May 24, 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.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"The results were surprising. The center-right coalition, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, remained in power against the opposition Labor party, which had led in every poll for years."

"Anger seldom works against Trump; he owns the currency and can always issue more of it. In addressing the rogue President directly, or speaking about him in the third person, Pelosi usually adopts a tone that is more sorrowful than angry..."

"I am Mizrahi, as are the majority of Jews in Israel today. We are of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Only about 30% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, or the descendants of European Jews."

"Kids are exposed to plenty of controversial social issues on a daily basis. And if parents don’t want their kids to watch “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” they can turn off the TV."

"Are public-school teachers really underpaid? It’s a claim often made during teacher pay disputes, but the same data and statistical methods that produce the “teacher salary gap” lead to some ridiculous conclusions..."

"Tech companies are getting into the business of making cities. We need to stop Silicon Valley social engineering before things get even worse."

"Having a Library or Cafe Down the Block Could Change Your Life: Living close to public amenities—from parks to grocery stores—increases trust, decreases loneliness, and restores faith in local government."

"“What name . . . shall we give to the darkness of hell...?” The question of how we can name a place such as this is at the center of scholar Scott G. Bruce’s new anthology The Penguin Book of Hell."

"She had all six of her kids — ages 5, 4, 2 (twins) and 10 months (also twins!) in her 10-seater van. To get the kids a quick snack, Curry parked in front of the Cobbler’s Café."

"Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they grew up typically eating dinner at a kitchen table, but a little less than half said they do so now when eating at home."

"If you tied a rope tight around the Earth’s equator and then added a single yard of slack, would the extra material make any noticeable difference to someone standing on the ground?"

"While American Jewish women face attacks on our freedom and rising anti-Semitism, abortion opponents are appropriating Jewish history in order to push an agenda that hurts women."