Casual Conflation of Categories

One line in this Atlantic story, “The Unique Racial Dynamics of the L.A. Teachers’ Strike” story leapt out to me. Sorry, it’s the sociologist in me. But this: “In Los Angeles, 73 percent of students are Latino and another 15 percent or so are other racial minorities.” Other racial minorities? Has it become a habit in the elite media to treat Latinos as a race? Latino is not a racial designation, but an broad ethnic category.

There are five government-defined racial categories – white, black, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander. To be sure, census categories change over time, but we’re seeing unfolding a project to racialize Latinos. We are seeing a similar thing with Muslims (even ethnicizing Muslims is problematic, to wit: most Muslims aren’t Arab). This is troubling because it conflates culture with race (and religion with ethnicity and race in the Muslim case), which risks granting the profession of culture and even religion immunity from criticism because to criticize would be “racist.” Yes, I know, we are already some ways down that road – that’s my complaint!

To put this another way, the problem of racialization has shifted from being so labeled to justify oppression to, with the hegemony of antiracist ideology, claiming racial status as a new politics and a means of privilege-seeking. And it won’t do to revel in turnabout is fair play because intergenerational flesh-taking is abhorrent. But even if we were to accept the abhorrent in that regard, racializing ethnic categories is a form of deep othering. To separate people in this essentialist way is going backwards. How do we dismantle a system – racism – people want to expand? 

If we want precision in language, words need to have specific meanings – especially when objectivity is the end sought. Race refers to the organization of the human population into subcategories based on alleged biological and constitutional differences that are claimed to predict attitudinal and behavioral dispositions. Race is not an actual thing, but the product of a system of oppression based on identification of biological ancestry. In other words, race is a product of racism. Ethnicity is about culture and language and may include multiple racial identities. Latinos can be of European, Native American, African, or Asian descent. Moreover, Latino culture is derivative of European culture.

We really shouldn’t tolerate casual conflation of these categories.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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