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What to call a ‘minority’ group that isn’t?

Soon, more than one-third of Americans will live in states where ethnic groups outnumber whites. Such demographic shifts are fueling criticism that the word ‘minority’  is increasingly inaccurate, obsolete or even offensive.
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Soon, more than one-third of Americans will live in states where Latinos, blacks, Asians, American Indians and other ethnic groups outnumber whitesStan Honda / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

What do you call a minority that is becoming the majority?

News that Texas is the fourth state in which non-Hispanic whites make up less than 50 percent of residents has renewed discussion about whether the term “minority” has outlived its usefulness; critics include both liberals and conservatives.

While some think the complaints are mere nitpicking, others argue the word is increasingly inaccurate, obsolete and even offensive.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, we saw the country as a majority-white country with a black minority, but now you have places where that is a woefully poor description of what is going on,” especially given rapidly growing Hispanic population, said Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. The word “minority” is “a confusing term as one of thinks of today’s population.”

Minorities assume majority status
The majority of residents in Texas, California, New Mexico, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., are some ethnicity other than non-Hispanic whites, according to Census Bureau population estimates released last week. Five other states, including New York and Georgia, could make that shift by 2010.

Soon, more than one-third of Americans will live in states where Latinos, blacks, Asians, American Indians and other ethnic groups outnumber whites. Such demographic shifts have given rise to the term “majority-minority.”

Harrison noted that “minority” refers to more than just numbers.

“The word’s origins are that these are populations that once had the status of minors before the law,” Harrison said. “These are populations that, in one way or another, did not have full legal status or full civil rights.”

When considering doing away with the term, “the question is, how far along the road to full equality have they come?”

‘There’s power behind these terms’
Haig Bosmajian, a University of Washington professor emeritus of communications, said that when he researched his book “The Language of Oppression” in the 1960s, “minority” accurately described blacks and other relatively small ethnic groups.

“But by ‘minority’ today we mean a disadvantaged group of citizens. We mean not the privileged at the top, but the underprivileged at the bottom: People who make $10 million a year, we don’t call them a ‘minority,”’ he said. “There’s power behind these terms.”

Star Parker, who heads the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, a conservative black think tank, said the word is “absolutely misused. It’s become an entitlement word, a word for victimization.”

In some cases, particularly regarding affirmative action programs, “minority” often includes women, disabled people and religious groups, said Robin Lakoff, a socio-linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s made the definition murky, in her view.

“It’s now almost too inclusive and not clear enough,” she said.

Still, she added, “sometimes I think we worry too much about semantic hairsplitting. If I had to fight about something, I might not fight about the term ‘minority.”’

Luke Visconti of DiversityInc, which advises businesses on racial issues, disagreed. He believes that shelving “minority” is important because the word implies second-class status. Modern-day discrimination is more subtle than in years past, he said, and “language is the dominant way today of expressing oppression.”

Language changing with the times
Whatever the reason, “minority” is already falling from favor in some circles.

“People of color” is often used, particularly in academia. “Multicultural,” “diverse” and “urban” also are common. The University of Michigan has what it calls “minority-cultural lounges” with black, Latino, Asian and Native American themes.

In 2001, San Diego’s city council approved striking “minority” from official usage — and to stop using the term “Southeast San Diego” to refer to neighborhoods that are largely black and Hispanic — to “move away from the pejorative connotations ... and move to something that was respectful,” said Danell Scarborough, a human resources manager with the city.

“When I asked people around here about ‘minority,’ they said, ’Huh? I haven’t heard that in ages,”’ she said. “There was not a resistance.”

Even the Census Bureau itself is moving in that direction.

Though the bureau has not officially barred its use — last week’s news release on Texas was titled, “Texas Becomes Nation’s Newest ‘Majority-Minority’ State” — many officials avoid “minority” in favor of more specific racial and ethnic labels, said Claudette E. Bennett, chief of the Census racial statistics branch.

The bureau increasingly tries to use specific terms such as “Pacific Islander” and “Mexican-American,” she said.

“If you see the term ‘minority’ in one of our reports,” Bennett said, “there’s going to be a footnote ... detailing what exactly it means.”