Racial Terminology and Confusion

WALTER WILLIAMS: The true plight of black Americans (column) | Free |  annistonstar.com

…without a doubt, part of the confusion in understanding racial issues lies in the imprecise and ambiguous language used by scholars and laymen alike in discussing race. Words can, and usually do, have more than one meaning, and therefore can be used ambiguously. In analytical usage, not only is it necessary to separate the connotative from the literal content of words, but precise and operationally useful distinctions and definitions also must be made.

An example of ambiguous language is found in the use of the phrase “racial segregation Consider the following observations. Blacks represent about 65 percent of the Washington, D.C., population. Reagan National Airport serves the Washington area, and like every such facility, it has water fountains. At no time has the writer observed anything close to blacks being 65 percent of water fountain users; a wild guess would place their usage at 5 or 10 percent at most. To the extent that this observation approximates reality, would anyone move to declare that Reagan airport water fountains are racially segregated?

Casual observation of ice hockey games would suggest that blacks attend them far below their percentages in the general population. A similar observation can be made about operas, dressage performances, and wine tastings. The population statistics of states such as South Dakota, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and Vermont show that not even percent of their populations is black. On the other hand, in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, blacks are overrepresented in terms of their percentage in the general population. Would anyone suggest that racial segregation accounts for any of those observations?

Just because blacks are not proportionately represented in some activity, according to their numbers in the general population, how analytically useful is to assert that the activity is racially segregated? A more useful test is whether, for example, a black person at Reagan airport is free to drink from any water foundation he chooses. If the answer is in the affirmative, then the water fountains are not racially segregated, and that would be true even if no black person ever uses the water fountains.

If the average American were asked whether the country’s public schools are segregated, a consensus would be virtually impossible. Some would argue, as has Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, that schools are racially segregated and becoming more so:

Civil rights goals have not been accomplished. The country has been going backward toward greater segregation in all parts of the country for more than a decade. Since the end of the Civil Rights era, there has been no significant leadership towards the goal of creating a successfully integrated society built on integrated schools and neighborhoods.’

A little reflection on the matter shows that people give the term racial segregation one meaning when applied to water fountains, operas, and ice hockey an entirely different meaning when applied to schools and neighborhoods. The test used to determine whether Reagan airport water fountains were segregated or not should also be used to answer the question of whether schools were segregated or not. If a black student lives within a particular school district, is he free to attend that school? If the answer is affirmative, then the schools are not segregated, even if not a single black attends the school. In contrast to the past, there are today no legal or extra-legal barriers to keep blacks who reside within a school district from attending its schools.

When an activity is not racially mixed today, a better word is racially homogeneous, which does not mean that it is racially segregated, at least in the historic usage of the term. It would surely be deemed ridiculous, fool hardy, and a gross abuse of government power if, for example, one were to conclude that since blacks are “underrepresented” at Reagan airport water fountains, there ought to be a policy to bus blacks to such fountains. Similarly, I doubt whether one would propose compelling blacks to move from Georgia to Iowa, and the reverse for whites, until those actions satisfied some sort of preconceived notion of what constitutes racial integration across states. Why blacks are “underrepresented” in some activities and “overrepresented” in others may reflect personal preferences, history, cultural influences, income differences, and discrimination.

Those who advocate and litigate for school desegregation today are not fighting against state and local laws that mandate racial separation. Their argument rests solely on the fact that black attendance at some schools is not proportional to or representative of the numbers of blacks in the population. For those advocates and litigators, the school does not have a pleasing racial mix. The fact that many of today’s large-city school systems are predominantly black is mostly a result of residential housing patterns and not legislated school-segregation policy. That fact makes racial heterogeneity virtually impossible. For example, in Manhattan, public schools are nearly 90 percent black or Hispanic, while private schools are 80 percent white.

While there is a smaller overall percentage of blacks in private schools, they are somewhat more racially heterogeneous nowadays. Those who see racial heterogeneity in schools as desirable, should support measures such as education vouchers or tuition tax credits to strengthen the private education sector. A majority of black parents support educational vouchers that would allow them educational choice.

Other terms and concepts used in the racial literature and debate are just as misleading and confusing. Among the aims of this chapter is to discuss those ambiguities, suggest operational definitions, and maybe shed more light on racial phenomena we observe.


In Memoriam

Walter Edward Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 2, 2020)

Racial Terminology and Confusion by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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