The Curious Case Of UNLV's Not-Racist Mascot

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UNLV recently launched a study into the history of its mascot, Hey Reb!, in order to determine if the mustachioed gentleman is racist or not. The resulting report, which makes for an oddly compelling 60 pages, concludes that no, Hey Reb! is not racist, despite many signs suggesting he is.

From afar, Hey Reb! sure seems pretty racist. UNLV students have long referred to themselves as Rebels, and the student newspaper was not only called the Rebel Yell in the 50s and 60s but boasted a Confederate flag in its banner. The football team played the 1968 season with the Confederate battle flag on its helmets, and the mascot that preceded Hey Reb! was a wolf in a Confederate soldier’s uniform named after Confederate general Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Then there’s Las Vegas’s fraught racial history, which at one point earned it the moniker “Mississippi of the West.”


The university’s study was conducted by Rainier Spencer, director of the school’s African-American Studies program, who went into the project expecting to discover a “racist past that we have to apologize for,” according to the Los Angeles Times. What he found instead was a peculiar local history and a bunch of dumbass college students playing dress up.

According to Spencer’s report, UNLV students started calling themselves the Rebels not because of any affinity for the Confederacy, but because they were angry at local politicians who were stymieing the their attempts to become independent from the University of Nevada, Reno. From the report:

Rather, just like their Rebel parents who had in the first place made the branch possible, what they saw themselves in opposition to was the northern Nevada political power that was preventing their little branch from developing. That political power, not UNR, is what the Confederate symbolism was directed toward.


And what about that Confederate symbolism? According to Spencer’s report, it was adopted by the campus not in an effort to express solidarity with the Dixie South, but as a thoughtless adornment to the school’s already established rebel identity. In other words, dumb UNLV students, having been fed a sanitized version of Civil War history, just thought Confederate stuff was kind of badass:

The appending of Confederate symbols to the already existing Rebels identity was of course unfortunate and to some extent immature. It was also inaccurate historically, as in 1864 Nevada entered the Union as a free state, which quite obviously was the only way it could gain entry. Dr. Moehring pointed out to me that “Abraham Lincoln pushed to make Nevada a state in 1864 (even though Nevada lacked the 60,000 people required by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787) just to get one more state to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Nevada was the state that got Lincoln the one additional vote he needed to do it.”

Even if one ignores the reality that the historiography of slavery and the Civil War in the 1950s, at least in terms of popular understandings, was closer to the mythical and reconciliatory writings of Thomas Dixon, Jr. than to the later work of modern-era scholars such as Eric Foner, it nonetheless made little sense to dress the nascent Nevada Southern institution in the garb of the Confederacy except to—from an explicitly southern position on the map—stick a metaphorical finger in the eye of the Nevada’s northern concentration of political power.

Spencer backs this conclusion up by pointing out that UNLV is in fact a historically non-segregationist school that stood against the bigotry of the surrounding cities, and that the student paper—despite having a goddamn Confederate flag on the front page—published many pro-civil rights articles, including a 1962 article that shamed Ole Miss for refusing to integrate its student body. Spencer concludes:

All of this demonstrates that the immature and undeniably unfortunate Confederates symbolism at Nevada Southern was nonetheless confined to the idea of resisting the political power of northern Nevada, and had nothing to do with any sort of segregationist attitude regarding African Americans, a point that is woefully under-publicized.


College kids are so stupid!

All of the school’s Confederate imagery was done away with by the end of the 1960’s, and Hey Reb! was actually created as a corrective to the racist wolf mascot named Beauregard. Spencer dug up the original 1982 press release announcing Hey Reb!’s arrival:

UNLV’s long awaited mascot will make his debut this Thursday, Dec. 9 in the Las Vegas Convention Center at the UNLV-UNR basketball game. His name is “Hey, Reb,” or “Reb,” or “Mr. Reb,” if you prefer. He’s no slouch at 6-foot-6 inches of Rebel strength and vitality. He’s a mountain man with an oversize hat and rifle, dressed in a long coat with “Hey, Reb!” written on his back; pants with a tall pair of boots; a large belt buckle bearing the initials UNLV; and a large head with a huge handlebar moustache, hat and feather. “Hey Reb’s” outfit was made by costumier Gail Lehtinen of the UNLV theater arts department. “It is a character that well represents a rebel, a mountain man,” said Public Information Services Director Les Raschko. “We don’t think it will be offensive to any particular group. I think this will be well accepted in many, many ways. It has been hyped and timed, and everyone has been very thrilled by what they have seen,” Raschko said. “He has a collegiate atmosphere about him that fits in.” “The character’s trappings can easily be identified with the West. He is a rugged individual, the pathfinder of 100 years ago,” said Mike Miller of Kelly-Reber and Miller Advertising. Miller provided the costume design and all rights to its use for a total fee of $1. “UNLV has been a very good client, and I wanted to put something back into the university,” Miller said. A committee of student government, athletic department, student services and university public affairs representatives selected Miller’s design from a number of submissions. The committee chose “Hey, Reb” because it seemed to best represent the image of a Westerner, rather than a Confederate rebel.


So there you go. Hey Reb! isn’t racist. In fact, he was explicitly created to correct the university’s previously ill-advised dalliance with Confederate symbolism.