Colored People or People of Color?

As of late, there was a scuffle in the House because Rep. Eli Crane from Arizona used the term “colored people” instead of “people of color.” Rep. Joyce Beatty (OH) responded immediately “asking for unanimous consent to take down the words of (sic) referring to me or any of my colleagues as colored people.”[1] Shortly thereafter, Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett took to Twitter, “Rep. Eli Crane just referred to Black service members as ‘colored people’. You can’t make this up. This is who these people are, and who they’ve always been.” After seeing the exchange and reading about the fallout I couldn’t help but wonder why.  Let me pose a simple question. Was Rep. Crane’s use of “colored” as a descriptor a moral failure?

This is not a hard question to answer. If the use of the term were a moral failure, then the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP would have changed their name long ago. Instead, they defended their use of it saying,

Times change and terms change. Racial designations go through phases; at one time Negro was accepted, at an earlier time colored and so on. This organization has been in existence for 80 years and the initials NAACP are part of the American vocabulary, firmly embedded in the national consciousness, and we feel it would not be to our benefit to change our name.[2]

Clearly, the NAACP is not so insensitive to the people they represent so as to leave a morally offensive moniker in place for the simple reason of name recognition. In other words, they might prefer to be called the NAAPC but name recognition outweighs any other concern. 

But let’s ask the obvious. Why is the moniker “people of color” acceptable but “colored people” not? Let’s put our grammatical caps on for a minute. The adjective “colored” in “colored people” expresses the same relationship as the possessive in “people of color.” This is not too difficult when you think about it in relation to other examples.  A moment of silence is a silent moment. An honor code is a code of honor. A battle plan is a plan of battle.  So, what’s the difference? Really. What is the difference between “colored people” and “people of color?” This is not a harangue but a legitimate question. If the word is morally offensive, then by all means, let’s not use it.

Some might say that it is. For example, it might be argued that the phrase is like the N-word and therefore should not be used.  Not all slang is appropriate or welcome and so the N-word has been expunged from public use, at least in some spheres.  But is the designation “colored people” unwelcome slang that carries the same offense as the N-word? I would argue that it does not.  The NAACP is positive proof. But that still leaves us with the question, why is this moniker so offensive that a congresswoman would object to its use?

The answer is simple. Politics. I find it interesting that Crane’s point was as simple as it was true. If our country continues to press forward an ideology of identity politics in military recruitment, armed forces will grow ever weaker. Rep. Beatty didn’t seem to recognize that very point. However, no one on the other side of the isle is pushing back on this destructive ideology.  For example, when Speaker McCarthy was asked about the incident, he said it was “not acceptable.”[3] I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t say something like, “When Rep. Beatty challenges the NAACP with racism, we will address Mr. Crane for the same insensitivity.”

However, as a Christian, this bothers me. I do not want to unnecessarily offend either Jew or Greek, to steal a line from Paul.[4]   So, how should a scenario like the one that happened on the House floor be handled if it took place on the streets, classroom, or work area? To put it another way, as a pastor, how might I counsel a Mr. Crane?

First, I would ask a person to examine their own heart. In other words, did they act with intent to offend? Did they know their words would cause unnecessary harm to another? As Christians we need to take care to love our neighbors and even our enemies and this begins in the heart, our own heart. Perhaps you are a person fed up with the identity politics and every time you open your mouth you seek to offend, that is your purpose. While working at the polls I encounter people like this. They are angry and their every word is intended to insult. If you are this person, then you are in the wrong. Out of the mouth come the thoughts of the heart. My counsel is simple. See that your heart is healthy that you might speak a kind word to your neighbor and enemy.

Second, perhaps a person misspoke and did not intend harm. Not long ago I was with some brothers and sisters of color, they are friends I count as family.  In the conversation I said something that I thought might have been offensive. So, I simply asked if it was. I was told that no offense had been taken and we had a really good conversation about this whole issue in our American scene. I don’t think that it is too simplistic to say that communication is still the crying need of the hour. Friends, let us speak the truth in love to one another while there is still time. Our politicians, and the Biden Administration in particular, are seeking to paint white people into the corner of fragile, abusive, supremacists and this is leading to an American Apartheid.

Third, what if the person is offended because they want to be offended. For instance, Rep. Crane asked to amend his comments to read “people of color” instead of “colored people”, but Rep. Beatty would have none of it. She gave the impression of wanting to be offended. What do you do in that situation? You need to remember the Proverbs. Fools like to fight.[5]  And fools like to be offended.[6] Do not be a fool and answer according to their folly. Speaker McCarthy only added fuel to the fire of identity politics. He might as well have called Rep. Crane a racist. Now, whether Crane is a racist is not the issue. I don’t know Rep. Crane and I am not interested in defending him personally at this point. The issue is that too many politicians are answering their foolish colleagues according to their folly.    No wonder those of us along for the ride feel as if we are going crazy on a ship of fools.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Editorial Director of Ref21 and Place for Truth both online magazines of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.