The United States Patent and Trademark Office is refusing trademark protection to a Portland, Oregon based rock band called The Slants. Apparently, they believe the name the band is seeking to protect is disparaging to Asians.
When I first heard about this I wasn’t sure what to think. On one hand, it seems like a marker of progress that the U.S. government would deny trademark protection of a racial slur. But, on the other, this sounds like censorship, right?
Wrong. The fact that trademark protection is being denied doesn’t mean the group can’t use the name. This isn’t censorship. This is a struggle over protecting a business asset. So maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, right?
But here the rub. The Slants are Asian Americans. And the guys gave themselves the name as a defiant gesture against racially disparaging slurs.
I found that aspect of this case annoying. But what really infuriated me is this. Our government is fighting with an Asian American rock band over whether or not they can trademark a name it apparently finds offensive. Meanwhile, our Supreme Court just took down key voting rights protections that were instituted in order to secure the right to vote of people of color in parts of the country where there has been, and clearly continues to be, a demonstrated pattern of intent to prevent people of color from exercising this most basic American right.
Our government also allows racial profiling in law enforcement by upholding a federal legal standard that says that racism is only present in law enforcement if it is explicit. So, in other words, if a cop stops you on the street and says, “halt, I’m stopping you for no reason other than that your race makes me suspect you of criminal activity!” you’ve got ‘em dead to rights. But, if you’re among the vast majority of people subject to racial profiling in cases where the cop doesn’t name your race, you don’t have a case.
Here in New York, more than 85% of the millions of individuals stopped and questioned by New York City Police over the past several years were black or Latino. New York City has broken one of the simplest puzzles in law enforcement. You can target people by race without naming them by race. And because not naming people by race protects you from liability, you can conduct racially motivated stops by the millions before the aggregate impact of all of those stops makes you vulnerable to legal scrutiny.
Our government even continues to fund and sanction the New York Police Department despite the fact that they have been secretly spying on American citizens because they are Muslims. The spying included whole mosques, regardless of there being no evidence of illegal activity.
And our federal government denies work visas and basic worker protections to undocumented immigrants while allowing the businesses that employ them to profit by their labor. What is it if not racial discrimination to allow xenophobic, nationalistic, and racially discriminatory immigration policies to stand while also allowing employers to keep the profits they are earning from the labor of workers made vulnerable to mistreatment by those same policies?
That same federal government won’t allow us to seek remedies for racial inequity that explicitly name race. To name race and create programs to address the specific disadvantages created by racism on people of color is considered unconstitutional.
Welcome to post-racial America, a country ruled by the contradictory and anti-democratic logic of colorblind racism. Our federal government is wasting public resources fighting an Asian American rock band over whether or not they can call themselves The Slants, an act that does nothing to increase or perpetuate the racial disadvantages suffered by the group supposedly maligned by the name. And all in order to address a problem of racial bigotry our government seems to think guides us while choosing words to describe racial groups but magically skips over us when we engage in more substantive practices affecting those groups like administering elections, policing our neighborhoods, and setting their wages and working conditions.