The term ‘minority’ has never made sense. Cancel it: Derrick Z. Jackson

The term no longer makes sense in a United States where people of color are the majority in many cities.

Nearly three decades ago, I wrote the following sentence in a Boston Globe column: "Let us bury the term 'minority.'"

Silly me, thinking in 1991 that I could eliminate this amorphous, diminutive label for people of color with a few taps on a keyboard.


I excised it from my own writing, as government, businesses, and the media continued to employ "minority," "minorities," and "minority communities" as lazy shorthand.

I was offended to be categorized by the root word "minor," which Merriam-Webster defines as "inferior in importance, size, or degree: comparatively unimportant." I argued the term no longer made sense in a United States where people of color were the majority in many cities.

Discourse and discordance

In 2020 as the entire nation edges toward becoming majority people of color, the word remains deeply embedded in our political discourse and discordance.

When delivering last month's eulogy at the funeral for civil rights hero John Lewis, former President Obama said – without calling them out by name – that President Trump and Republicans were surgically "targeting minorities and students" in voter-suppression campaigns. Trump retorted that Obama "did a bad job for minorities," before proclaiming, "I did much more for minorities."

Trump then shed his cape as a superhero for "minorities" Wednesday and denigrated them like a 1960s white flight block buster. Asked to clarify his claim that a Joe Biden presidency would usher in an invasion of the suburbs by dark-skinned people, Trump noted that roughly a third of suburban residents are already "minorities" who want to "destroy suburbia" by changing zoning laws to build low-income housing. "You want something where people can aspire to be there, not something where it gets hurt badly," the president said.

Obama's use of "minorities" was noteworthy for its irony. The first Black president would not have won two terms without an overwhelming majority vote from people of color. After all, only 43 percent of white voters chose him in 2008; and only 39 percent went his way in 2012.

Trump's use of the term was, of course, in the cynical service of patronization and the evil service of stoking white fears. At one, he wants to magnify the danger of people of color while reminding those communities of the status he wants to keep them in.

Lexicon of white supremacy

That makes this a perfect time to finally conduct that funeral for "minority."

If you believe words have power – or can disempower – the "minority" labeling of Black and brown people has surely played no small part in our concerns being ignored or perpetually diluted by white politicians, businesses, and voters. The current COVID-19 massacre is an ultimate example of what happens to people labeled as "minorities," when generations-old racial disparities in jobs, housing, education, and health are pathologically deemed comparatively unimportant. The APM Research Lab says 18,000 more African Americans, 6,000 more Latinos, 600 more Indigenous Americans and 70 Pacific Islanders would be alive today if we died of COVID at the same rate as white Americans.

This outright crime against humanity is a perfect moment to consign "minority" to the lexicon of white supremacy culture. Even as I write, the word is badly infecting an arena that touches on just about every disparity there is: environmental justice.

When presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recently announced his his plan on environmental justice, a Bloomberg Law headline announced, "Minority Communities Hail Biden's Plan for Environmental Justice." The Huffington Post reported Biden's plan would direct billions of dollars of clean electricity investment to "poor and minority communities."

Sustained spotlight

Last week, when California Senator Kamala Harris — now the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice-president — and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Climate Equity Act, the New York Times picked up a Reuters story that stated the lawmakers were trying to "beef up federal accountability for pollution in minority communities disproportionately harmed by climate change." The Washington Post noted that the act "would require relevant bills in Congress to be scored on how much they may adversely impact poor and minority communities."

When President Trump last month announced the rollback of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which gives communities the chance to testify to the possible impacts of infrastructure projects, the Associated Press wrote, "Opponents say the changes the Trump administration made will have an inordinate impact on predominantly minority communities." In June, when the president signed an executive order expediting projects like oil and gas pipelines, the headline in The Hill blared, "Trump's latest environmental rollback threatens minority communities, experts warn."

This is by definition a ridiculous irony: So-called "minority" communities bear the majority of the burden of living with the environmental degradation of the United States. A 2014 report by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform found that while white Americans were 64 percent of the nation's population at the time, they made up only 47 percent of residents who reside in "fence-line zones" that are extremely close to dangerous chemical facilities.

Those facts are far from common knowledge thanks in part to America's semantic suppression of them into a separate, "minority" universe. I'm hoping COVID-19 and the protests over police brutality will ensure a sustained spotlight on these details in the much broader discourse over systemic racism. If so, millions will soon learn that the hand of environmental injustice is everywhere, from cradle to grave.

Noxious, neurotoxic emissions

A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that fine particulate pollution kills 107,000 Americans a year. Many of the same researchers revealed that white households disproportionately generate the contaminants via their consumption of goods and services. Meanwhile, African-American and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately breathe in those particulates, which attack the lungs and heart. Add to that, recent Harvard University public health research that found that only a small increase in particulate pollution is tied to a large increase in COVID deaths.

Communities sickened by noxious and neurotoxic emissions face higher risks of premature births, cancer, poor performance in school, lost time at work, and frozen home values. They face a much higher chance of being visited by the COVID angel of death on its hunt for compromised bodies. When people of color are so entrenched in the majority of such deadly dysfunction, we cannot wait until 2045 or so to become the actual majority – and for our nation to take what ails us seriously.

For example, the Obama administration estimated that its tighter regulations on air toxics, greenhouse gases, and soot would prevent thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of lost school and work days. On the other hand, the Trump administration admitted that its replacement for Obama's Clean Power Plan could result in 1,400 additional deaths annually.

Not so easy to forget

In 1991, I wrote, "Eradicating 'minority' is a beginning toward forcing this country to recognize ethnic and color groups in specific contexts' – as opposed to a majority/minority binary where semantics alone makes it easier for them to be forgotten. Back then I drew the analogy to the minor leagues being the chump divisions of baseball, sad songs being sung in a minor key, and the minority party being out of power.

That comparison holds today (though out of respect for baseball players trying to realize their dreams, I would replace "chump" with "less recognized"). When it comes to which communities are ducking dust, holding their noses to avoid fumes, or hiding from a modern-day plague, the term "minority" is meaningless — unless its meaning is to keep these injustices so minor that a nation never lifts a finger to stop it.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in Grist. Reprinted with permission.

Why a “fracking refugee” is attending the global plastics treaty negotiations
Jill Hunkler is pictured in front of the Shaw Centre, where the plastic treaty negotiations are taking place. Credit: Allison Woolverton.

Why a “fracking refugee” is attending the global plastics treaty negotiations

“Fracking and building pipelines in order to create more poisonous plastic is ruining people’s lives.”

Jill Hunkler, an Ohio resident who considers herself a “fracking refugee,” is telling her family’s story at the global plastics treaty negotiations in Ottawa this week, where negotiators from about 175 countries are working to advance a treaty to address global plastic pollution.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

​Half of the world's plastic pollution can be traced back to 56 companies​

New research shows a few multinational companies, including Philip Morris International and Coca-Cola, are major contributors to global plastic pollution, a study finds.

Sofia Quaglia reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
Houston's toxic petrochemical exports
Credit: Louis Vest/Flickr

Opinion: Houston's petrochemical exports fuel Europe's growing plastics crisis

Europe grapples with escalating plastic pollution, driven by petrochemical imports from Texas. A recent report by Amnesty International shows how some of these imported petrochemical products are linked to environmental racism, and calls for more stringent rules to restrict the proliferation of polluting plastics.

Alysha Khambay writes in euobserver.

Keep reading...Show less
Reflexiones de la próxima generación sobre el mes de la Tierra
Credit: masplashti /Unsplash

Reflexiones de la próxima generación sobre el mes de la Tierra

HOUSTON — En homenaje al Día de la Tierra, EHNe está publicando cartas de estudiantes del octavo grado de YES Prep Northbrook Middle School en el barrio de Spring Branch, Texas, que está en el área de Houston.

Keep reading...Show less

Hydrogen industry growth lags behind U.S. climate targets

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm highlights the slow growth of the clean hydrogen industry, posing challenges to achieving U.S. climate goals.

Christian Robles andCarlos Anchondo report for E&E News.

Keep reading...Show less

Climate crisis fuels mosquito disease spread in Europe, expert argues

Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever are increasing in Europe due to global warming, according to an expert.

Helena Horton reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
youth climate change

"Our lives might be on the line"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

sargassum

After 13 years, no end in sight for Caribbean sargassum invasion

Thousands of people were hurt by sargassum blooms last year in the Caribbean.

youth climate change

“We should take care of what is precious to us"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

earth day 2024

Earth Day reflections from the next generation

This week we're featuring essays from Houston-area eighth graders to hear what the youth think about the state of our planet.

New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

New EPA regulations mean a closer eye on the nation’s petrochemical hub

Houston’s fenceline communities welcome stricter federal rules on chemical plant emissions but worry about state compliance.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.