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Caucasian Talk Circles

Geoffrey Nunberg
"Fresh Air" commentary, Oct. 6, 2003

The recall has been getting all the ink, but the item on tomorrow's California ballot that has the most important national implications is what backers call the "racial privacy initiative," which sharply restricts the state's ability to classify people according to race.

Opponents of the measure argue that it will hamper efforts to gather information on discrimination, student progress, hate crimes, and health questions. Supporters defend it with the new rhetoric of color-blindness -- they ridicule the stew of ethnic and racial identifications that students have to tick off on University of California admission forms. As they put it, it's time to "junk a 17th-century racial classification system that has no place in 21st-century America."

They're not going to get much argument on that. But the classification system they want to sweep away is more of a modern creation than an ancient one. And if the language of racial classification seems inconsistent and jumbled, that's the fault of the uneven social landscape we're asking it to map.

Those inconsistencies came to the surface in a recent story about a 15-year-old high-school freshman in Oakley, California who had gathered 250 signatures to start a Caucasian club. If African Americans, Latinos, and Asians could have clubs to "teach them their cultures," as she put it, then why shouldn't whites have one as well?

That logic was plausible to a lot of people, including 87 percent of the respondents to a poll conducted by a Los Angeles TV station. And while others thought the club was an ill-conceived idea, a lot of them blamed the multiculturalists for setting a bad example. As National Review's Jay Nordlinger put it, "A Caucasian club -- ugh! Enough of the Balkanization of America. . . It is the Left's fault. It is the fault of all of those who have insisted on the prominence -- virtually the primacy -- of race."

Actually, the most revealing word there is "ugh." What is it about the history of that quaint word "Caucasian" that makes even conservatives a little squeamish about seeing it in an organization's bylaws? As it happens, the word is exactly as old as the American nation: it was invented in 1776 by the German anthropologist Johannes Blumenbach, a disciple of Linnaeus, as the name of one of the four basic racial stocks of mankind. (Blumenbach chose "Caucasian" in the belief that the white race began its peregrinations when Noah's ark landed on Mount Ararat in the Caucasus.)

By all rights, the Caucasian label should have vanished a long time ago, along with Mongoloid, Negroid, and the other categories of discredited racial theories. One reason why it survived is that it was often used in what were called the "Caucasian clauses" of organizational bylaws and the restrictive housing covenants that became common in the North in the years following the First World War. In those contexts the word wasn't used in its anthropological meaning, which included not just Europeans but the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. It was simply a genteel-sounding way of excluding people of the wrong sort, whoever they happened to be at the time.

As late as 1947, a civil-rights report of the American Missionary Association said there was no immediate prospect of "a mass migration of Negroes, Jews, and other minorities into exclusively Caucasian areas." And when Jews were reclassified as Caucasians soon after that, it had more to do with a reevaluation of their effects on property values than with any new findings in physical anthropology.1

Even now, that dispensation hasn't been extended to the other Semitic peoples. When people talk about racial profiling in airports, you keep hearing them distinguish between Caucasians and Arabs. But not a lot of them would say that Arabs aren't white.2 When it comes to the crunch, "Caucasian" doesn't mean much more than "white people who play golf."

In fact the Caucasian label has become even more common in recent years, to the point where it's part of the active vocabulary of a high-school freshman. ( In major newspapers, "Caucasian" occurs twice as frequently as it did in the late 1980's.)

That's partly a response to the need for a term to pair with "African American," another odd entry in the American racial lexicon. When "African American" was popularized in the late 80's, it was supposed to suggest an identity defined by color rather than one defined by ancestry. But we don't use African American the way we use labels like Italian American, where we feel free to drop the "American" when the context makes it clear. We talk about an Italian neighborhood, but not an African one. The "African" of "African American" isn't a geographical label, it's just a prefix that means "black."

If we were being consistent, we'd contrast African American with European American. But that term has never caught on widely, probably because Europe is a more diverse place than Africa in the mental geography of most Americans. About the only people you see using "European American" are scholars and the modern racialists who have tricked out their programs in the language of multiculturalism. (A couple of years ago, an outfit called the European American Issues Forum persuaded the California legislature to proclaim a European American Heritage Month. That occasioned a lot less comment than if they'd called it "white heritage month" instead.)

Instead of European American, people use "Caucasian," which seems to invest European descent with an objective scientific standing.3 That's specious, of course -- if African American is a racial category masquerading as a cultural one, Caucasian is a cultural category in racial drag. But it can be a useful word to have around when you want to make a racial contrast without risking a charge of vulgar bias.4

The word's scientific-sounding cachet made it the natural choice for the name of a high-school club. To white adolescents in the California suburbs, the old ethnic identifications are remote and attenuated; that California high-school student described her own ancestry as American Indian, Hispanic, Dutch, German, Italian and Irish -- by that point, you're only talking about vague family lore. And mere whiteness is apt to strike them as boring -- as the student put it on CNN, "Well, you ask the kids, what are you? They'll say white but white, that's not a race."

To be sure, that explanation gets it backwards -- if any of these is a racial category, it's white, not Caucasian. But confusion is endemic in the American language of race. We're always struggling to find racial labels that answer the question "what are you" with even-handed essences, but the labels keep catching their sleeves on disparities in the way we think about race itself. Racial classifications are like irregular verbs -- they may be inconsistent, but they run too deep to be eliminated by decree.


1. Variation in the definition of "Caucasian" goes back much further than that. In 1919, the secretary of an immigration reform group remarked that the United States gave citizenship to many who are not Caucasians, including "Tartars, Finns, Hungarians, Jews, Turks, Syrians, Persians, Hindus, Mexicans, Zulus, Hottentots [and] Kafirs." The Finns and Hungarians were presumably ruled out because they didn't speak an Indo-European language; the Persians and Hindus because of low albedo. return

2. "It's not Arabs against Caucasians," explained CNN's anchor Jack Cafferty shortly after the September 11 attacks. It's unlikely he would been tempted to put that as "Arabs against whites." return

3. In Web documents, "Caucasian" is about fifteen times more likely to appear in opposition to "African American" as in opposition to "black." return

4. When it was argued that the ballots used in some California counties discriminate against minority voters, Robert Novak asked on CNN, "Does that mean that the minority groups are not as able to use these ballots as the Caucasians?" The remark would have sounded a lot more confrontational if he had put it in terms of "whites." return

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.