THERMAL, Calif. - A high school here is being pressured to abandon its team name - the Arabs - and mascot because of accusations that is derogatory.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington sent a letter last week to the Coachella Valley Unified School District, chastising education officials for allowing "gross stereotyping" at Coachella Valley High School in school murals, football halftime shows and the mascot in general.
"ADC is appalled at the use of a caricature depicted to be an 'Arab' as the official mascot of the high school," the letter states. "The image of the Coachella Valley High School mascot depicts a man with a large nose, heavy beard and wearing a kaffiay, (often spelled in English as keffiyeh) or traditional Arab head covering."
"The 'Arab' mascot image is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping which should be eliminated," Abed Ayoub, director of legal and policy affairs for the anti-discrimination committee, wrote in the letter. "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 committee, founded in 1980, also has launched an online petition demanding the mascot be changed. More than 400 people had signed as of late Wednesday.
Superintendent Darryl Adams of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which is about 135 miles southeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, said he will discuss the mascot controversy with the school board during the next meeting Nov. 21. Adams would not say whether he planned to recommend a change of mascot but admitted "the Arab" had caused him to pause in the past.
"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 the Coachella Valley High School Alumni Association, the mascot was chosen in the 1920s to acknowledge the importance of date farming, a traditionally Middle Eastern crop, in the east valley. The school with an enrollment of almost 3,000 was opened in 1910.
Another link between the Middle East and the east valley can be seen in the name of the city of Mecca, about 6 miles southeast of Thermal, according to the association.
The current mascot is based on an "angry Arab" design unveiled in the 1950s. The scowling face was meant to be a fearsome front for the football team, said Art Montoya, 74, one of the directors of the alumni association.
But that was decades ago. The context of the design has faded, and it is easy to see why this unflattering "cartoon" character could be seen as offensive today, he said.
"Times are changing, and we have to understand that," Montoya said. "I think they need to look at it again. If they want to keep that Arab name, they need to make it a bit more acceptable. Only, I don't know what that would look like. I don't know how you could make a face that would be acceptable to everyone in the world."
Across the country, Arab High School with about 800 students in the city of the same name in northern Alabama calls its sports teams the Knights.
Most recently, native American groups have targeted high school, college and professional sports teams' American Indian mascots as offensive. The owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, has come under fire for saying he won't change the football team's name.
Not all Coachella Valley High alumni feel a change is necessary. David Hinkle, who graduated from the school in 1961, defended the Arab mascot, which he called a matter of school pride. The "angry Arab" was introduced when he was a freshman.
"There was no intention to demean Arabs or be discriminatory in any way," Hinkle said. "I don't think it's right to decide now that you can't do that anymore. It is political correctness run amok, I would say."
Like the alumni, current Coachella Valley students also are divided about the mascot controversy. After the final bell rang at the school Wednesday, some grumbled about the mascot even as they hung a hand-painted banner celebrating an upcoming game against the Indio High School Rajahs, another nearby school with a questionable mascot.
Senior Polette Zavala thought Coachella Valley High was being singled out for a widespread sin.
"It is offensive - and I understand that - but there are so many other schools that do the same thing," she said.
In Riverside County alone, Coachella Valley High's Arab has other potentially offensive brethren: Indio High's Rajah, a turban-wearing Indian prince; La Quinta High's Black Hawks, a predatory bird easily confused with historic Native American Chief Blackhawk; Palm Desert High's Aztecs; and Palm Springs High's Indians, a team name that has the blessing of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians whose tribe helped design the mascot.
Since Coachella Valley High's mascot was created in the '20s, it has evolved from a turban-wearing horseman carrying a lance to a standing figure wielding a scimitar and wearing a fez to an older snarling face with a gold tooth. The most recent change came in the 1980s when the school voted to replace the mascot's fez with a headscarf.
Somewhere in the process of all those changes, someone should have asked people from the Middle East how they felt about the mascot in general, Adams said.
The letter from the anti-discrimination group was the first time the Arab mascot had been criticized as a stereotype since Adams was hired as superintendent in 2011, he said. Before to the letter, the only concerns raised about the Arab theme were in relation to a "borderline inappropriate" belly dance included in a football game halftime show.
By Brett Kelman