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Wednesday 23 January 2002

“Minorities” and Language

A recent article in The Boston Globe (which has, of course, since been removed because the Boston Globe website is like that) touches on a number of subjects I’ve been complaining about recently, so I’d like to dissect it here.

It’s headlined “For some, a word weighs heavily: ‘Minority’ label gets a second look”. It’s about an apparent injustice done to members of, well, minority demographic groups by calling them “minorities”. The article says that opponents of the ‘minority’ “say it’s demeaning because it has come to mean individuals who are lesser people.” However:

As Boston steps into the forefront of a growing debate over whether the word has the outdated ring of ”Negro,” ”Oriental,” ”Spanish,” and ”Eskimo,” there’s discord over which replacement term to use.

The Boston City Council, which voted unanimously last month to delete the term from official documents (Mayor Thomas M. Menino later vetoed the move) favors ”people of color.” But many argue that this leaves out light-skinned people.

In San Diego, the only US city that has banned the word ”minority” from official use, they use the terms ”people of color,” ”underserved,” and ”underrepresented.” The contract compliance office uses ”DBE,” the acronym for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise.

So, let me get this straight: it’s demeaning to refer to groups of people as “minorities” just because their numbers are such that they are a mathematical minority of the population as a whole. And in order not to be demeaned, these people need to be referred to as “disadvantaged” based solely on their skin color? Or to define them based on their skin color, as the term “people of color” does? I’d like to point out that the terms colored and nigger — totally socially unacceptable because they’re so demeaning — do precisely the same thing.

But wait, it’s not just skin color:

Pedro Pirez says that if you change the term from ”minority” to ”people of color,” he would be left out.

”I am a minority but I am not a person of color,” said Pirez, owner of Tara Construction, a company listed with the state as a minority-owned business. ”If I say that I am, I’d be lying. I have white skin and blue eyes.”

Pirez, 42, is a Cuban who came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift. He arrived with little and worked hard to build his business. […]

Pirez said he prefers the term ”minority” because it defines a people who are at the bottom of the political, social, and economic ladder.

Mr. Pirez’s company has, since he founded it in 1988, grown to the point where it’s currently working on a $15 million contract to build an apartment complex in Boston. (Information here. Warning: PDF!)

That’s right: someone who came to the United States as a refugee and can, in fourteen years build a business from nothing to single jobs worth $15 million is disadvantaged. He is, in his own words, “at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder.”

Social ladder? Here is an aerial photograph of the neighborhood in North Andover, MA, where Mr. Pirez seems to live.

Here is the PRIZM report for his zip code. It’s solidly middle-class; and judging from the distance between houses in the photograph, it appears that Mr. Pirez lives in the nicer part of his zip code.

Political ladder? He’s interviewed by the Boston Globe for his opinions on the activities of the Boston city council.

And economically? Well, see the PRIZM data linked above. While Mr. Pirez is obviously a good businessman and is re-investing a lot of his company’s profits in its continued growth, he does own a corporation with millions of dollars of annual revenue. I very seriously doubt that his children are wearing hand-me-downs.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Pirez; rather, I applaud him. He’s the living embodiment of the American Dream. And besides, there are other interesting things in that Globe article.

The Executive Director of the Boston Lawyers Group, an organization that helps recruit attorneys of color — a phrase they actually use — says that the term “people of color” actually doesn’t refer to skin color, but rather to underrepresented groups.

This is not a new idea. In the Old South, you didn’t have to have dark skin to be “colored”. Homer Plessy, the famous petitioner in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, was, to all appearances, white: only one of his great-grandparents had been black. This was enough, though, under Louisiana state law, to require him to sit in the coach reserved for such persons. I am certain that the architects of the Jim Crow south would be proud to find that people in the city of Boston are today engaged in a debate over how much of a certain type of blood makes a person colored.

And at Boston College — it really pains me to see Jesuits screwing around with all this — they avoid the whole sticky mess entirely by using the “ethnic-sounding” acronym AHANA, which stands for “African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American”.

”The word helps form a coalition of students of color,” said Donald Brown, director of the Office of AHANA Student Programs, which focuses on retention and graduation. ”I emphasize that it doesn’t take away from them. I tell them that the sum is greater than all their parts.”

But he seems not to notice that AHANA is just a euphemism, and that euphemisms always lose their ability to shield understanding from reality when the underlying circumstances don’t change.

Black people in America used to be commonly referred to as ‘niggers’, without any pejorative sense other than that which was then generally attached to black skin. ‘Nigger’ was seen as demeaning, so ‘colored’ or ‘negro’ began to be used by polite people. Over time, ‘colored’ was itself, well, colored by social prejudice, and ‘black’ replaced it. In the last ten years, ‘black’ has fallen somewhat out of favor, with ‘African-American’ replacing it. The fact that all these euphemisms — ‘colored’, ‘negro’, ‘black’ — have been used by leaders and organizations in the, er, black community should clearly show that when these terms were devised, there was no opprobrium attached to them. And yet all of them have eventually become, if not hateful terms, certainly ones that you won’t see too often in the New York Times. ‘People of color’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘AHANA’ and the rest are simply new euphemisms that have not yet had any (much?) cultural baggage attached to them. In the long run, they will fare no better than the old euphemisms did.

Some of these new euphemsms are actually much worse than the old ones. Our friend Mr. Pirez used to be ‘Hispanic’, or ‘an immigrant’. Now, though, he’s ‘disadvantaged’, which is far worse. ‘Hispanic’ describes his ethnicity (though not very well); ‘disadvantaged’ describes his condition, a circumstance that he’s in because of his ethnicity, and a circumstance that he can, therefore, never, ever hope to change.

As I said, the Jim Crow-ists must be smiling.

Posted by tino at 12:08 23.01.02
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On what planet is ‘disadvantaged’ a kinder description than ‘minority’? ‘disadvantaged’ sounds like a nice version of ‘retarded’.

Posted by: Nicole at January 23, 2002 02:23 PM

There we go — why not just call all non-whites “Special People” and be done with it? ;)

Posted by: Evelynne at January 23, 2002 09:23 PM

Don’t you get it it doesn’t matter what people think the work means they will be told what it now means…..and like it! :-)

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at January 23, 2002 09:51 PM

Don’t you get it it doesn’t matter what people think the work means they will be told what it now means…..and like it! :-)

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at January 23, 2002 09:51 PM