I never gave much thought to the term when People of Color (POC) entered our vocabulary in the late seventies. My awareness started years later with a phone call from my older daughter, a college sophomore. “This eye-opening thing happened,” she told me. “Luisa my roommate is all involved in this People of Color group which I of course can’t be part of. This experience made me realize like never before how arbitrary the people of color/white people division is."
Luisa’s father's family was from Spain; a Hispanic last name was enough to make her part of the Latino component—never mind that she's got her Northern European mother's light skin and blond hair.
According to its advocates, People of Color—Black, Latino, Native American, Asians including Japanese, Chinese,Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Indian—are bonded together by the systemic racist discrimination they have suffered and continue to suffer.
My daughter is Jewish so she is considered white, a group that supposedly is not subjected to discrimination. But she grew up hearing her grandparents’ stories about how they would have ended up in a concentration camp, were it not for their narrow 1940 escape from Belgium. After fifteen months of fleeing through France, Spain, and Morocco, they got U.S. visas. They were the lucky ones. Her grandmother’s only brother was murdered at Auschwitz --age twenty eight. Not one member of her grandfather’s enormous family in Poland—over 130 people—survived.
My daughter also heard talk about how, when the family immigrated to the U.S., they were sometimes greeted with hotel or restaurant signs saying “no Jews or dogs admitted.” Then there were the country clubs, corporations, and universities that quietly did not admit Jews; many neighborhoods had real estate covenants excluding Jews and Blacks.
She remembered, when she was little, our Anti-Semitic next door neighbor being mean to her and her sister, but very nice to their Irish playmates.
But since my daughter was white, none of this counted.
Recently I have thought a lot about “people of color” and its effect on Jews. Many of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville carried signs such as “Jews are Satan’s Children” and “Jewish media is going down.” Reporters heard comments like “the fucking Jew-lovers are gassing us.” The leaders of the groups that organized the march have all come out with statements such as “never ever remove the bright shining light off of the Jew, for it is the Jew that is the true enemy of all humanity on this planet!” This one is by National Socialist Commander Jeff Schoep.
Nevertheless, Anti-Semitism is rarely mentioned when discussing Charlottesville-- a recent conference I attended was typical; the Panel’s focus was racism. Whether it’s TV, radio, or the press; Anti-Semitism is rarely a primary focus, or any focus at all. I am far from alone in my frustration. When I asked a woman who works for a leading Jewish organization how she felt about this omission, she responded, “it drives me crazy.” When my local Jewish Community Center held a Charlottesville meeting over 300 people showed up. They were deeply upset and frightened by Charlottesville and the increase in anti-Semitic acts around the country. Most of them, are no doubt, also deeply frustrated.
Since Jews are not People of Color—the oppressed group—they get scant attention. This in spite of the fact that year after year, the FBI Uniform Crime reports reveal that Jews are by far the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes. In 2015, 52.1 percent were committed against Jews, followed by 21.9 percent against Muslims.
My perspective focuses on one aspect of People of Color that makes no sense. Another problem is the focus on identity politics without distinctions made between the groups lumped together. Anyone with slightly darker skin color or an ethnically correct surname is included, however the paradigm group remains Black Americans. While Asians, for example, have been discriminated against in the U.S.—putting Japanese Americans in camps during WWII is probably the most flagrant 20th century case—they do not share the same history and are not now victims of police brutality at the same rate as African Americans, nor are they likely to be arrested as was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was when he was having trouble opening the door to his house.
They have their own issues. The Asian American Coalition for Education represents students who are opposed to college quotas, especially at elite colleges, that keep highly qualified Asian students from being admitted. A May 25, 2016 New York Times article, Asian American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored focuses on the large number of Asian actors who complain that Hollywood is prejudiced against them.
Many Asians of varied political persuasions, have taken issue with being included in POC. On BDG—a website for LGBT People of Color—Janini, a young American from India asks, “Why do we keep using the phrase ‘communities of color’ as targets of police and state violence when we primarily mean Black and Latino folks? Lumping everyone together as POC “can mask our actual racial situations;” Indians have been the victims of colonialism, but they were not brought to the U.S. as slaves.
Almost every Asian country has suffered from colonialism enforced by violence and in some cases warfare with native tolls in the millions. Many Asian Americans carry this tragic familial history with them.
Including so many diverse histories under one heading makes as little sense as proceeding as if no white people have ever been, nor are they now, victims of discrimination. American Jews and Armenians— about two million murdered in the early 20th century—are outstanding counter examples.
While white working class Americans may not suffer racial discrimination, an alliance between them and black working-class people might make more sense than the POC grouping. Poor whites are hardly beneficiaries of white privilege; they are far more economically oppressed than many People of Color. Many remain unemployed, Most who have jobs do not enjoy living wage salaries; many work two or three jobs to make ends meet, have no medical coverage, and can’t afford decent housing or daycare for their children.
In his book, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance—whose parents moved from Jackson, Kentucky to industrialized Middletown, Ohio—tells us that after reading William Julius Wilson’s book, The Truly Disadvantaged, about inner-city Blacks, he wanted to write Wilson a letter to tell him that “he had described my home perfectly.” Both poor Blacks and poor Appalachians migrated North to factory jobs. When the factories closed down, a majority of both groups became unemployed, underemployed, and “truly disadvantaged.”
There are numerous Black organizations that focus on discrimination and the economic oppression of Blacks. But in order to get their demands acted upon, they need broad political support which they can only obtain through alliances with white voters.
Isn’t it time to drop the misguided People of Color hodgepodge? How about a Truly Disadvantaged Alliance (TDA)?