Before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the phrase “people of color” was most frequently, if not exclusively, used as part of the phrase “free people of color,” denoting the non-enslaved Black residents of the United States. A free man or woman of color in Louisiana, say, or Massachusetts, was someone of African descent who had themselves been emancipated or whose parents or more remote family members had been emancipated. Until the late-twentieth century, the phrase “people of color” continued to be used as an alternative to “Negro” as a designation for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoSometime in the late 1980s the term’s coverage was extended to include members of all racial and ethnic groups not identified as “White.” Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1995 anthology of essays, Critical Race Theory, appears to mark a point of transition. Between 1987 and the publication of Critical Race Theory, the frequency with which “people of color” was used in this extended sense increased six-fold and what was once its proper use to denote descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States alone came to an end.

Today the range of “people of color” follows the usage of the U.S. Census Bureau: American Indians or Alaska Natives, Asian-Americans along with Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and, yes, Black or African American. An American Indian or Alaska Native is a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.”

An Asian-American is a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam,” and a Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander is a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.” Finally, “Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.” A person who is Black is one “having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.”

Whites, of course, are those “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” “Origin,” according to the Bureau of the Census, “can be view as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.”

This is all rather confusing and a bit desperate on the part of the Census Bureau, and ultimately, of the federal government and those it is supposed to represent. For example, if “origin” is country of birth, is a person whose parents are Han Chinese, but who was born in, say, Germany, German or Chinese? And what is the status of one of the Turkic peoples of Central (not Far East) Asia? Perhaps we can clarify matters by thinking through these issues historically. Except for the island peoples, who are not very numerous, the only exact definitions are those for the indigenous peoples—American Indians or Alaskan Natives—and Black or African Americans.

In other words, the victims of genocide on the one hand and slavery on the other.

The concept of “Asian-American” did not exist until quite recently, 1967 to be exact. Before then there were Chinese, whose presence stoked the fears of those who thought they would take away jobs and women from Native-born Americans, and was the target of the nation’s first immigration laws, as well as Filipinos, who went from being colonized by the Spain to being subjugated by the United States. There were also the Japanese, whose numbers were lowered thanks to the early 20th century Gentlemen’s Agreement; those who were already here were put into concentration camps and had their property expropriated during the Second World War. It was only in 1967 that a Yale undergraduate, Don Nakanishi, invented the umbrella term “Asian-American” for his student association, on the model of the Hispanic organizations that were particularly active at the time.

“Latino” or “Hispanic”, as a matter of fact, is a similar construct. The Harvard philosopher George Santayana (Jorge AgustĂ­n Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás), remembered for his saying, quite relevant here, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” would never have been referred to as Hispanic during his lifetime (1863-1952), despite his Spanish birth. A rather large group of residents of New Mexico and Colorado are difficult to fit into the Census category, despite language, lineage and heritage, as their ancestors did not “arrive in the United States”: it arrived on them, first after Americans seized control of Texas, then after Mexican-American War.

The use of the terms “Asian-American” and “Hispanic” by the Census and other governmental agencies, including the schools, is a political matter, as Don Nakanishi saw, creating a political space, as it were, between the more strictly defined categories, Black and White. An Asian-American group, almost by definition, will have a larger population than, say, a Chinese-American group, and therefore more political power. Similarly, a Hispanic group will at least in theory be more politically important that a Mexican or Puerto Rican group. And people of color, encompassing all those other than Whites, will have more political power than any of the component assemblages.

Is this not a good thing? Perhaps for everyone else, especially those who are White, “people of color” is a good thing. But for the descendants of enslaved Africans, forced to come to this country, that term does nothing for them at all.

In terms of, say, critical race theory, or, to take Santayana’s point, the century-old writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, there is a profound difference between the attitudes and actions of individually and institutionally racist Whites toward “people of color,” other than African Americans, and Blacks. When people of color who are not Black are treated less well than Whites it is because they are not White (or not White enough). When the descendants of enslaved Africans are treated less well than Whites it is because they are Black. American Whites who are prejudiced against people of color who are not Black are xenophobic, fearing and hating the outsider.

Our history shows us that the category of White is quite permeable. Jews, of course, have only recently become White in this sense—not counted as a special class by the Census, not restricted absolutely or by quota from colleges, professions, neighborhoods and clubs as they were half a century ago. They have become insiders. Italians were once barred from consideration as Whites in this country, as were the Irish before them. Hispanics from Europe, like Santayana, and certain South American countries, such as Chile, are seen as White, even by certain presidential candidates. The issue is class, to some extent, and Blackness, absolutely.

As for the descendants of enslaved Africans in America? They form what sociologists call a pariah class. Just like the Untouchables in India, Jews in Nazi Germany, the Roma throughout Europe, and the indigenous peoples in colonial Spanish America.

Using the term “people of color” seems a good liberal practice. However, in practice, in this country, it is, perversely enough, a barrier to the advancement of colored people, in Du Bois’ sense of the phrase. Incarceration rates for Black men are astronomical, but incarceration rates for Hispanics are mid-way between those and the incarceration rates for White men. Incarceration rates for people of color, then, are not as absurd as those for Black people, not as much of a problem. The outlier status of Black prisoners must be about them, not about the criminal justice system. Efforts to reduce the, shall we say?, criminal operations of the criminal justice system are diluted.

Only one percent of students in Stuyvesant High School in New York City are Black, but nearly 80 percent are people of color, therefore the selection process cannot be racist, can it? There must be a problem with the Black applicants, their families, their attitudes, their clothes and taste in music. Pressure on White authorities to improve conditions for people of color can be, are being, met by improving conditions for non-Black people of color. Why do you people obsess about the education achievement of Black children? Asian-American children are doing just fine, aren’t they?

Racism, to cite Du Bois again, is a White problem. It is the attitudes and actions of White people toward the descendants of enslaved Africans. Not all White people of course, just specific White people, those with the power to enforce or end the pariah status of Black people: the police chief who is “worried” about young Black men killing one another, but not about his cops doing the killing; the city official who “is not sure she believes” that schools can educate Black children raised in poverty; the real estate salesperson who knows that middle class Black families would be happier living in the Bed-Stuy than in Scarsdale.

To put it kindly, calling Blacks “people of color” allows for Whites to avoid responsibility for America’s legacy of white supremacy and their role in perpetuating it. For African Americans, even using the term is a self-defeating political and social strategy. The alliances it facilitates work very well for people who are considered to be neither Black nor White. For the descendants of enslaved Africans? Well, look around you.