It was the end of my first day at a new job on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles. I boarded a bus for the long commute home with a crush of students jockeying for the few empty seats. I watched an elderly Asian woman slide over from her aisle seat and beckon a young Latina standing nearby to take the empty seat next to her.
The student plopped down gratefully. Then she spotted me, weary in business clothes and heels, and popped back up, gesturing for me to take her spot. I thanked her quietly and sat down.
I'd barely settled in when I felt rustling from the seat next to me. The old woman was muttering and glaring at me, as she collected her shopping bags and abruptly squeezed past me to stand in the aisle.
I had no doubt about what was happening. That Asian woman would rather stand with her bags than rest in a seat next to a Black person.
I slid over, turned my face to the window and fished in my purse for a tissue to dab the tears threatening to spill down my cheeks. I didn't even bother to look when someone took the seat next to me — until I heard a soft voice say, "I'm so sorry."
It was the student who had initially given me her seat.
Her private acknowledgment of my hurt feelings meant the world to me. The burden of being publicly debased felt a bit lighter because she understood.
It's a feeling familiar to many people of color — but in this case my tormentor was a person of color too. And so was the young woman who tended to me.
That triad is an emblem of L.A.'s racial complexity, with its mix of cruelty and generosity.
It has been several years since that episode, but the hurt and anger it roused in me resurfaced last month when I listened to three of our city's elected Latino leaders gleefully mocking and insulting Black people.
Their tirade made international news, because of the crude and racist language they used to describe Black, gay, Armenian, Jewish and Oaxacan people in a private meeting, secretly recorded, about increasing the political power of Latinos at the expense of other struggling groups.
Adding insult to injury, the politicians larded their pseudo apologies with references to serving "communities of color" — when the only color they really seem to care about is their own, light brown.
And that got me thinking about whether the people of color label has outlived its utility. It's an inspiring vision and smart rallying cry, but it doesn't punch its weight at the ballot box or evenly empower marginalized groups.
Maybe it's time to scrap the "people of color" label along with the pretense that all nonwhite groups can be seamlessly yoked together in the fight for equality.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the bonds between racial and ethnic groups in multicultural Los Angeles are weak. We may share economic stressors and neighborhoods, but we have different priorities, challenges and needs — and apparently little regard for solidarity, given that the leaders of our city's largest ethnic group were trying to hoard power by chopping other groups off at the knees.
The "people of color" frame began to take shape decades ago, as Black civil rights leaders tried to find common ground with the growing pool of nonwhite immigrants. But research by UCLA political science professor Efrén Pérez has found that "the unity behind 'people of color' crumbles" when individual racial groups feel their unique challenges are being ignored.
"There is nothing natural about camaraderie among people of color," Pérez wrote in a 2020 opinion piece for the Washington Post.
Dropping the label wouldn't mean giving up on the idea that there's power in collective energy. But it would allow us to scrap the fantasy that Black, Latino, Asian American and Indigenous people are or should be willing to sublimate our own priorities to advance others' needs.
The "people of color" concept is part of the zeitgeist today, but is it necessary for the advancement of marginalized groups? Or is it merely a form of woke-speak, trying to conjure up a collectivity that doesn't exist? Or worse, a way of "erasing" the work and worth of Black people, as our slice of the American pie shrinks and other groups glom on to the gains Black people eked out over centuries?
"I've always been skeptical of the 'people of color' category," said USC law professor Jody Armour, who specializes in the intersection of race and justice. He considers it "potentially deleterious to the well-being of Black people."
He points to trends in higher education, where "we're celebrating international students, Asians, Latinos, students of color, while [enrollment] of Black students is plummeting."
Thus a win for diversity is a blow to the very group that fought hardest to open the doors of elite universities to the underserved.
The POC category has replicated this country's reductive colorism, which puts dark-skinned people at the bottom of its "people of color" hierarchy. It's become a way "of camouflaging anti-Blackness," Armour says.
"I saw so plainly in those discussions on those tapes how different groups in America establish their bona fides as first-class citizens through anti-Blackness," Armour recalled. "You distinguish yourself from Black people, and that is your intro to something like whiteness."
Even among different Latino groups, solidarity is elusive, said Loyola Marymount political science and Chicana/o studies professor Fernando Guerra.
"When we ask [Latinos] how they identify, the vast majority identify with their national origin," he said. They are Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran — bonded more by language, culture and customs than by skin color. "As a spectrum of groups in Los Angeles, the Latino community can't even get together on what to call themselves," Guerra said.
Still Guerra's research suggests that Black and Latino people do feel affinity for one another and their shared circumstances. When asked what other group understands your experience best, Latinos "overwhelmingly" say Black people, and Black people "overwhelmingly" say Latinos, Guerra told me. And Asian Americans say they feel a strong affinity with Latinos — in part because of their immigrant histories.
So how do we build on and support those empathies, without making one group's gain another's loss? We start by relinquishing the one-dimensional term that suggests that we can only move forward in lockstep.
Then we build coalitions rooted not just in outlier status, but in a shared commitment to social justice. Allies can come in all colors, Armour told me. "Who are the other folks ... who want to see an inclusive, diverse and equitable America?"
"Identity politics will always be with us," Guerra acknowledges. "You wear it on your face. You can't get rid of it. You're judged by it. But everyone has multiple identities. I don't think of myself as just Latino. I'm a father, a brother. ... Our challenge is to bring our whole selves to the public space."
And to hold on to glimmers of hope.
For me, years ago, that hope was the college student who reached across racial lines to comfort me. More recently, it was the mass of Black, brown, Asian and white people, converging on City Hall wearing T-shirts proclaiming "I'm with the Blacks."
And their steadfast insistence that officials discredited by their bigotry must move on, whatever their color and whatever you call them.