The case against the use of the term “people of color”

I remember the first time I was referred to as a “person of color.” It was in college, many years ago: I was participating in one of those god-awful “meet and greet” activities; those where the chairs are set-up in an awkward semi-circle and everyone is juggling in them as they struggle to eat food from their tiny plates. A mandatory meeting convened by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. As president of the “Mexican student group,” I was required to attend.

The mission of the organization, the moderator told us, was to provide a common space for groups representing ethnic minorities, to promote inclusiveness, and to encourage campus minorities to share common frustrations: “a safe space for people of color to voice and express their concerns.”

I remember sitting upright upon hearing the expression­­. As far as I was concerned, no one in Mexico would refer to him or herself as a “person of color.”  Must have been a slip-up, I thought, and glanced around to see if any of my fellow students, members of the Asian Student Union, The African and Caribbean Students Association, the Muslim Student Association, the Native American Student Association, among others, had noticed it.

It was not. I soon came to realize that people all across the US subscribe to the phrase as a politically correct alternative to talking about ethnic minorities.

In fact, it is often voices fighting for racial equality who push for the use of the expression more aggressively, since they perceive the noun-adjective form of “people of color” to be more empowering to ethnic minorities than the adjective-noun form “colored people”: with “people of color”, minorities can embrace their ethnic diversity, while not feeling like they are narrowly defined by the color of their skin.

Moreover, the expression is frequently used as an “umbrella term” to create a sense of community among traditionally disenfranchised ethnic groups. For instance: every year, the typically progressive UC Berkeley campus holds a “Students of Color conference,” with the aim of providing “a safe space for students of colors and their allies to strategize around statewide and campus-based actions.” Similarly, after becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama in 2015, Viola Davis used her acceptance speech to draw attention to the lack of opportunity among “women of color”:

“…let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are not simply there…” 

Yet, the term is problematic for a number of reasons: to start with, it ignores that race definitions, are, to a great degree, a social construct. Definitions of what constitutes “white” and “non-white” have shifted in the US across decades, usually responding to changing perceptions in what is considered “native vs. foreign.”

Take the experience of the Jews in the US. In his book The Price of Whiteness, historian Eric Goldstein documents the uneasy relationship between Jewish immigrants and their relationship to “whiteness” in the pre World War II era, showing how Jews were a social and racial puzzle to white Americans, and didn’t really fit into conceptions of “whiteness” until the 1960s. Goldstein argues:

“Jews’ transition from “racial” minority to part of the white mainstream was slow and freighted with difficulty, not only because native-born whites had a particularly difficult time seeing Jews as part of a unified, homogenous white population, but also because whiteness sat uneasily with many central aspects of Jewish identity.”

Many other European immigrants suffered similar fates. The Irish, being some of the palest people out there, were, a century ago, referred by some as “Negroes turned inside out.” In 1911, Italians were described by John Parker, governor of Louisiana, as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

The problem, then, with the term “people of color” is that it assumes that notions of “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” are fixed, forcing us to conceive racial divisions along the same dichotomous lines– white vs. non-white – which were used by xenophobes to push for racially-drawn social cleavages in the first place. It inadvertently propagates the same binary definitions of race which were used to “otherise” the Irish, the Jews, the Hispanics, and many other ethnic groups since then.

It is thus refreshing to read Ta-Nahasi Coates, perhaps the most renowned living intellectual on Black progressive thought, argue for the need to re-think of race in a more fluid way,  in a way that is sensitive to how racial categories respond to the ever-shifting social context:

“Our notion of what constitutes “white” and what constitutes “black” is a product of social context. It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a “Southern race” and not see the Civil War, the creation of an “Irish race” and not think of Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing, the creation of a “Jewish race” and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of “whiteness” or “blackness,” not even today.”

Furthermore, like trying to shove a wedged drawer shut, the term “people of color” tries to force itself onto a plethora of diverse ethnic groups, often unsuccessfully.  The ambiguity of the term explains great part of what was frustrating about by participation in the meeting convened by The Office of Multicultural Affairs– the presumption that Asian Americans and Mexicans can be lumped together, joined by a vague notion of “non-whiteness.”

As a Mexican Jew, my mixed heritage plays havoc with the term; Jews are now considered “white” in the US, but “Mexicans” are usually considered “people of color.” So where does that leave me? What about other people of mixed races? Where do they fall in the narrow “white” vs. “people of color” purview?

Racism and discrimination is in many ways ingrained in the social structure of the US, and continues to permeate many aspects of society.  And the use of any racial category runs the risk of erring through simplification. But lumping ethnic minorities together under blanket terms such as “people of color”, and thereby inadvertently cementing dangerous binary divisions of race, is not a step forward in the fight for racial equality. On the contrary, it holds back what could be a more honest conversation on race.



Gentrification in Chicago- A Look at the Last Two Decades

The Polonia Food & Liquors Shop – a “mom and pop” convenience store– stands alone in the corner of Damen and Armitage, in the buzzing neighborhood of Bucktown in Chicago, surrounded by a crowd of boutique shops, bars, restaurants and hair salons that charge 50 dollars for a men’s hair cut.

“My family has owned this place since the 1950’s,” Moe, the storekeeper, told me once as he rung a bag of chips, “but twenty years ago, there was nothing here, this used to be a neighborhood of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans… I remember my mom used to tell me: don’t go outside, it’s dangerous! Now, take a look outdoors, things have changed.”

As a graduate student living in Bucktown, I used to visit the Polonia Food Shop on a regular basis to buy groceries. With it’s dirty white, worn-out, external décor, the store stood as a relic of a different era. It stood as a lone survivor of a past time, valiantly anchoring itself to the corner of the street as the fast-moving currents of gentrification rapidly replaced the surrounding businesses with new ones.

My time living in the northwest , walking the streets, talking to people, got me interested in the issue of gentrification in Chicago. I decided to study the subject with a little more rigor, looking at the issue using maps and statistical software.

The project eventually evolved to become the topic of the honors paper I wrote for my graduate degree. This is the first, of many, posts outlining some of my findings.

I wanted to get a sense of which neighborhoods gentrified in Chicago between 1990 and 2007, and what factors mattered in predicting whether a poor neighborhood would change.

I used census data between 1990 and 2007, and used the tract as my unit of analysis.

I considered a tract gentrified if it was poor in 1990 (I defined poor as being below the city average household income in 1990) and grew faster than the income of the city between 1990 and 2007.

This, and any, definition of gentrification should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no agreement among urban experts on what gentrification even means (and I can already picture my sociology and humanities professors banging their head against the table at my reductivisms).

But this definition is useful because it allows us to see some interesting patterns of neighborhood change at the city level.  The map below shows the patterns of gentrification in Chicago over the last two decades:


Gentrification in the City

The first pattern that immediately pops up  is the fast gentrification of tracts around the Central Business District. The map clearly shows a pattern of greater gentrification among  tracts closest to downtown. A bi-variate regression done on the data shows that, among gentrified tracts, being one mile closer to downtown is statistically associated with a 5 % increase in census tract average household income between 1990 and 2007. When other demographic, housing and location variables are controlled for, the size of the relationship is smaller, but still significant.

This finding is interesting but not entirely unexpected, as there has been substantial evidence that has shown that neighborhoods closer to downtown gentrify faster. This is usually because the downtown areas of cities have higher clusters of entertainment amenities and businesses , and gentrifiers, usually in the young, college-educated, medium-income demographic, move into these neighborhoods looking for affordable housing and easy access to the jobs/ entertainment opportunities downtown.

Another interesting, but again, not entirely unexpected, finding is how much the northwest of Chicago gentrified, and how fast it did.

We see a greater clustering of gentrified tracts within the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown than we do in the other neighborhoods in Chicago.The figure below shows a map of gentrification in the northwest region of Chicago during this time period, we see that a 77% of the area lying within these two community areas (50 out of the 65 census tracts) gentrified.


Census Tracts Gentrified

Not only are the gentrified tracts in northwest Chicago more clustered together, but the data also suggests that these tracts gentrified faster than did the ones in the other areas of the city.

Average household income, for instance, grew 10 % more in the gentrified tracts of Logan Square and West Town than it did in the rest of the gentrified tracts of the city. The number of houses built, usually a strong sign of gentrification, grew 15 % more in the neighborhoods of northwest Chicago than it did in the gentrified tracts of the city as a whole, and the average median value of the owner occupied housing units grew 26 % more in the census tracts in northwest Chicago than it did in the city as a whole.

Given the abundance of hipsters, bohemians and “bohemian bourgeoisie”  in northwest Chicago today, one could take this preliminary findings to lend support to accounts that place artists as the catalyzers and drivers of gentrification,  a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “The Soho Effect.”

Urban sociologists Richard Lloyd’s book on Wicker Park, “Neo-bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City,” offers a good account of the rise of the bohemian subculture in the neighborhood of Wicker Park during in the 1990s, due, in great part, to what he sees as the influx of artists and creative capital into the region:

“…in Wicker Park the postwar decades has given way to a new style of redevelopment, combining its celebrated arts community with residential gentrification by white-collar professionals, the injection of new media and design enterprises, and thriving entertainment economy”.

Some of the data I gathered suggests that there might be some truth to this story.

The young, college educated, 18-34, never married share of the population grew at a faster rate in the community areas of West Town and Logan Square than it did in the rest of the gentrified tracts of the city: the percent of the population with a college degree grew 7% more in northwest Chicago than it did in the tracts that gentrified in the city, and the share of the population who are 18-34 grew 5 % more in northwest Chicago than it did in the rest of the city.

But this evidence is not sufficient to rally behind the story of artists as drivers of urban revitalization: first, because this is only descriptive data, and thus does not suggest anything about the possible causal mechanisms behind the process of the revitalization of neighborhoods, and second, because stories of gentrification are usually a “chicken and the egg story,” and so it is hard (at least using only descriptive data) to coin down what came first in the story: did gentrifiers move into poor neighborhoods because they were cheap? because they were close to downtown? because there were minorities there? or because there were other artists living there?

Overall, the literature on gentrification agrees that there are three factors: location– proximity to downtown, to public transportation lines,  housing– cheap and affordable housing, vacant housing space, and demographics–  endowment of young people, percent of minorities, that matter most in explaining why low-income neighborhoods gentrify.

So my next step was to try to tease out which neighborhood characteristics, in the form of location, housing and demographics in 1990 and 2000, most explain the gentrification of tracts between 1990 and 2007

This is the subject of my next post





A Note on Israel and Gaza

Over the last days, and I know I’m not alone here, I’ve seen my Facebook page contaminated with images, links, videos and posts on Israel and Gaza. Slacktivists (myself included) have taken to the issue with a sense of moral superiority, so that every time we share an article and click “Post” on Facebook, we sit upright and picture ourselves in a courtroom, banging on the table with the hammer of justice.

And although I have shared a few articles on the matter, I have been hesitant of engaging in the self-promoting, time-consuming, endeavor of using Facebook as my own ideological battlefield. But I do have strong reactions to some of what I have read on Facebook, and I would like to share them.

Many of my friends who sympathize with Israel have taken on to Israel’s defense using some of the conventional (and, I might add, completely overused) arguments: “Israel has a right to defend itself”, “no country would stand idly by and allow missiles to be dropped into their territory without reacting.”

Ignored by much of this pro-Israel defense is the asymmetric power relationship shaping the conflict; given the current context, it is mistaken and naive to try and sell Israel as the victim. Israel is — there is no sugarcoating it — a colonizer in the West Bank. It controls the resources that go in and out of the West Bank, it governs the border with militant power, and keeps almost two million people in an undocumented, inhuman condition, enclosed within an archaic cement wall. The current status-quo in the West Bank negates any attempt by Israel to call itself a democracy (at least a democracy outside of the green line).

Given the evacuation of all Israeli settlers from the territory in 2005, it is harder to label Gaza a colony of Israel. But this is just a matter of semantics, however you decide to define Israel’s relationship to Gaza, Palestinians in this small strip of land are subject to some of the same (and probably worse) human rights violations facing Palestinians in the West Bank.

So any effort to justify the current (or any) Israeli defense must commence by recognizing that the war against Palestinian terrorist organizations in Gaza is not being fought on a leveled battlefield. It is a war between the government of a robust state with a sophisticated military, and the “militants in control”(calling Hamas the government of Gaza would be overstating the institutional capacity of Palestinian society) of an undefined, feeble, overpopulated piece of land that is being squeezed into desperation.

On the other hand, often ignored ,either purposefully or accidentally, by many of my anti-Israel friends is that Hamas is a terrorist, racist organization that has governed Gaza ruthlessly, has coerced its own population, and, although not entirely threatening in its current form, has the potential to serve a serious threat to the Jews in Israel. Again, this is not to negate that, in the current context, the balance of power strongly tilts in Israel’s favor, and it is also not meant to justify, in any way, the excessive use of force being used by Israel to fight Hamas in Gaza. The rising civilian deaths in Gaza are alarming and heartbreaking, and I condemn Israeli attacks.

But it would be false to label Hamas as a benign organization in any way, and certainly not in its attitude towards Israel and to the Palestinian citizens. And it would also be false to claim that Jews in Israel have nothing or little to fear from some of their neighboring countries, or that they have not, over the years, been themselves victims of violence, hostility and hatred in the region.

Of concern are also the significant contextual nuances that are lost when my fellow activist friends compare what is going on in Israel to the South African Apartheid or to the Holocaust. These are sensationalist comparisons, meant to provoke rather than inform, and that cloud the important circumstantial differences that distinguish this conflict from all others. In my opinion, these comparisons are a disservice to everyone’s understanding of the matter.

Perhaps the most alarming reactions I have seen on Facebook are those that use the current conflict to channel their racist, bigoted feelings, those that use the current situation as an excuse to promote idiotic anti-Semitic rants, or make moronic anti-Arab or Muslim accusations. And so let me remind these people that the actions of the Israeli government do not necessarily echo the feelings or thoughts of all of Israeli citizens, one need only to read the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, or the words of literary Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Grossman to know this is the case.

More importantly, the Israeli government does not speak as the voice of the international Jewry. Likewise, the views of certain extremist sectors of Palestinian society are not representative of the views of all Palestinians, and are not necessarily representative of the views of the international Arab or Muslim population.

This latter point seems obvious, and it should be, but every day I’m angered by some of the hate-infested generalizations I read on Facebook.

So please, fellow Facebook slacktivist friends, let us stop portraying the issue as a fight between monolithic actors, or simplifying it to a battle being fought by a few pieces on a chessboard.

We can use Facebook as our own personal courtroom, to battle the injustices we perceive are being committed around the world.

But let’s be careful about what we say, and how we say it.

Jonathan Grabinsky


Twitter: jgrabinsky