NEW YORK,USA, July 6, 2013 (Shaila Dawan,New York Times): As a racial classification, the term Caucasian has many flaws, dating as it does from a time when the study of race was based on skull measurements and travel diaries. It has long been entirely unmoored from its geographical reference point, the Caucasus region. Its equivalents from that era are obsolete -- nobody refers to Asians as "Mongolian" or blacks as "Negroid." And yet, there it was in the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action. The plaintiff, noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his majority opinion, was Caucasian.
The Supreme Court, which can be more colloquial, has used the term in only 64 cases, including a pair from the 1920s that reveal its limitations. In one, the court ruled that a Japanese man could not become a citizen because, although he may have been light-skinned, he was not Caucasian. In the other, an Indian was told that he could not become a citizen because, although he may have been technically Caucasian, he was certainly not white. (A similar debate erupted more recently when the Tsarnaev brothers, believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, were revealed to be Muslims from the Caucasus.)
The use of Caucasian to mean white was popularized in the late 18th century by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, who decreed that it encompassed Europeans and the inhabitants of a region reaching from the Obi River in Russia to the Ganges to the Caspian Sea, plus northern Africans. He chose it because the Caucasus was home to "the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgians," and because among his collection of 245 human skulls, the Georgian one was his favorite--this all according to Nell Irvin Painter, a historian who explored the term's origins in her book "The History of White People."
In 1889, the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary noted that the term Caucasian had been "practically discarded." But they spoke too soon. Blumenbach's authority had given the word a pseudoscientific sheen that preserved its appeal. Susan Glisson, who as the executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford, Miss., regularly witnesses Southerners sorting through their racial vocabulary, said she rarely hears "Caucasian." "Most of the folks who work in this field know that it's a completely ridiculous term to assign to whites," she said. There is another reason to use it, said Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of government and African-American studies at Harvard. "The court, or some clever clerk, doesn't really want to use the word white in part because roughly half of Hispanics consider themselves white." She added, "White turns out to be a much more ambiguous term now than we used to think it was." Doubtless, this society will continue to classify people by race for some time to come. And as we lumber toward justice, some of those classifications remain useful, even separate from other factors like economic class. Caucasian, though? Not so much.