We’re All People of Color Now

On January 20, Kamala Harris was sworn in as America’s first female vice president. But isn’t she also the first vice president “of color?” No, not quite. Charles Curtis, who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929 to 1933, was of Native American ancestry. But actually, he wasn’t the first vice president of color either. That would be John Adams, who served from 1789 to 1796. 

Wait a second. Wasn’t John Adams just another old white guy? Yes, that’s right. But white is a color, after all. It’s the color of milk, snow, printer paper, and clouds, among other things. In any case, it would be a strange thing to suggest that a white person’s skin lacks any color at all. But was John Adams’ skin color sufficient for him to be counted as an actual person of color? No, of course not. Not by today’s standards, anyway.  

Some will say it’s silly to suggest that whites are people of color. White doesn’t count. But these sorts of racial semantics didn’t use to have a place in America. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, the phrase “person of color” has become more commonplace lately, as schools and workplaces implement plans to achieve purported diversity, equity, inclusion goals. But these efforts in fact slice and dice America’s demographics by using divisive labels that generally categorize individuals as “people of color,” on the one hand, or merely as “white” on the other.  

And these labels have real-world consequences.  

I recently left the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which, among other things, protects students from racial discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Before I left, the office issued its 2020 annual report, which exposed just how damaging these race games can be.  

In the Annual Report to the Secretary, the President, and the Congress, the office noted that a university in Kentucky segregated resident assistants by their race in order to conduct training. The training for white individuals, which was called “White Accountability Training,” divided advisors between white resident advisors, and those who were “black, indigenous, or people of color.” (You might have heard the trendy term “BIPOC,” referring to these categories collectively).

The white resident advisors then allegedly were given training on “white privilege” and “microaggressions,” while the other resident assistants received an entirely separate—but not equal—training. Fortunately, federal civil rights laws bar segregation by federally-funded schools—just like the segregation that was prohibited by Brown v. Board of Education—so the department opened a formal investigation into the university. 

Similarly, the Office for Civil Rights’ annual report notes that a Chicago-area school allegedly used curricular materials to instruct students that whites bear collective responsibility for racism, police brutality, and other social ills. And a third school referenced in the annual report currently faces an investigation over whether it offered an exemption from some standard school vaccination requirements for students who identify as “Black, Indigenous, or as a Person of Color.”

John Adams, we can safely assume, would not qualify for the exemption. 

But even the people who like to slice and dice can’t decide who counts as a “person of color.” One school district in California, for instance, decided that Asian students don’t count.

The problem with racial identities is so bad that the Department of Education was forced to spell it out for schools that conscious race discrimination is not legal. In one document issued as part of a webinar series before I left the department, the Office for Civil Rights had to state the obvious position that “it is impermissible to assign students and individuals specific characteristics based solely on their race, and insist that members of specific racial groups act in accordance with those characteristics.” Well, yes, of course. I just hope it wasn’t too much of a shock to schools, given how many of them are apparently engaged in exactly this conduct. 

In any event, a term like “person of color” can only divide us by skin color and ancestry. While there is still work needed to stop race discrimination, no good can come of the rhetoric that forces people into racial groups, and then allows schools or other actors to make sweeping generalizations about the individuals who fall into those groups. All of us have skin, and all skin has color. That’s why we are all people of color now.

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About Will E. Trachman

Will E. Trachman is associate general counsel at the Mountain States Legal Foundation. He served as deputy assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights from 2017 to 2019, and as senior counsel from 2019 to 2021.

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