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Why Fareed Zakaria doesn’t like the way the phrase ‘people of color’ is used

To white liberal Americans, the term “of color” relies heavily on an understanding that many African Americans, the vast majority of whom are descended from slaves, have faced discrimination and other barriers to success that white Americans do not.

Fareed Zakaria: “For us, harsh treatment by white Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics.”
Fareed Zakaria: “For us, harsh treatment by white Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics.”
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In the opening of his Sunday show on CNN, Fareed Zakaria made one big point that probably should be obvious but perhaps is not.

When we use the term “of color” to refer to all Americans whose ancestry is not 100 percent Caucasian, we do so at the peril of ignoring differences so large that they may render the term useless or at least a whole lot less useful, Zakaria said. (And, being an immigrant from India, who came to America voluntarily in search of opportunities, and has found them, Zakaria speaks with some authority on the subject.)

To white liberal Americans, the term “of color” relies heavily on an understanding that many African Americans, the vast majority of whom are descended from slaves, have faced discrimination and other barriers to success that white Americans do not. Their ancestors were treated as “sub-humans,” Zakaria said, and the slaves’ descendants were often treated as “second-class citizens” or worse — conditions that Zakaria said “certainly continue to this day.”

It sometimes seems, in fact, that one of the most basic disputes between liberals and conservatives is over whether more needs to be done by government action to create meaningful equality of opportunity for African Americans.

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Zakaria wasn’t disputing that point, as it applies to the descendants of slaves, for whom, he said “it is entirely applicable.”

But many Americans whose skin tone is lumped together by the term “of color,” are descendants of immigrants who came to America voluntarily, from continents other than Africa, seeking opportunities unavailable in their countries of origin, almost all of whom, Zakaria said, have had a different experience than the one described above, including himself.

Some in these groups also encountered “discrimination and exclusion” of sorts, Zakaria said. And many struggle economically, socially, educationally and otherwise, compared to white Americans. But, having left their homelands voluntarily in search of opportunity and a shot at a better life than they expected in their former homes, Zakaria said, including himself in the generalization and obviously basing this statement on his own experience as well: “We have found a country that has been, on the whole, far more open to foreigners than most other places.”

Lumping all Americans “of color” in a group associated with those African Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and whose parents and grandparents lived through the Jim Crow era  tends to “ring false to American immigrants and their descendants,” Zakaria said. Here, of course, he’s using the word “immigrant” to distinguish those non-whites whose families came her voluntarily, seeking a shot at a better life.

“For us,” he said, identifying himself as a member of the group just described, “harsh treatment by white Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics.” Again, he is speaking for himself while attributing his experience and the lessons he took from them to many others, but it’s clear that Zakaria thinks lumping all non-whites together under the “of color” label misses that, to Zakaria, important difference, which colors their experiences and their diversity.

“Some of us are socially liberal, some conservative. Some view themselves as self-reliant entrepreneurs. Others demand a more active government. And some seek to assimilate by distancing themselves from newer immigrants,” he said.

Zakaria, by the way, was born in Bombay, India. He came to America to attend Yale as an undergraduate, then Harvard for a PhD. He came up in journalism as a columnist whose writing appeared regularly in Newsweek, then Time, then the Washington Post, where his column still appears. Obviously, his experience differs from those of many other non-whites who emigrated to America.

But I took his interesting closing remarks, to reflect a perhaps-slightly-politically-incorrect sense that the lumping together of “Americans of color” — especially if the term glosses over the difference between those brought here as slaves, and those whose families came as immigrants seeking a better life — has often crossed his mind. And he got it off his chest here.

As a Jew myself (a “minority” group that has mostly thrived in America, whose grandparents were almost all immigrants, whose parents were conscious of their good fortune and preached that sermon to me), I thought Zakaria was brave to engage this topic, which he handled intelligently as he does most things.

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“People of color” is just a phrase, and in some ways a weird or silly one, since no one’s skin is without color. But we can have that phrase, and even use it the way we do, and still be aware that there is a difference between those whose families came by choice and those whose families were captured in Africa and brought here as slaves.

And then there’s the group we now refer to as “Native Americans,” who were here all along and whose claim to mistreatment by the white conquerors is another sad, vile chapter in the saga, a chapter Zakaria didn’t include in his remarks.

You can watch Zakaria deliver his whole “take” here.