Disclaimer: I represented Lucia Whalen – the “911 caller” in the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In the flurry of commentary from columnists, bloggers, pundits and activists hoping to shine a light on "lessons learned" from the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the rhetoric around what it means to be "post-racial" or to "transcend" race - has been mind-numbingly unenlightening.
It's not even clear what some of the basic words mean anymore.
What is a "minority" anyway? Is it a member of a group whose population is relatively small? If so - will "white" people be a minority the moment the population of "minorities" outnumbers them, which Frank Rich says in his New York Times piece this week will occur around 2042?
Or does "minority" mean a group of people who are disenfranchised and relatively powerless? Women and children aren't under-represented in numbers, but they suffer a lot of prejudice when it comes to social, political and economic equality – and yet we don’t call them “minorities”.
What if there's still systematic bigotry against “minorities” in 2042? Can they be a majority and a minority at the same time?
And what's with the words "black" and "white"? Even the darkest skin is only dark brown; the whitest skin some form of pale beige - with a zillion colors and shades in between. The starkness of the black v. white dichotomy in the public dialogue is at once incorrect and incendiary - and yet even those who would label themselves post-racial buy into it.
Indeed, when Lucia Whalen called 911, she was asked by a law enforcement official in the "progressive" community of Cambridge, Massachusetts whether the men she saw were "white, black or Hispanic"? Surely, in the year 2009, it's obvious that an awful lot of people are "none of the above".
Ms. Whalen herself is "white" as a matter of race, because she is Portuguese-American, but her skin color is an olive-ish tan. If Professor Gates had observed Ms. Whalen on HER porch, which of the options would he have selected? If he said "Hispanic", which is wrong though understandable given that lots of Hispanic people have skin color similar to Ms. Whalen's, would that make him racist, racially sensitive or race-neutral?
Keith Woods, a dean at the Poynter Institute, argues that descriptive terms, rather than political categories, are a more fair way for people to describe each other. If he’s right, maybe 911 operators should stop asking whether a person is “white, black or Hispanic”, and instead, say: "can you describe the person's skin color?"
Even if we do language right, it won't fix racism. Hell, even if we fix racism, we’ll find other ways of creating hierarchies that put some "types" higher up the ladder of human value than others.
I once asked my students what prejudice would look like if we were all grey and gender and religion neutral. Some said a class-based pecking order would remain, but it wouldn't feel like hatred so much as a necessary byproduct of capitalism where people don’t have equal wealth, but the poorest aren’t predetermined based on what they look like, or how they practice their faith. In short, prejudice would lose a bit of its sting.
Better yet, as a bunch of grey people, with our differences barely visible, we could more easily bond as Americans - unified by common values as well as physical similarities.
Of course, a nation of sameness has its own burdens, and in any case won’t happen in this country for a very, very long time. But we can seize some of the benefits right now by agreeing to use precise language - rather than fighting words – to describe our differences.