The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A white congressman says he’s a ‘person of color’

Rep. Mike Kelly speaks with workers at one of his campaign offices in Cranberry Township, Pa., in October 2018. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
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Republicans have come up with all sorts of ways to avoid or explain away President Trump’s tweets telling four liberal minority congresswomen to “go back” to other countries. But Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) distinguished himself among them with this comment to Vice News:

You know, they talk about people of color. I’m a person of color. I’m white. I’m an Anglo Saxon. People say things all the time, but I don’t get offended. . . . With a name like Mike Kelly you can’t be from any place else but Ireland.

Kelly’s suggestion that the term “person of color” is exclusionary because it does not include white people is not really the point of his comment. Kelly seemed to be saying he doesn’t get upset when someone says something offensive about those who descend from Irish communities. And it is true that discrimination against Irish immigrants was once widespread in the United States.

The Washington Post’s Marc Fischer wrote earlier this week about how in the mid-19th century, the Know-Nothings, a nativist political party known for its xenophobic and anti-Catholic worldview, wanted Irish immigrants to leave the U.S. because they were viewed as attempting to dismantle American culture — in part by increasingly occupying positions of power and influence.

The phrase “people of color” goes back to the late 18th century to describe people who aren’t white. But the term became widespread in the 1970s social justice movements to counter the negative-sounding descriptors “minority” and “nonwhite” that center on whiteness. In cities like Washington, people of color were called minorities despite very much being the majority in terms of population. And by describing people of color as “nonwhite,” the emphasis was placed on the privileged group that they were excluded from, opposed to what they are: parts of communities with their own cultures, values and contributions to American society.

In “Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice,” the editors wrote:

“An empowered Person of Color has an understanding of racism and its impact on one’s life without responding to the events and circumstances as a victim. Rather, being empowered means the capacity to engage individuals and institutions with an expectation of being treated well.”

Someone should ask the Pittsburgh-born Kelly when was the last time someone told him to “go back” to where he came from. If that ever happened to him, that would be a shame. But it certainly did not come from the president of the United States.

Even former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said people like Kelly would never find themselves on the receiving end of the words that Kelly is defending. After Trump doubled down on his attacking against the lawmaker, Scaramucci tweeted this:

“Would @realDonaldTrump ever tell a white immigrant - whether 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th+ generation - to “go back to your country”? No. That’s why the comments were racist and unacceptable. America is a nation of immigrants founded on the ideals of free thought and free speech.”

This is something Kelly probably knows. Another thing Kelly knows is that he’ll probably never be on the receiving end of these types of attacks because he is highly unlikely to disagree with Trump. And perhaps in supporting Trump’s racist tweets and suggesting that his Democratic colleagues are being overly sensitive, Kelly might be encouraging the president to continue his attacks on the women and more Americans of color.