Shaila Dewan at the New York Times explores why America classifies people by race and determines that some classifications remain useful. She says, however, that “Caucasian” has outlived its usefulness in today’s society, much like “Negroid,” and should be retired.
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.
To me, having covered the South for many years, the term seems like one of those polite euphemisms that hides more than it reveals. There is no legal reason to use it. It rarely appears in federal statutes, and the Census Bureau has never put a checkbox by the word Caucasian. (White is an option.)
The Supreme Court, which can be more colloquial, has used the term in only 64 cases, including a pair from the 1920s that reveal its limitations. In one, the court ruled that a Japanese man could not become a citizen because, although he may have been light-skinned, he was not Caucasian. In the other, an Indian was told that he could not become a citizen because, although he may have been technically Caucasian, he was certainly not white. (A similar debate erupted more recently when the Tsarnaev brothers, believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, were revealed to be Muslims from the Caucasus.)
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