On WMAs, OFJs, and Melanin-Deprivation   no comments

This editorial originally appeared on Officer.com on November 21, 2007.

It’s old news now, but a couple of weeks back (November 10, to be precise), the vice president of programming for an AM radio station in Tolleson, Arizona took exception to the Chandler Police Department’s characterization of a rape suspect as “Hispanic.” She notes that “Hispanic” is an ethnicity, not a race, and that it would have been more appropriate to describe the suspect as having “dark skin.” Chandler PD, bless their little sun-baked hearts, told the people at KMYL that they’re perfectly happy to keep describing their suspect as a Hispanic.

I couldn’t read this without reminiscing over the pantheon of terms for various races, ethnicities and nationalities that law enforcement and other industries have had forced on them over the years. I always seem to be behind the curve on these.

When I was growing up, the polite term for people that are now usually called “African-American” was “colored,” moving towards “negro.” Evidence of both terms remains today. A major political group for this community is the NAACP, which is short for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There is also the United Negro College Fund, which made famous the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” There were numerous public service announcements about the UNCF during my childhood, but the organization fell off the radar until they were addressed by former Vice President Dan Quayle. “Dim Dan” revived their popularity when
he was reported as saying, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind or not to have a mind. How true that is.” You don’t get gems like that from Cheney.

James Brown is largely credited for the movement from “negro” to “black.” Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud took “black” from being a pejorative to a preferred label. By the time I got to college, saying “negro” or “colored” marked one as either brain dead or racist, and we had Black Studies Programs and Black Student Unions.

It was around the same time that “Chicano” became the preferred label for people that are now called “Hispanic.” I grew up in a town with a significant population of current or former migrant workers, who were known generically (if sometimes inaccurately) as “Mexicans.” In other parts of the country, “Latin” or “Latino” was more commonplace.

Folks whose ancestors hailed from the Far East were often called (again, often inaccurately) “Chinese,” even though they might have had roots in a dozen other countries that didn’t want anything to do with China. This later morphed into the more generic “Oriental,” but that term came to be offensive as well. I never got what was objectionable about that. There was a student organization at my college called “Oriocci” (Oriental-Occidental) that everyone seemed to be okay with, and it didn’t bother me to be labeled as an “Occidental,” even if that was only used to distinguish me from the “Orientals.” I think the fashionable characterization is now “Asian,” although I might not be current there, either.

I was once compelled to attend a cultural diversity workshop presented by a delightful fellow who had emigrated from Vietnam. He started off the class by asking if anyone could tell him the physical differences between Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. One of my colleagues had lived in Japan for several years, and went into considerable detail on nose width and shape, eye angle, and skull features, with special attention to the areas around the eyes and forehead. The presenter listened patiently, then replied, “That’s interesting. I can’t tell, myself.”

All of these terms mix nationalities, ethnicities, and races, and maybe that’s part of the discomfort people have with these descriptors. In college genetics (that biology degree was a lot of work, and I use it whenever I can), I learned that there are four races of homo sapiens: Australoid, Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid. There were representative photos for each group. The Australoid looked like the people that I knew as Aborigines. Mongoloids were Asian or Oriental. Caucasoids were light skinned, European types. The representative for Negroid had strongly African features. These might have been the roots of mankind, but it was evident that we had stirred the gene pool up a lot since then.

If that “mongoloid” label hits you as especially offensive, it’s probably because it was lifted to describe people suffering from Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by having one too many copies of chromosome 21. There is a classic appearance of people with this affliction, with the heavy eyelids thought by some to look Asian. People with Down Syndrome are developmentally handicapped, with intellectual development that doesn’t usually progress past the childhood level.

Police jargon has never quite kept up with the social changes. I grew accustomed to seeing suspect descriptions beginning with a three letter designation like WMA (white male adult), MFJ (Mexican female juvenile), NMA (Negro male adult), and OFA (Oriental female adult). I don’t recall anyone viewing any of these as racist, or that one group was considered “better” than others. It was just a way of creating a mental picture of whoever it was you were looking for. NCIC and NLETS used the same terms, although there have been some changes since then.

Many of the more politically correct descriptors have sacrificed accuracy in favor of style. I once heard Nelson Mandela described as an “African-American.” African, certainly. American? I don’t think so.

We’ve been making jokes about new politically correct terms for years. Short people are “vertically challenged,” bald men are “follically disadvantaged.” Three of my personal favorites are to describe criminals as “differently ethical,” “morally challenged,” or “clients of the correctional system.” Still, some people, notably staffers at obscure radio stations, take exception to a term that was never expressed as a race, but merely as a way of distinguishing a rapist from a lot of people that were clearly not him.

Through all these changes, hate speech remains oddly consistent. The infamous “N-word” is used as widely and offensively as it was when I was a child, although some people have replaced the “-er” ending with “-a” and claimed it as their own, available to them but forbidden to me. Sorry, no sale. If it’s racist for me to tell a man that he can’t drink from a water fountain because of his color, it’s similarly racist for someone to tell me I can’t speak a certain word because of my color. How about we just agree to not use the word at all?

Maybe I should campaign for my own unwieldy racio-ethnic descriptor (I’m liking this complicated stuff already). I don’t recall being called “Caucasian.” I’ve always been “white.” That’s boring and so 1960s. How about “pigment-deficient”? Nah, that sounds inferior. I know—“melanin-deprived.” I sound much more like a victim that way.

I’ve said this before: we would all be a lot better off if we focused on our commonalities and downplayed our differences. I don’t want to be an Irish-American, European-American, or even “melanin-deprived.” I’ve always thought it was pretty cool just to be an American, and white is just a color, not a value statement. And for the programmers at KMYL: your fifteen minutes are up. Get. Over. It.

Written by Tim Dees on November 21st, 2007