What does it really mean? Some groups have banned the word. It's not just about numbers anymore, they say - it's about status.
City council meetings are famously dull. Anybody who's sat through one knows - you bite your nails, you squirm, you wish you lived in some other city.Skip to next paragraph
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But this summer, Boston City Council president Charles Yancey, introduced an ordinance to strike the word "minority" from the official city lexicon, he touched off a fight that has gotten even those dozing in the back row out of their seats and into the debate.
Some, across racial and ethnic lines, hate the word: They say it's narrow, insulting, and inaccurate in a city whose population is 51 percent people of color. Others find it useful as a designation for political and funding purposes.
Still others say that to fight such a linguistic battle with a city ordinance is foolish. The term originated in Washington in the late 1960s, and was intended as a government tool to identify disadvantaged groups. It has since acquired specific legal connotations, and the US Census and federal agencies that use it most have no plans to abandon it.
Councilor Yancey doesn't care. "Yes, it's a symbolic move," he says. "The definition is 'less than,' and that implies not only numerically, but in terms of power, prestige, significance. If you're called that, you're going to feel less than. The term is demeaning."
Florence Allen, coordinator of the Minority Recruitment Program at Boston Medical Center, sees the issue differently. "I am not demeaned if somebody calls me a minority," she says. Ms. Allen says she's from the Caribbean, she's black, and she's had her share of department store salespeople in this country follow her around, expecting her to steal something. So "I am a minority, in the sense that there are more of other groups than there is of me."
Critics fear that the designation "minority" isn't, and never has been, purely about numbers. As evidence, they cite the growing number of cities - 19 of the country's 50 largest, according to the most recent census - in which the combined African-American, Latino, native-American, and Asian-American populations total more than half the city.
Where the term lingers despite all demographic evidence to the contrary, says lexicographer Anne Soukhanov, it's not just out of laziness, but because "some gray-suited white men in a fancy office think they're better than other people."
Ms. Soukhanov, herself Caucasian, has spent a lifetime thinking about words. She and other editors of the Encarta World Dictionary were particularly careful in their definition of the word "minority" in the book's most recent edition. Definition 4 reads: "OFFENSIVE TERM; an offensive term for a minority member, now avoided by careful speakers because it can cause offense (offensive)."
Her dictionary was criticized by some for trying too hard to be politically correct. But Soukhanov says it had to be: "We're supposed to reflect the trends that are going on in society today, not the trends that were established by the Brothers Grimm."
The book's definitions caution users about minority and other terms - mostly slurs related to race, sexuality, or class - "to warn people that if they use those toward someone else, their use is a direct reflection upon them, the speakers, and not those they are victimizing," she says. "Because language is a loaded weapon - it really can be."