White Is a Color
Redd Foxx’s character Fred delivered a sly zinger in a Sanford and Son episode when a tone-deaf white police officer asked him whether a criminal suspect was “colored.”
“Yeah,” Fred replied, “white.” It was a funny line, but it was also scientifically correct. The definition of white as an absence of color is exactly wrong.
Sir Isaac Newton proved in a renowned 1666 experiment that white is composed of six visible colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. He used a prism to resolve white light into its component colors, which a second prism recombined into a single white light again.
So Harry Belafonte is no more a person of color, optically speaking, than the palest Swedish albino, and arguably less so. It would be more honest for nonwhite racially preoccupied people to call themselves people about color, not people of color.
White Is a Race
Critical race theorists will, of course, dismiss this as quibbling. Their definition of people of color is not intended as a scientific statement of physics, but as an identity of all people who are not racially white. UCLA Professor Efren Perez has tracked use of the phrase in Black and mainstream newspapers since 1960. He found that Black newspapers used the term much earlier and more often than mainstream newspapers. Its increasing frequency coincided with the arrival of large immigrant populations that presented opportunities for political Blacks to recruit a broader nonwhite coalition.
The definition of people of color appears to be noncontroversial. So far as I know, everybody agrees that people of color are just people who aren’t white. This is necessarily negative: their identity is defined by who they are not. It retains its appeal and its coalition-building power only as long as the consensus that whites are villains in our national narrative.
Racial identity is a matter of real importance in a grievance-based economy. There are jobs, promotions, college admissions, government contracts and potential reparations for people who are agile and skilled in the art of racial grievance. The ship has already sailed on most of these policies that overtly disadvantage whites, but racial reparations are still under discussion.
Black billionaire Robert Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Network, recently called for $14 trillion in slavery reparations to Black Americans. This dwarfs the Black Panthers’ 1969 demand for $500 million in reparations. Martin Luther King confidante Bayard Rustin said at the time that “if my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”
That view is unusual among Blacks nowadays. Polls indicate the majority of Blacks support slavery reparations. The term “slavery reparations” is probably a misnomer, though. The wealth disparity between whites and Blacks, the disproportionate levels of incarceration, and perceived personal indignities are the conditions that most aggrieved Blacks feel justify reparations.
Johnson recited a list of dismal current statistics and concluded that “the pernicious legacy of slavery is the primary factor” in the wealth disparity between Blacks and whites. A Department of Labor sociologist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, noticed in 1962 that although Black male employment was improving, Black welfare dependency was rising. This contradicted the usual pattern of parallel increases and decreases of unemployment and dependency. It suggested that increasing numbers of Black males had disconnected themselves from the financial outcomes of their families.
This prompted Moynihan to study the matter in more detail, and led to his 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” He found what he called “a tangle of pathology” and, like Johnson, said it resulted ultimately from slavery and Jim Crow.
But is that true? Black economist Thomas Sowell has risen to the defense of the dynamic, morally upright, wealth-building generations of freedmen who burst out of slavery after the Civil War. One of the things enslaved Blacks yearned for was the opportunity to form permanent marriages and enduring families, and that’s exactly what they did after emancipation. Their social statistics were comparable or superior to whites’ numbers on divorce, out-of-wedlock births, abandonment and employment rates.
Democrats enacted Jim Crow laws all over the South after they regained power. These were harmful and unjust, but they didn’t destroy families. That, Sowell observes, was the province of the paternalistic welfare state. With the growth of the New Deal and Great Society programs, the Black male lost the capacity to function as an authority figure within his family. Black families became matriarchal. Unwed births skyrocketed. In a sense, millions of matriarchs have married the government.
Fatherless homes, in turn, produced high crime, high rates of incarceration, pervasive academic failure, stubborn unemployment, and economic stagnation. Not to mention excruciating emotional pain and despair. Black attorney and cultural critic Larry Elder says that Black Americans’ main source of torment is not white racism, but fatherlessness. Nobody would tolerate us intruding into their personal relationships and coercing them to be better people, nor do I propose it. But the consequences of stubborn depravity rightly rest on the wrongdoer, the only person who is capable of making the necessary change.
Johnson admitted in his own essay that his number is based, not on a calculation of actual slavery damages, but on his estimate of how much wealth transfer it would take to make whites and Blacks equal. This is what the Mississippi-born Johnson would recognize as making Blacks whole: financial equality. This is a formula no American court would recognize as actual damages. Bill Gates – or Robert Johnson – can fully compensate me after causing a tragic car wreck without us being rendered financially equal. The only legal doctrine Johnson’s formula resembles is exemplary damages, sometimes called punitive (punishing) damages. It’s what you impose, beyond actual damages, to make an example of somebody who has earned the community’s contempt.
If we could get our hands on an actual slave-owner, I think punitive damages would be proper. But to impose the equivalent of punitive damages against random white people who have worked and struggled, taken risks and sacrificed, paid chiropractors and gone to night school to build incremental family wealth? It’s unjust and insulting. We should not be too timid to resist it.