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What’s in a Name? For Americans, Everything

Gerald Horne, professor and director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina, is the author of "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s."

African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and whites.

The large population groups of this nation are referred to by place of origin (Asia, Africa, native) or language and culture (Hispanic), except for the majority (white), which is referred to by race.

This is even more curious since within this majority an increasingly influential group has railed against the very notion of race, stating stoutly that it should be ignored in college admissions, congressional redistricting, letting of government contracts and the like.

While African Americans have had extended discussions about what they should be called and many Americans of Hispanic descent have insisted upon being referred to as Latino, the nation’s majority has not deigned to move away from a racial designation of itself.

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Thus far, this has had no appreciable impact on this group’s self-esteem, but with the “Pacific century” looming and the Japanese or Chinese economy projected as soon being larger than that of the United States, this group may become more sensitive about unintended slights. This is particularly true of California where the nation’s majority is rapidly becoming just another minority.

But why in 1997 does this group still refer to itself in the old way of race and color?

Perhaps it is due to what one historian has termed the “arrogance of race;” to use another historian’s phrase, the “ruling race” of this nation does not have to engage in the “name game.” That process of naming and renaming is the province of those who feel put upon: the “minorities.”

In 1995, I lived in Zimbabwe, which has a sizeable European population that also refers to itself as white. I gathered that this name was preferable because if they referred to themselves by their place of origin, it would underscore the point that they were not indigenous and perhaps did not belong. In that sense, they were akin to “African Americans” who in the early 19th century stopped referring to themselves as “African” for fear that this designation would fuel the then growing movement to send those who were not slaves back to Africa.

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But the racial majority in the U.S. cannot feel that they are on the verge of mass deportation, even if within 50 years they will no longer be the majority.

Maybe the post-modernists who tell us that “whiteness is property” have a lesson to teach. From the beginning of this nation, being white has conveyed privilege; African slaves could not vote or own weapons. This signified that the U.S. was to be a haven for those hailing from Europe, not Africa, Asia or Latin America.

As the European Union moves toward a common currency to be called the “euro,” the possibility is presented for the United States’ majority to name itself more accurately without devaluing any potential “property” interests. And if, as some analysts have insisted, the euro will eventually challenge the dollar as the global common currency of choice, then this renaming process will not lead to a devaluation.

African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Euro Americans. Ah, that sounds much better.


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