Why we never use the phrase "communities of color"

Civil rights advocates, other activists, political officials, religious leaders, and many in the academy are among those who use the term. So what’s our problem? To start, the phrase often acts to sanitize segregation. Plus the phrase is often used to suggest — consciously or unconsciously — that you can use race or ethnicity as a proxy to be able to judge the opinions, interests, or behavior of all members of a group or neighborhood. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s not as if we don’t understand that some people are motivated by a desire to create a positive affirmation of identity. But the historical reality is that residential segregation was not — except in the rarest of circumstances — sought out by African-Americans, Latinos, or Asians. Instead, it was imposed by every category of player in the real estate market in an attempt to perpetuate white-dominated neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods created most often reflected (and still reflect) concentrations of poverty and exclusion from areas of opportunity. Describing such an area as a “community of color” instead of a “neighborhood that is segregated African-American” does a disservice to the historical record and suggests, erroneously, that a segregated status quo is acceptable or even desirable.

Moreover, those who use the phrase are often quite un-self-conscious about effectively claiming that all members of a racial or ethnic group think one way or want one thing. It is somehow easier to say “the Latino community believes” or “communities of color believe” than to assert “Latinos think that.” Indeed, it would be a useful exercise — whenever someone is using the “communities of color” locution — to think, “Do I really want to be saying that all Latinos [or all African-Americans or Asians] believe X or Y?” Very often, the more accurate thing to say is that “most” or “some” of a group believe something.

Third, the phrase “communities of color” is frequently intended to connote agreement across race or class lines when no such agreement or consensus exists. That may have some transient appeal, but it does not create a durable coalition, and it causes the credibility of civil rights activists to suffer.

Finally, there is often an implicit suggestion (and, sometimes, even an explicit suggestion) that the label “community of color” should immunize the position being taken by the group invoked from scrutiny or criticism, especially if coming from outside of the group. That is exactly the opposite of the civil rights principle, a principle that demands that the merits of the argument — not the identity or connections of the speaker — be the focus.

Consistent with the foregoing, we’re going to refrain from using the phrase and instead try to keep on being as accurate and specific as possible in our analysis and advocacy.