July 20, 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 likely successor to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Boris Johnson, has plans to subsume the government department overseeing development aid into the foreign office, effectively eliminating it. That will destroy a post-Brexit United..."

"Gerard Baker, editor-at-large at the Wall Street Journal (no reflexively anti-Trump publication) recently wrote a piece decrying Donald Trump and his foreign policy as a fount of erratic unpredictability. This essay will give the counter view...."

"On Wednesday, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar announced that she will be visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming weeks. Omar will be accompanied by Rep. Rashida Tlaib. The two freshman congresswomen have become a focal point of..."

"Netflix may have lost US subscribers for the first time since it began making its own shows, but that didn't stop the streaming giant from dropping new figures about how many people are sucked into its Adam Sandler vortex. (Spoiler: More than..."

"A few years ago, Amy Balliett, CEO of a Seattle-based design and marketing firm, noticed that as the work week slogged on, her employees’ energy and productivity wilted. “That would slump to such an extent that the same task on Monday would..."

"Over the last few days the #faceappchallenge has taken over social media. This “challenge” involves downloading a selfie-editing tool called FaceApp and using one of its filters to digitally age your face. You then post the photo of your wizened..."

"Although there are plenty of irrational aspects to life in modern America, few rival the odd fixation on lawns. Fertilizing, mowing, watering — these are all-American activities that, on their face, seem reasonable enough. But to spend hundreds..."

"Can a book change the way we think? I don’t mean that in the sense of a reader’s opinion or ideology shifting—of course the right literary work can do that. But can a book rewire the brain itself, literally changing the way one particular mind..."

"It’s our job to let kids know we see and hear them, but we’re not necessarily going to solve siblings’ conflicts for them (or else they never get the practice). When squabbles start, imagine you’re a sportscaster and describe what you see in..."

"Magali Trejo-Martinez, a 22-year-old living in Salem, Oregon, recently went on a date that was rather uninspiring. “I had dinner, had a couple margaritas, and then went home,” is how she recapped the evening. This outcome wasn’t entirely..."

"The first lunar landing was many things — a D-Day-like feat of planning and logistics, a testament to the power of man's will, an ostensible propaganda coup for NATO. It was also, I think, one of the most misunderstood events in the history of..."

"THE FIRST TIME Bernie Sanders ran for president, he didn’t talk much about being Jewish. In fact, he didn’t talk much about himself at all. His 2016 primary campaign, like his whole political career, was relentlessly focused on one topic: income..."