American society, which is racist in the sense that it is intensely concerned with race, lacks the terminology for rational discussion of race.
Take politics, where race is a continual text and sub-text. 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). He says that Mitt Romney lost the GOP ticket in 2012, not because he lacked non-“white” votes, but because he only had 59% of the “white” vote, not the 62% he needed. Were this translated into campaign advice for Romney, it would be that he should have done more to get the "white" vote. But how would he have done that? And what does "white vote" even mean?
My focus here is not on prescriptions for saving the GOP by getting more “whites” or “ethnics” into it, but on the nature of terms like “white,” "ethnic," “black,” “Hispanic” and "minority" - how they confuse our public discourse. 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 as I began my 25 years 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, but it’s pretty remote.
You really could not pick a less descriptive term for me than “Anglo," short for “Anglo-Saxon,” a reference to the Germanic tribes that settled in 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 (i.e. French speaking Viking} 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 which history you accept, as an Ashkenazi Jew I am either descended from an ancient Semitic tribe or from a Turkic 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 (contrasted with Sephardic Jews, a more provably Semitic people many of whom migrated through North Africa and Spain- and who are no more related to "Anglos" than the Ashkenazi).
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, although these groups 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. school district 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 people speaking Latin based languages who inhabit southern Europe in the areas once near and dominated by the Roman Empire. This includes Italian, French and Spanish speakers. It also includes, in a sense, the Norman invaders of England, Vikings, as noted, 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 in the U.S.. 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 racial 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 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, we could start by 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)?
Our unbalanced focus on our leaders' 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. What actual achievements for blacks, or any other groups identified by race, have accrued under Obama? Safe to say, nothing out of the ordinary has been accomplished. It's the same story with most of the first whatever's elected to office.
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, skin color, etc.) creating distinct human cultures, with distinct skills and approaches to life, indicating that development of races has been a survival mechanism as humans traveled over divergent terrains. 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'70's through mandatory busing, the lunch area is nearly as segregated today as it would have been in Selma, Alabama in the '50's. To make social sense- assuming the correctness of Diamond’s thesis- integration should lead to interbreeding and the creation of new races. Try tacking that on to the Democratic platform!
The proximity of divergent races in America, and the search for political and social balance between them, creates a daunting challenge, for "whites" and everybody else. A good way to approach this challenge would be to improve the language we use to describe it.