an enchanted “oasis,” locals cultivated a Middle Eastern theme throughout the region. According to a demographic profile of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, 97.1 percent of students in 2009-10 were Latino.

The controversy over Coachella Valley High School’s mascot is similar to the one surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins. There is a growing chorus of advocates for changing the name many Native Americans consider a racial slur. Native American groups have led latest the charge against Washington’s name, and they have rejected justifications that the name is meant to honor their heritage — the same argument Ramirez and other defenders of the “Arabs” name have used.

The ADC took a similar approach in its letter to the school. The group recognized the long history of the nickname and acknowledged “the context in which the nickname was initially selected.” However, the group concluded, in modern times such justifications for these actions are “no longer tolerable.”

Christopher Butterfield is an intern for ThinkProgress.