March 23, 2019

Why We Say "People of Color"

“Last week, former Starbucks CEO and 2020 presidential hopeful Howard Schultz drew outrage—not over policy positions or campaign slogans or even his company’s chronically burnt French roast, but word choice. In a clip from a January CNBC Q&A that surfaced on Twitter, Schultz was asked whether he thought that billionaires had too much influence on American public life. He responded, “The moniker billionaire now has become the catchphrase. I would rephrase that, and I would say that people of means have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair, and I think that … directly speaks to the special interests that are paid for by people of wealth and corporations who are looking for influence.”

To me, this quote and Schultz’s larger statement show him relatively clearly, if weakly, responding that rich people do have too much influence and that fixating only on billionaires would be too narrow of a focus. But that was not the consensus of the progressive internet. Instead, many came away with the impression that Schultz thinks that billionaire is a pejorative, and that we should all be nicer to folks like him by using the softer people of means.

Regardless of what Schultz really meant, it’s worth considering why we are so ready to hear people of means as a slimy obfuscation rather than as a neutral rephrasing or expansion of the category of person in question. Because that readiness speaks to a larger linguistic problem that has implications far beyond the primaries.

The “people of/with x” formulation—wherein people who have some quality, like size or disability, are condensed into a solid noun—has become increasingly common (particularly on the left) since the 1990s. The sentiment behind that semantic shift is the same one that underlies the move from terms like “victims of HIV” and “homeless” to ones like “people living with HIV” and “living unhoused,” respectively. Or the move from “disabled people” or “handicapped people” to “people with disabilities.” It is a euphemistic linguistic model that intends to center humanity separate from situation or identity, and it is a model that creates new terms that are supposed to, as John McWhorter wrote for Slate in 2016, “rise above pejorative connotations that society has linked to the thing in question.” Its biggest success story might be the phrase people of color.”

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