A Tool for Promoting Social Progress
by Skywalker Payne
About 20 years ago, as an employee of the University of Texa in Austin, I first heard the oxymoronic expression minority-majority. Later, I met black and brown college students who said, "I am a minority." I recalled the words of Steven Biko on the psychological power of language to keep people oppressed and wrote an essay, "The Minority Myth." Yet, educated black and brown professionals continue to say, "I am a minority" as if ignoring the inherent meaning of "less" that is at the root of the word. The defense and abuse of the word minority is one example of the perpetuation of intellectual institutional racism in the USA. By examining the inherent problems with the use of minority alternatives arise, such as using precise and specific language in sociological research, instituting the use of the language of inclusion, and promoting positive descriptive language. Such alternative actions could contribute not only to significant language change but also to progressive social change.
". . .these labels, together with ideas, opinions, beliefs, emotions and their associated behavior constitute the sociological, psychological factor of racial matters." Jean Toomer
At the turn of the 20th century, Jean Toomer, author and philosopher, recognized that the easier course was to use labels rather than to discover the true nature of an individual. Ironically, in a country that stresses rugged individualism the tendency to classify people based on the age old prejudices of appearance, wealth, education, skin color, ethnicity, and of course language continues. This tendency is most negatively illustrated in the continued overuse of the word minority as a noun rather than as an adjective.
Problems arise with the use of a word which by definition means less than to label unique, individual human beings who come from many different backgrounds, encounter different problems, and often speak different languages. The pejorative nature of minority is increased with the use of double-speak, such as minority-majority. Placing minority before majority enables people to consider these populations as less than making their numerical majority insignificant because the minority-majority is still seen as less than the "majority" in education, economics, and political power. Thus, such language use maintains the status quo which is to keep power in the hands of the current power-holders.
Therefor, in response to the ludicrous suggestion to "let's remove the race category from the census," researchers of this 21st century multicultural nation should be as scientifically precise as they can by using specific ethnic, racial or national identifying language. "What minority?" is the question many ask. As racial and ethnic intermarriages continue to increase, the question of racial identification alone becomes more complex. Is a person with one white parent and one black parent a member of the white majority or the black minority?
A prime example of the social and psychological confusion misuse of minority causes is the alarming growth of disproportionate minority confinement. What goes on in the minds of black youth who have been called minority (and other dehumanizing terms) to enter an institution where they find themselves in the majority population? More journalists might want to explore the problem of "the disproportionate confinement of black, brown, and poor people" and thus educate the general public of this quickly growing inequity and injustice in this century. Therefor, any system that attempts to classify people who are different as a minority based on a norm that is in flux can only be flawed.
Unfortunately, journalists are among the most flagrant abusers of this word. The most absurd justification for this abuse of language was given by a U.S.News and World Report director of data research in 2003 defending that publication's refusal to call whites at historically black campuses a minority when they were numerically in the minority. The researcher explained, "It's done from the context of what society, broadly speaking, generally considers a minority, and what higher education calls a minority." In other words he was saying, "From the context of the white men who are writing, researching, and publishing this ranking of Campus Diversity no way exists, in our minds, for the white man to be a minority."
The Changing Paradigm
The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 designated four specific minority groups - Black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian. Some scholars say the word minority began to become a pejorative term in the late 1960's, during the rise of black power when people recognized the implied power relationships between a major group and a minor/lesser group. Other scholars agree that language use in the USA is now experiencing a major shift, particularly in terms of identifying and naming diverse populations. In 1999, the Encarta World English Dictionary included in its definition of minority, "Offensive term for minority member, now avoided by careful speakers because it can cause offense." In the late 1990's the federal government directed agencies to drop the word minority. The Census Bureau doesn't use the term minority because as one demographer pointed out, "just who are you really talking about?"
In 1988 the San Diego Unified School District officially stopped the usage of both minority and majority. In July 2001 the San Diego City Council banned use of the word minority from municipal documents and discussions. George Stevens, the city's deputy mayor, introduced the legislation because, "Minority means less than and language has strength." When talking with youth throughout the city he found minority was seen as a negative term by black and Latino youth. The same youth said teachers expected less of them and didn't push them to succeed as much as white students. Stevens asked, "When you're called a minority, why should you be expected to achieve like a majority?"
In 2003, Boston City Council President Charles C. Yancey, felt that minority ". . .is anachronistic and demeaning." The City Council unanimously supported his proposal to ban the word minority from official city documents. But, their vote was vetoed by the white mayor.
In the summer of 2003 the census released figures that revealed the white population of the state of California was only 47%, less than one-half of the total population! The response of the press was to fall back into the comfort of the impossible descriptive of a "minority-majority state." Most census and population forecasters predict that eventually, white people will become a numerical minority in the USA. Therefor, the values and cultural expression of this country will change over time from one dominated by the western white male paradigm, to that of a multicultural, multi-gender paradigm if it is to continue to evolve as a living representative democratic culture.
"There are no accidents in language. Language is the growing, changing, evolving process of our conscious development. . ." Victor Villasenor
Well meaning people of all races are the first to say, "But we need the term in order to document social inequities." However, if scientific studies of society are to be done, they should be conducted with as much rigor and preciseness as any other science. In states where people of color are significant numerical minorities and poor whites are even more invisibly marginalized the catch all term minority can produce a skewed statistical picture of the problems of the diverse realities lived. On the other hand, the black medical doctor with a private practice in a white suburb is a member of the numerical black minority in the community but he is also part of the upper economic majority class setting social policy. Racial, sexual, ethnic, economic, and health data are essential to learning how people live in terms of scientific studies and social programs. Specificity is the key to combating diverse social problems which have been lumped together under an amorphous minority.