One night recently I was visiting with a group of friends and listening to the music of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Ray Charles. Our conversation about African-American culture turned to a thought-provoking question: Why do more and more African-Americans reject the common practice of society, the Catholic Church and many black people themselves of referring to people of color as "minorities" or as members of "minority groups." I have never used this term in reference to myself or to any group of American citizens, and I never will, because I believe it is erroneous and counterproductive. Americans and Catholics of African descent are neither "minority" Americans nor "minority" Catholics.
Beginning in the late 1960’s the media, the federal government and Americans of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds (especially Hispanic, Asian and black people) frequently spoke of "minorities" and "minority groups" in solidarity with women and other groups who have experienced injustice based upon discrimination. These designations were used to help formulate the argument that, in order to redress the grave injustices caused by systemic prejudices, special consideration should be given to members of these groups in matters related to education, employment, housing, financial assistance and professional advancement. Fair-minded people agree that longstanding practices of discrimination have made it impossible for certain groups of Americans to have equal access to the American dream. Without prejudice to the validity of these important concerns, I believe that the common use of the word "minorities" as the collective designation of these groups of people perpetuates negative stereotypes and is contradicted by what it means to be an American citizen.
It does not take a particularly critical analysis to recognize the fact that words like "minorities" and "minority groups" are used selectively and are not applied consistently in reference to all ethnic groups that make up a statistically small number of the U.S. citizens. At times, these expressions seem to be used as code words with subtle racist and negative connotations. They also beg the question, which citizens are the "majority" group. An example may help. In Japan, 99 percent of the residents are ethnic Japanese. However, people from other Asian countries, as well as Europeans, Africans and Americans also live in Japan. However, they are not ethnically and culturally Japanese. Most of them may not even be citizens precisely because of their lack of Japanese identity. Since they are neither politically nor ethnically Japanese, these residents are spoken of, for better or worse, as "minorities."
The situation in the United States is quite different. Indeed, it is unique. There are no ethnic Americans in the same sense that there are ethnic Japanese. There is no single ethnic, racial or cultural group that constitutes "true" Americans. The simple fact is that every citizen of the United States is fully and equally an American in the exact same sense of the word. Citizens who are descendants of passengers on the Mayflower are not somehow more truly Americans than descendants of "passengers" of slave ships, native people of the Seminole nation or the most recent immigrants from India. If they are citizens, they are Americans, precisely because there are no ethnic Americans. A careful reflection on the meaning of the expression, "E Pluribus Unum" excludes the possibility of designating "minorities" in this country, unless all citizens are so designated.
Obviously, this truth has not been fully accepted by all sectors of American society or by all members of the Catholic Church in the past or the present. European-American Catholics, with roots in Ireland, Germany, Italy or Poland, for example, were once ostracized in this country as "immigrants," "foreigners" and "undesirable minorities." But why are they generally not considered minorities today? The answer is not because any one of these groups now constitutes the statistical majority of the U.S. population. As Matthew Frye Jacobson effectively argues in Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, the process of gathering together those Americans whose ancestors were from various European countries with very little in common and making them the "majority" group and relegating everyone else to "minorities" is, historically, a rather recent and arbitrary development.
It is a development that at certain junctures excluded even European-Americans of certain backgrounds as despicable ethnic minorities. In its present usage, the term "minority groups" often connotes the haves versus the have-nots, the powerful versus the powerless, the assimilated versus the non-assimilated. It may even implicitly advance the argument that some American citizens are "inferior" because they have not assimilated middle-class mores and the cultural heritage of Western Europe. As a result, even when the majority of the residents in a city are African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, they are still "minorities." This kind of thinking can become quite convoluted. Americans whose families have come to this country directly from Spain are not generally spoken of as "minorities," as they once were. However, people of Spanish ancestry, who come to this country by way of Mexico, Central or South America, somehow become "minorities." Some sociologists argue that this may be because of their presumed intermarriage with native or African people, which may make it more difficult for them to be "assimilated."
The Catholic Church in the United States cannot be effective in its ministry without being aware of the complex ethnic, racial and cultural diversity that makes up our Catholic population and the larger community. However, an awareness of this diversity must never lead the church to the uncritical acceptance or even unwitting perpetuation of terms like "minorities" and "minority groups," which are rarely neutral and may contradict what it means to be an American by inviting stereotypes and reinforcing prejudices. Today, Protestant Christians prefer Catholic Christians to refer to them as what they are, "Christians of other traditions," rather than as what they are not, "non-Catholics." Have you ever been called a non-Baptist?
As we enter a new century, I hope we will think of our American sisters and brothers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds as who they are, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans and so on. Speaking of them as "minorities" designates them according to who they supposedly are not. They are not a part of an arbitrary grouping of Americans of certain ethnic groups (those of European ancestry) who are designated as "the majority." The majority of the world’s population is not of European origin, and current demographic trends indicate that in the decades ahead Americans of European heritage may become a "minority" of the overall population.
It might be a good thing if the Catholic Church in this country would cease to use the expressions "minorities" and "minority groups." Local churches could lead the way by eliminating such expressions from their official statements, diocesan papers and parish bulletins. This is more than a matter of "political correctness." Words, as conveyers of meaning, have great power for good or evil. It is clear that, from the prophetic perspective of the Gospel and the redemptive life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are no majority/minority groups in any sense of the term. There are simply wonderfully diverse human beings, of equal dignity before God, called by the Holy Spirit to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton is the auxiliary bishop of St. Louis.