Thomas B. Edsall, writing in the New York Times (“The Persistence of Racial Resentment,” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/?p=139836&preview=true) relates that the GOP has won the “white” vote in every election except one going back to 1952 (the exception was LBJ in 1964). Edsall puts another spin on the current wisdom that the GOP needs more “ethnic” votes. He says that Romney lost, not because he lacked non-“white” votes, but because he only had 59% of the “white” vote, not the 62% he needed.
My focus here, though, is not on prescriptions for saving the GOP by getting more “whites” or “ethnics” into it, but on the nature of terms like “white,” “black” and “Hispanic,” and how they confuse our public dialogue. Let me start by explaining why I put such terms in quotes.
I first doubted my own officially designated ethnic status while filling out forms for the Los Angeles Unified Schools district during the course of my 25 years with them as a classroom teacher. The choices offered were “Hispanic,” “Black, “ “Asian-Pacific Islander,” “Native American,” and “Anglo.” “Anglo” was the only term that could remotely describe me, and it’s pretty remote.
You really could not pick a less descriptive term for me than “Anglo.” It’s short for “Anglo-Saxon,” a reference to the Germanic tribes that settled Britain after the Roman exodus. But in order for the term “Anglo” or “Anglo-Saxon” to make any historical sense, it should be “Anglo-Saxon-Norman,” to take into account the Norman invasion that created the modern English people and its language.
The problem for me is that, while everyone agrees that I’m “white,” I have no common ancestry with Angles, Saxons or Normans. Depending on what history you accept, I am either descended from an ancient Semitic tribe, or from a Turkish group called the Khazars, a nomadic and warlike nation that dominated the Russian plains until about 800AD, when it was defeated (along with the Slavs) by the Vikings who created modern Russia. To adapt to their new urban status, the theory goes, the Khazars converted en masse to Judaism, creating today’s Ashkenazi Jews.
Thus the term “white,” for me, has an ambiguous ethnic meaning, denoting some connection between Turkic and/or Semitic tribes and a number of Germanic tribes who have been separated from each other- if ever they were together- by thousands of years of culture and thousands of miles of geography.
We have other terms for “white,” like “Caucasian,” which derives from the late 18th century ideas of German academic Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who believed the "white" races originated in the general area of the Caucasus. That idea was soon debunked, but the term gained new life from another German, the philosopher Christoph Meiners, who, in 1785, coined the phrase “Caucasian race.” In Meiners’ classification, there were only two racial divisions: Caucasians and Mongolians. The Caucasians were, per Meiners, more attractive, having the “whitest, most blooming and most delicate skin,” while the Mongolians, which then included Jews, were not attractive. Clearly I have little incentive to use a word like “Caucasian.”
Finally, there is the matter of the color white. I used to superimpose my forearm on a piece of white paper to show my inner-city students that I am not white. With my skin tone contrasted with actual white, it was clear that if I my skin were a crayon color, it would be tan. There are similar problems with the terms used to denote non-whites. Most “blacks,” having some white admixture, are not black colored. African blacks sometimes approach blackness, but clearly the approximate coloration is not reliable.
The term “Afro-American” has some legitimacy, but it begs the question of everyone else: all Americans are hyphenated from somewhere. I, for instance, might be a Ukrainian-Jewish-American. “Afro-American,” in this light, seems overly precise and cumbersome. It’s usage, furthermore, is unreliable. President Obama, for instance, is considered “black” or “Afro-American,” but, as he is 50% “white," he could as easily be considered “white.“ It’s arbitrary.
L.A. Unified forms also provide employees the option to be “Hispanic,” which, for reasons that escape me, is thought to be more descriptive than “Latino,” or is it the other way around? Sorry, I don’t mean to be flippant, but I really can’t remember what the difference is supposed to be, and neither term makes much sense anyway. “Latino” references the Latin peoples who inhabit southern Europe in the areas once near and dominated by the Roman Empire. This includes Italian and French speakers. It also includes, in a sense, the Norman invaders of England, Vikings who had adopted French as their language, thus bringing Latin into the English language. A more confusing term for Mexican or South or Central American than “Latino” you could not find.
“Hispanic,” a reference to the Spanish colonizers, is equally meaningless, as it does not take into account the Indian admixture. This omission creates a stark and confusing contrast with “Native Americans,” many of whom have Hispanic ancestry.
Equally nonsensical is the term “minorities” to denote “black” or “Hispanic” people. The terms “majority” and “minority” are relative and rapidly becoming meaningless. I’m Jewish, which places me in one of the tiniest minorities around, but I’m white, which makes me a “majority.” "Hispanics" are about to be a literal majority. We’ll see if that’s enough to change the usage.
More egregious still are terms like “ethnic” and “people of color” to denote "blacks" and "Hispanics." “Ethnic,” of course, is a “real word,” meaning, “of or relating to a population sub-group, within a larger or dominant national or cultural group” (Miriam-Webster). Now that’s what I call a definition, and it clearly has nothing to do with being specifically black or Hispanic.
I have a special problem with “people of color.” As noted above, I am tan, which is of course a color. In fact, white is a color. “People of color” is an insulting phrase, implying a missing element in “whites,” and as such it is racist.
Ok, so none of the existing terms is valid. Does that mean there’s no such thing as race, or ethnicity? Clearly it does not mean that. I am from a distinct cultural group, with identifying characteristics, many of them racial, and so is everyone else.
Since we are different in racial ways, we do need rational terms for the differences, though I don’t know what they would be, or how we would agree on them. There is so much “agenda” in racial terminology that it’s almost impossible to agree on anything. For instance, a common paradigm for “blacks” and “Hispanics” is the idea that “whites” do not know hardship, that only “blacks” and “Hispanics” have been kicked around and abused. As a “white,” I am supposed to live a charmed and carefree life, but as it happens, both sides of my family fled Eastern Europe and Russia, barely escaping with their lives (my father’s grandfather was cut down in front of his family by Cossacks). They arrived in the United States speaking no English and having no money, and my family is still recovering. I believe it’s bad taste to dwell on your hardships, but I feel compelled to do so after 25 years of L.A. Unified’s mantra that my ancestors, my family and future generations of my family, because they are "white," are lucky and advantaged in some absolute sense. That is a racist and counterproductive concept.
While I’m not holding my breath for new and rational ethnic terms, I do think we should start viewing our leaders in non-racial ways. In Los Angeles we made much of our first Hispanic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa (now termed out). He’s done some things well and other things not so well, but what does his evaluation have to do with his ethnicity? I say, who cares about it? And who cares if his successor is the first black, female, Jewish mayor (a possibility)? What kind of nonsense is this?
Our unbalanced focus on a leader’s ethnicity has gone to loony extremes with President Obama, who generated wild excitement in 2008 for being the first “black” president. If ever there was an ill-advised approach to assessing a president, ethnicity is it. I oppose Obama’s education policies, which are mostly pork and badly thought out, while I support his efforts on gun control. What do those issues have to do with Obama’s being “white” or “black”?
I’ll close with the thoughts of UCLA anthropologist and popular writer Jared Diamond, who posits that races came about as sexual selection groups. People bred with others who had the same secondary sexual characteristics (hair, eye and skin color, etc.) as a way to create distinct human cultures, with distinct skills and approaches to life. If that’s the case, what are we supposed to do now in America? The liberal commitment to forcing sexually active teenagers from divergent ethnic groups into the same high schools, as an end in itself, is clearly lacking in terms of Diamond’s formulation. At my high school, integrated in the '60's and '70's through mandatory busing, the lunch area was as segregated as Selma, Alabama in the ‘50’s, and it remains that way. To make any policy sense, given Diamond’s origin of race, integration should lead to interbreeding- the creation of new races. Try tacking that on to the Democratic platform!
Race is the unthinkable, the explosive topic. We have studiously avoided it, but we’d better figure it out pretty soon if we want a viable society in the coming age, or, come to think of it, if we want a credible two-party system in 2016.