More than black and white

Clunky neologisms such as BAME obscure real ethnic differences—making it harder to address structural disadvantage and prejudice

David Swift

In the recent outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, many white celebrities have attempted to hitch their careers to its wagon, only to fall and be mangled under the wheels. One of the most recent was the comedian and television host Ellen DeGeneres—already on the naughty step because of her friendship with George W. Bush—who got into hot water after tweeting that “people of colour in this country have faced injustice for far too long. For things to change, things must change.”

DeGeneres’ mistake was her use of the term “people of colour”, and it was soon made clear to her that—in this instance at least—the term was not appropriate: “Seriously? Not people of colour. George Floyd was black” was a typical response. DeGeneres quickly deleted her original tweet and sent a new message specifically referring to black people.

She is not the first well-meaning white person to get in trouble with this term, although their grief usually arises from its similarity to the pejorative “coloured people”—a slip made in recent years by the likes of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch and the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

Yet this episode demonstrated the bigger problem with the term “people of colour”. The phrase—and its British equivalent, the even clunkier “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”—obscures the real and important differences between and within different ethnic minority groups. This not only makes addressing prejudice and structural disadvantages even more difficult, but it reinforces the idea of a “white”/“people of colour” binary—exacerbating the idea of white as default, and othering black and brown people.

In the United States, the phrase “people of colour” is used as a catch-all term to describe African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and all non-white people. Yet the broadness of this term undermines a focus on structural racism and systemic disadvantage, by grouping together people with vastly different levels of wealth, income and education, who face completely different types of pervasive prejudice and discrimination.

The US was founded on the enslavement of African Americans—the denial of their humanity was literally written into the constitution with the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise (which counted three out of every five slaves as people, giving slave states political representation out of proportion to the number of their inhabitants who could actually vote). After eventually abolishing slavery, the US failed to reconstruct an economy, society, culture and political system all predicated on racist assumptions about black African people. It is therefore inaccurate and offensive to elide the discrimination and prejudice faced by other ethnic groups with that suffered by African Americans. There are plenty of examples of historic racism against Asian Americans, from the exploitation of Chinese labourers building the transcontinental railroad, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Yet racism against Asian people has never functioned as an integral part of the US political and economic system. (Bizarrely, the Ku Klux Klan even called for increased Chinese immigration in the decades after the Civil War in order to undermine black labour demands.)

Today, Asian Americans are the best-educated, wealthiest, and the highest-earning ethnic group in the US. As an important caveat, Asian Americans also have the greatest economic disparity amongst any ethnic group. In 2015, the share of adults aged 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree ranged from 9 per cent among Bhutanese to 72 per cent among Indians; median household income varied from $36,000 among Burmese to $100,000 among Indians; and poverty rates were as high as 35 per cent among Burmese and 33 per cent among Bhutanese.

Nonetheless, Asians at the top of their income distribution earned more than others at the top of their distributions, earning 13 per cent more than whites in the 90th percentile and leading Hispanics and blacks by wider margins. Lower-income Asians (in the 10th percentile) still earned more than lower-income Hispanics and blacks in 2016.

Prejudice and racist assumptions about Asian Americans persist, and it has been alleged that some elite colleges, such as Harvard University, have an informal “Asian quota”. But while it may be offensive to imply that Asian Americans are good at maths, these stereotypes cannot be compared to the roster of assumptions and structural disadvantages faced by African Americans, which leaves them as a group at the exact opposite end of the socio-economic ladder to Asian Americans, and means that even the most exalted might still be followed around a store, arrested for trying to enter their own home, or asphyxiated to death in the street.

The same can be said for Hispanic Americans, or “Latinx”—a group which spans ultra-conservative Cuban emigrés who fled Castro and left-wing firebrands such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. There is a huge discrepancy in wealth, income and educational level among Latinx Americans, and this variety is also found in their politics and culture. Among Americans who identify as Hispanic, very few identify as non-white, and many Hispanics who move up economically stop identifying as Hispanic. Any term which would consider US Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to have the same interests and concerns, and face the same problems, as recently arrived immigrants detained in camps on the Mexican border is not fit for purpose.

Today, African Americans remain notably less wealthy than other groups. While the large gaps between the incomes of blacks and whites have closed slightly, they remain considerable: in 2016, blacks on average earned 65 per cent as much as whites, a small increase from 59 per cent in 1970. Meanwhile, as of December last year the unemployment rate for blacks was 5.9 per cent, compared to just 3.2 per cent for whites and only 2.5 per cent for Asians.

But this does not apply uniformly to all black people in America. For example, in 2018, the median income for households led by a
Nigerian American was $68,658, compared  with $61,937 for US households  overall. Nigerian-Americans are more likely to be counted
in the higher income brackets, with 35 per cent of their households earning at least $90,000 per year. They are also the best-educated demographic in the US, with a higher percentage holding postgraduate degrees than among any other group:  37 per cent of Nigerian-Americans have a bachelor’s degree and 17 per cent a master’s.

Although Nigerians account for less than 1 per cent of the black population in the US, they make up nearly 25 per cent of black students at Harvard Business School, and the first black woman to head the Harvard Law Review (the first black man was Barack Obama) is ImeIme A. Umana, a Nigerian-American. There is a similar trend in the UK: back in 2017, a picture of the 14 black male students admitted to study at the University of Cambridge went viral, demonstrating the disproportionately few black Britons admitted to Oxbridge. Yet of the 14 students, all but one—William Gore—had West African names.

There are similar disparities when it comes to police violence. In 2019, 24 per cent of those killed by police were black, despite their constituting only 13 per cent of the US population. In 2019, 2.5 white people per million were killed by the police, not far below the 3.8 per million Hispanics. However for African Americans this was 6.6 per million—almost three times the white rate and just shy of twice the Hispanic rate.

But out of the high-profile cases of African Americans shot dead by the police, it is striking how many of them involve Hispanic, Italian-American, or Asian officers. Eric Garner died after being initially approached by Justin D’Amico and placed in a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo; his death was overseen by a female African-American NYPD sergeant, Kizzy Adonis, who did not intervene; Chinedu Okobi died after being tasered multiple times by Joshua Wang; Trayvon Martin was not killed by police but by George Zimmerman, a man whose mother, Gladys Cristina Mesa, is from Peru, and has a black grandfather; Philando Castile was shot dead by Jeronimo Yanez; and Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after a violent arrest by Officer Brian Encima.

Even in the original example of police violence caught on video, the Rodney King beating of 1991, two of the officers involved—Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano—were Hispanic, and in fact Briseno was publicly supported by Eric “Easy E” Wright of hip-hop group NWA, who claimed that Briseno tried to help King and protect him from the other officers.

In the George Floyd killing, two of the four officers involved were Asian Americans: Tou Thao, who stood guard as Floyd was knelt on, had been sued for alleged excessive force back in 2017, with the Minneapolis Police Department eventually settling out of court for $25,000. In total, six complaints have been filed against Thao; five were closed with no discipline and one remains open.

Thao, and the wife of Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, are members of the Hmong diaspora, refugees from Laos who settled in the US after 1975. Hmong-Americans occupy a peculiar position: they fought alongside the US in Vietnam, but are “people of colour”; they are disproportionately likely to be police officers, yet they are still immigrants. Furthermore, they do not fit cleanly into the country’s broad racial categories. Because so many came as impoverished refugees, they are more likely to be poor than many other Asian immigrants, from places such as China and India, who are often university-educated professionals.

Like many Americans of East Asian ancestry, the Hmong suffered from an increased level of hostility due to the coronavirus outbreak: earlier in May, in the adjoining city of St Paul, an African-American teenager was recorded by his friend kicking a Hmong woman in the face while she sat waiting for a train.

Yet as so many of them are small business owners or police officers, many Hmong found themselves on the wrong side of the protests that erupted after the Floyd killing. One member of Minneapolis’s Hmong community, Gloria Wong, told the New York Times: “We came to this country with nothing . . . I have been working my whole life for my building. Now it just takes one or two persons to trash it. I feel very down right now. My heart is just aching all over.” Ms. Wong said that she was a supporter of the police, and her uncle had been one of the first Hmong Americans to join the force back in the 1980s. The Hmong, like Nigerian Americans, demonstrate the complexity of race in the United States, and the meaninglessness of the term “people of colour”.

As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence to suggest that Asian or Hispanic officers are more likely than average to kill black people—although black cops are as likely to shoot and more likely to arrest African Americans than their white colleagues—but the disproportionate number of Hispanic and African American cops involved in high profile brutality incidents also exposes the falsity of the “people of colour” vs. “whites” dichotomy.

Finally, the nature of racism and hostility amongst and between “people of colour” is infinitely complex. Studies suggest that high percentages of African Americans support the racial profiling of Arabs and South Asians by the security services, and that Hispanics and Asians both revealed a slight preference for white people ahead of African Americans.

In his book Whiteshift, the academic Eric Kaufmann described an experiment requiring participants to rate the “Americanness” of different faces. Students of all ethnicities “consistently ranked Asians as less American than whites and African-Americans, with no statistically significant difference in the score assigned to white and blacks”. Meanwhile, when these faces were paired with American symbols such as the Stars and Stripes or Mount Rushmore, “African and especially Asian American subjects were slower to label a US symbol American when it was paired with a non-white face”, the exception being when African Americans were given black faces and American images, in which case they took the same time to identify them as American as they did with white faces.

While there is a need for some sort of group noun for different ethnic minorities in majority-white countries, “non-white” defines people by what they are not, and reinforces the idea of whiteness as default, so is clearly unsatisfactory. We need to move beyond easy catch-all terms such as “people of colour” that both flatten and homogenise the varied lives of millions of people. 

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