On race: The relevance of saying ‘minority’

As America’s ethnic and racial make-up changes, so, too, does the nation’s language and the consensus over acceptable word usage. One word that slowly is becoming more challenged and is likely to get a big work out over the coming years is “minority.”

NPR guests, hosts and correspondents used the term in nearly 80 stories in the last year, not counting the hourly newscasts. Ken Wibecan, a listener from Schuyler Falls, NY, wrote to us:

“Many people use [minority] when they really mean African American or Latino. That it is not only inaccurate, but it is also offensive…Does NPR really think that the population of America is composed of only two elements — whites and minorities? I don’t think so. And if not, isn’t it time to retire that insulting word and use more specific designations instead?”

Already, just over a third of the country is Latino, black or Asian American, according to the 2010 Census. Non-Hispanic whites have fallen to less than 50 percent of the population in the country’s two most populous states, California and Texas. Demographers cited in a June 27 report on Tell Me More projected that non-whites will become the majority of the U.S. population by roughly 2050. Add growing inter-marriage to the mix and the lines between majority and minority are becoming ever more blurred.

NPR’s own vice president of diversity, Keith Woods, wrote in a 2002 column that “minority” is part of a media language “mired in euphemisms and the tortured, convoluted syntax that betray America’s pathological avoidance of straight talk about race relations.” In parallel debates, some critics argue that an emphasis on minority status is insulting to blacks, Latinos and Asians and ignores their cultural influence on the mainstream. Others argue that the emphasis encourages victimization, most recently among some whites.

Yet, the American Constitution is built largely around the concept of protecting minority rights. African-Americans and Latinos have indeed suffered historically because they lacked voting weight to defend their rights, or socially were on the margin.

So, it would seem that the word “minority” in describing a racial or ethnic group is useful in some instances. But which ones? This seems a good project for the next several months as we follow NPR reports. I hope that you will aid with your own vigilance, as well as send your general thoughts and guidance.

This column was originally published on NPR.org on Aug. 29. 2011.


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