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Sunday, July 7, 2013

What Does the Term "Caucasian" Connote?

Shaila Dewan, a reporter for the New York Times, has picked up on an interesting tidbit from a recent US Supreme Court ruling:
AS a racial classification, the term Caucasian has many flaws, dating as it does from a time when the study of race was based on skull measurements and travel diaries. It has long been entirely unmoored from its geographical reference point, the Caucasus region. Its equivalents from that era are obsolete — nobody refers to Asians as “Mongolian” or blacks as “Negroid.”
And yet, there it was in the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. The plaintiff, noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his majority opinion, was Caucasian.
My own view, echoing that of my long-time colleague Rubén Rumbaut of UC-Irvine, is that "race is a pigment of your imagination." It is culture that matters when it comes to interpersonal relationships and the color of one's skin or shape of one's skull might be used as a hint about that person's cultural background (which is captured by the concept of "ethnicity"), but it shouldn't be. Dewan provides an interesting historical factoid about the origin of the term Caucasian:
The use of Caucasian to mean white was popularized in the late 18th century by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, who decreed that it encompassed Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans. He chose it because the Caucasus was home to “the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians,” and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite wrote Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term’s origins in her book “The History of White People.”
In 1889, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary noted that the term Caucasian had been “practically discarded.” But they spoke too soon. Blumenbach’s authority had given the word a pseudoscientific sheen that preserved its appeal.
The term "Caucasian" does not appear in my book, and it is not on any US Census form. It is long past time that it disappears from the nation's vocabulary altogether.


  1. I agree completely. Yet many psychology research studies still use the myth of a Caucasoid race to justify using the term Caucasian. I wrote a letter to the NYT about this some time ago, but of course it was not printed. Perhaps it was not printed because I also added the term "Gentile." The idea that there are Goyim is just a blatantly racist. Of course, we could always have two census categories, but I don't think anyone wants to go back to that silly idea put forward by lunatics in German-speaking Europe (and other parts of Europe) in the 1930s, etc. The term "white" is also very problematic. There are a number of excellent books on where, when and how a certain ethic or religious group became "white" in the U.S. (e.g. the Irish, the Polish, the Lithuanians, the Jews, the Roman Catholics). At first the idea of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant meant only the elite, especially the elite in the major East Coast cities that have existed since colonial times. Then WASP go extended to almost anyone "white" and Protestant who was what people euphemistically call "middle class". Eventually the inevitable happened and WASP as a popular term was extended to everyone who was not unemployed or abjectly poor. That may be a good thing in terms of class, status and power, but it is not a good thing in terms of anthropological and sociological discussions of cultural and structural "race."

  2. oops: typos: just as blatantly ... Then WASP got extended ... Sorry!