Black or African-American?

A recent article (Lee Sigelman, Steven A. Tuch, and Jack K. Martin, What's in a Name?: Preference for "Black" versus "African-American" among Americans of African Descent, Public Opin Q 2005 69: 429-438) reports on the results of "a nationally representative cross-section of African-American adults . . . who at the time of the interview in 1998--2000 were either currently employed or recently unemployed . . . in the coterminous United States, and had telephone access." The conclusion:

Of the 2,382 respondents to whom the question was asked, 1,146 (48.1 percent) voiced a preference for "black," 1,173 (49.2 percent) said they preferred "African-American," and 63 (2.7 percent) declined to express an opinion. Thus, opinions were split almost evenly between the two terms. Comparing these figures to findings from the surveys cited above suggests that the popularity that "African-American" achieved during the early 1990s did not grow during the ensuing decade and that, if anything, "black" has enjoyed a modest resurgence.

The statistical margin of error on a survey of this size is roughly +/-2%, so the results are a tie.

Back when "African-American" was coming into vogue about 15 years ago, my college newspaper, no doubt following their style manual to the letter, referred to Nelson Mandela as an African-American...
10.14.2005 1:55pm
Guest44 (mail):
Agreed, African-American is awful. I find myself using it in conversation now, though. I guess I've been brainwashed.
10.14.2005 2:20pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
I'm reminded of a story I read on FIRE's weblog about a contest for "african-american student of the year" or something. A group of students nominated a friend who was born in South Africa and emmigrated to the US. He happened to be white, but was clearly an "African-American."

Not only was he disqualified, but the students who nominated him were disciplined over the incident.
10.14.2005 2:30pm
jallgor (mail):
This is interesting. Ever since African American started becoming popular I have always been a little uneasy about using the word "black." For a long time I wondered if it was somewhow the equivalent to using "Oriental" instead of "Asian." This poll reassures me that I have only been pissing off 50% of the black community.
10.14.2005 2:41pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
Remember "People of Color"? What was that -- 1987-1990, maybe? That always sounded more poetic to me, if less specific than the options above.
10.14.2005 2:59pm
Isaac (www):
Don't forget that a preference for one term does not necessarily indicate offence at the other. I think it's fair to say that it's likely that a majority of s would not be offended by either term.
10.14.2005 3:01pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Remember "People of Color"? What was that -- 1987-1990, maybe?
Actually, the term "person of color" is very antebellum, as well. See this decision State v. Newsom (N.C. 1844) for legislative uses of the term "free persons of color."
10.14.2005 3:19pm
Zubon (mail):
Does the report indicate geographic differences? Taking a couple of places I have lived, there seems to be a preference for "African-American" in Detroit, but in LA some people took offense at the term. (Of course, "some people took offense" is true of almost any statement.)

Has anyone informed the NAACP that "colored" has generally fallen out of use?
10.14.2005 3:20pm
The Chicago Manual of Style says that it's "African American," and that the hyphen is offensive, if I remember correctly. I don't have the book in my office right now, but I remember something like that.
10.14.2005 3:25pm
Guest44 (mail):
"Persons of color" is all the rage right now in diversity programs for employers and universities. Of course, if you slip up and say "colored persons" then you're dead meat.

AP's manual of style apparently uses "black"; I'm sure the rest of the world would take it as imperialism if they tried to imply that all people with African descent, everywhere in the world, were American.
10.14.2005 3:26pm
David Drumm:
All Americans are of African descent, if you go back far enough.
10.14.2005 3:27pm
Noah Snyder (mail):
My problem with African-American isn't just that it should describe first and second generation white immigrants from Africa, but also that it shouldn't describe Black first and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean or Brazil. Such a person is Jamaican-American or Brazillian-American, not African-American.
10.14.2005 3:27pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
I find most hyphens offensive.

Too pointy.
10.14.2005 3:28pm
I think "persons of color" refers to a larger group than persons of one specific color.
10.14.2005 3:36pm
Neal R. (mail):

The statistical margin of error on a survey of this size is roughly +/-2%, so the results are a tie.

Nope. A 2% margin of error means that there's a 95% chance that the sampled proportion is within 2% of the true population proportion. That's not at all the same thing as saying the results are *too close to call* or that there is a *statistical tie.* This survey shows a slight preference for "African-American." The margin of error quantifies the degree of uncertainty surrounding possible sampling errors. It does not obviate the results of the survey.
10.14.2005 3:43pm
JohnO (mail):

It's been a topic of discussion at the NAACP that the term "colored" is a bit anachronistic. I think the sense at the NAACP is that its organization has an historically significant exiastence and that it would be a mistake to change its name.
10.14.2005 3:50pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
In their discussions, have they thought about what they would change it to? I think NAAAAP is a little clunky, personally.
10.14.2005 3:51pm
Most of them aren't from Africa. It's like me (a white guy) calling myself European-American. I'm not from Europe. I'm from Texas.
10.14.2005 4:07pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
However if you emigrated to Europe you would technically be called an European-American. Or would it be American European? Either way.

I hate the term 'african american' used to solely identify black americans because it is/was a incorrect phrase. Although sadly the english language being so flexible it has become to mean that. It is appalling that any student would be punished for helping out true african americans, even if the color of their skin is "white."
10.14.2005 4:32pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
"People of color" isn't an equivalent of "black" or "African-American." It means "not of white European descent," essentially, though it's extremely vague. Probably wisely so — I prefer people who don't care to police those edges to people who have their own private Wannsee Protocol all worked out, even though it's annoying to ask "just what is a "person of color" and get what amounts to "you'll know one when you see one" in response.

I know a number of black/African-American folk who scorn "African-American" and go with "Black" with a capital "B." "Afro-American," meanwhile, seems to have vanished completely. Was it because it made people think of Afros?

The NAACP sticks to its acronym these days, rather like NARAL (sorry, that should be "NARAL Pro-Choice America!") But the United Negro College Fund does not, interestingly.

Steve (first comment): I think that in the last Winter Olympics, an announcer described a citizen of an African country as "the first African-American from any country" to win a medal in the Winter Games. There's the mental equivalent of a global search-and-replace going on here.
10.14.2005 4:41pm
KenB (mail):
Anyone remember this from Bloom County:

Mom: That's the most adorable little colored girl playing outside.
Steve: "Colored"? You're saying "colored people" in 1988? You know better, Ma.
Mom: Then why the "National Association for Colored People? I don't think Negroes mind at all.
Steve: Don't say "Negroes," Ma! You can't say "Negroes"!
Mom: Can I say "United Negro College Fund"?
Steve: You are baiting me, Ma!
Dad: That's it. We're leaving.
Mom: Stay put, Reginald. "Mister Socially Sensitive"isn't finished shaming his parents into enlightenment.
Steve: Everybody just calm down. Let's agree to use the the New-Age term "People of Color."
Mom: People of Color.
Steve: People of Color.
Mom: Colored people.
Steve: NO!!
Dad: We're leaving.
10.14.2005 4:42pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

Oh, my, yes. Back when Berke Breathed was funny.
10.14.2005 4:51pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Remember "People of Color"? What was that -- 1987-1990, maybe? That always sounded more poetic to me, if less specific than the options above.

It is indeed poetic. So poetic that my friends and I endorsed "People of Color" and wished to be referred to as "People of Hip" in all documents describing our employer's diversity programs.

Unfortunately, our preferred term never caught on.
10.14.2005 4:54pm
statfan (mail):
Neal, the odds that African American is in fact preferred by a majority are only about 70% (according to a table at Wikipedia. Is that a "statistical tie"? Well, if the odds were 50%, you would surely say that it's a tie. I think that it's reasonable that you be 95% certain of something before you say that it's true. So, I think it's not wrong to say that this is in fact a tie.
10.14.2005 4:57pm
John T (mail):
Nope. A 2% margin of error means that there's a 95% chance that the sampled proportion is within 2% of the true population proportion.

Nope, strictly speaking. First off, a 2% margin of error means that the confidence interval (and it doesn't say whether we're talking about a 95 or 99% confidence interval) around a result of 50% would be roughly 2% in either direction. For responses farther away from 50%, the size of the confidence interval changes-- it really changes for the low one digit responses.

Secondly, your interpretation is only accepted by Bayesians, and strictly speaking applies better to credible intervals. A frequentist would say something more like "if the true number lies in the confidence interval, then 95% of the time we did this survey we would get a result like what we got or closer to the true number." If you work out the logic you'll see it's a bit different.
10.14.2005 5:08pm
Having just sent off applications to law schools, I've always enjoyed how on the section for optional ethnicity most have a box for African-American, and then a box for White.
10.14.2005 5:36pm
SimonD (www):
The laberinthine twists of group identity nomenclature are a source of constant bafflement to me. I recently ran across a blog which identified the author as part of the "LGBTQ" crowd; when I was at college, it was just "LGB", but in the intervening time, I had been aware that the T has been appended (see Bruce, The Death of Right &Wrong, for discussion). Now, though, there is evidently a need to add a "Q" (for "queer", apparently), for "people [who] feel they don't adequately belong in either gender, or reject gender dichotomies, but don't feel they are trans" (actual explanation offered). I don't know that I've ever met anybody who doesn't "adequately belong in either gender" (indeed, I'm not sure that it's biologically possible; see Pinker, How the Mind Works; Pease, Why Men Don't Listen...), and just can't imagine sustaining an intelligent conversation with anyone who "reject[s] gender dichotomies."

The constant quest for ever more needless self-categorization continues.
10.14.2005 5:54pm
jACKJOHN (mail):

My problem with African-American isn't just that it should describe first and second generation white immigrants from Africa, but also that it shouldn't describe Black first and second generation immigrants from the Caribbean or Brazil. Such a person is Jamaican-American or Brazillian-American, not African-American.

This is very true, Noah. I am rarely outright offended by the New York Times, but I am often offended when its writers lump together the descendants of American slaves with Brazilians, etc. Someone else made the comment that using "African-American" so broadly is equivalent to the use of "Oriental," and it is. Lumping together Koreans and the Japanese and the Chinese, as if the Japanese and Koreans are really just Chinese-people-one-step-removed ignores the actual genetic differences, social history, national identity, culture, language, etc. It's basically defining people by how they appear to the speaker: "Oh, well, they're all yellow-skinned, so they're all the same to me!"

It's offensive to use African-American as broadly as Oriental, but it is also just as offensive to use the term "black" to encompass both Brazilian citizens and American citizens, i.e., to think that just because they look similar to you they are the same. It's even more bizarre when one considers the social aspect of race, i.e., that many comparatively light-skinned Americans are considered "black" here, whereas comparative dark-skinned Brazilians are considered "white" there. Frankly, it's just ignorant to lump different kinds of people together as if they haven't their own identities as human beings (a part of that being a right to be labeled properly, I guess). I'll offer another example I'm familiar with: calling all Hispanic people "Mexicans". Cubans are not Mexicans. They just aren't.

Not to rant, but the New York Times committed this sin recently when commenting on the "political maturity" of "blacks". Obviously when tracking voting behavior, the relevant community's relationship to citizenship is vitally important! But the Times lumped in immigrants with people who were born citizens here as if their civic attitudes would describe the same trend, or "maturation". I mean, please. No sane political scientist would conduct a study of political activism in "the white community" in Boston and lump together recent Bosnian emigres who were granted asylum in 1998 with Bostonians whose forefathers arrived here on the Mayflower. He'd slice and dice.

Anyway, my point with regard to the study is that it probably did not examine whether the participants objected to the terms per se or the broad application of the terms, which explains the split. I think most black African-Americans -- ha -- would find offensive the broad use of either term, e.g., "What? I'm not from Senegal! Do I look African?"
10.14.2005 6:07pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
SimonD, I think the Q is for "questioning." Meaning roughly something like "I don't want to identify myself yet as straight, or gay, or bi, or transgender; just exploring the options at the moment." That said, there are some decidedly "queer" (in the vernacular sense) sexual identities out there. What can you say about a man who is sexually attracted to women, but feels that he is himself female and undergoes surgery and hormonal therapy and the like in order to live as a lesbian? There are some people in this situation — quite a few, actually.
10.14.2005 6:10pm
Neal R. (mail):
John T. and statfan are smarter than me. Still, I don't think it's correct to say that given the MOE of +/- 2% in this particular survey, "the results are a tie," which was Volokh's original assertion. At most, you could say something like, "the probability that the results reflect an actual preference for 'African-American' is about 70%, and that's not enough to make me confident that there is such a preference." (I believe that last sentence makes a Bayesian assumption, but isn't it much better than "the results are a tie"?)
10.14.2005 6:18pm
SimonD (www):
What can you say about a man who is sexually attracted to women, but feels that he is himself female and undergoes surgery and hormonal therapy and the like in order to live as a lesbian?
As per Bruce, supra, I think that I'd say to him that he is in urgent need of professional help, and not that of a surgeon.
10.14.2005 6:29pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Around here we have a large number of imigrants from Africa who are not visualy distinguishable from "African-Americans."

I have read articles in the local newspaper that say there have been fights between gangs composed of the imigrants and the natives, which fights would, if one group were white, be labled as racial. Of course labeling both groups as blck wouldn't help. But at least we would stop confusing the Africans (i.e.) the immigrants and the native born.
10.14.2005 8:01pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Robert Schwartz:

Around here we have a large number of immigrants from Africa who are not visually distinguishable from "African-Americans."

And, as noted above, there are also a lot of recent immigrants from the West Indies, &c. who are also visually indistinguishable from black folk whose roots here go back many generations.

I got myself into a major altercation on that subject awhile back on another blog. My opponent said that apart from football and basketball, all professional sports almost completely excluded blacks. I said that wasn't fair to baseball; just look at the players' faces on the team sites. He said, basically, those aren't blacks; they're Dominicans and Cubans and Puerto Ricans. I said that the only definition of "black" we have is the category someone would put someone in on the sidewalk (or the bus), and that the only definition that really matters is whether a bigot would take someone's appearance as sufficient licence to beat him/her up or not. Dialogue deteriorated from there.
10.14.2005 8:58pm
Posters keep referring to the "problem" with the term "African-American" being that it is inaccurate. Isn't this not a problem with the word, but a problem with its usage? Is there anything wrong with descendants of African slaves wishing to refer to themselves as African American? The fact that some apply it to all black-skinned people is simply a mistake by those some, is it not?
And as for the hyphen, I would think it appropriate when used as an adjective, perhaps less so as a noun, as in "I am African American, but I am an African-American male." Either way, neither I nor any African American I know has ever been offended by the presence (or absence) of a hyphen.
10.14.2005 9:02pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
JG, I wonder about the hyphen-less "African American." I mean, suppose someone claimed to be an Israeli American, a Russian American, a Serbian American. I would want to know in what degree these people were Israelis, Russians, Serbs.

"African-American" means rather obviously an American citizen of at least partial African descent. I don't know what "African American" would mean, and I don't for that matter know what "Irish American" would mean. Except that there at least there's the possibility of dual citizenship, so if you want to distinguish Americans of Irish descent and Americans who are also, officially, Irish, you will need to be careful with the hyphens.
10.14.2005 9:25pm
Michelle, I think you rather make the point. The Middle Passage being what it was, African Americans do not know in what degree they are African, and, I think, want to emphasize a form of "dual citizenship" that cannot be particularized in the way that it can with people of other ethnicities. Calling oneself African American is a means of paying homage to an uncertain past.
10.14.2005 10:11pm

Say that if you will, but the therapy you're suggesting doesn't work. Try to imagine spending your whole life overwhelmed by a feeling that Nature played a horrible trick on you and trapped you in the wrong body. By all accounts it's terrible, and it's only exacerbated by the overwhelming numbers of people (including parents) who aren't the least bit sympathetic, are often cruel, and are sometimes even violent.

I have a friend in exactly the position you describe. As a child, she was bounced from therapist to therapist, taunted and teased, and generally treated as a freak. Nothing made her overwhelming feeling that she had been born into the wrong body go away. She had sex-reassignment surgery years ago and is now very happy in a lesbian Massachusetts marriage. What is the problem here?
10.15.2005 3:52pm
Procol Harum:
As a Person of Pallor, I'm not sure how much insight I can really offer but...

It seems to me that the problem is one of being able to tell whether the person really means "The 'N' Word".

In the 1920's, I understand that the polite term was "nigra"... but you could tell that a disproportionate amount of people were really meaning The 'N' Word when they said that. In the 40's, it was "colored" (but you could tell that a disproportionate amount of people really meant The 'N' Word when they said that). In the 50's, it was "Negro" (but you could tell...). Then there was "Black" and that lasted a good while... but there were connotations being picked up there as well.

So then we got "People of Color" which, at least to me, is so friggin' absurd that it got dropped quietly with an embarassed smile... and it became African-American.

But when People of Color in Britain, Italy, Australia, Kenya get called "African-American", it's hard to wonder whether the speaker is just using a handy substitution word...
10.15.2005 6:18pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
"She had sex-reassignment surgery years ago and is now very happy in a lesbian Massachusetts marriage. What is the problem here?"

where to begin?
10.16.2005 6:16pm
I prefer "Black", am not offended by "African American" (with or without hyphen), and understand the historical significance of the "C" in NAACP, but would not tolerate its usage in common parlance.

I find "negro" to be as offensive as "oriental", and otherwise decry the often inaccurate use of "Asian" (wouldn't Israelis, Turks, Lebanese, 1/2 of Russians, Iranians, Iraqis, Saudis, etc all be considered Asian).

If you must label me (and this being contemporary America I'm sure that you must), then just say;
"You know, that smart, witty, Black fellow makes an excellent point."
Feel free to add extra adjectives.
10.17.2005 1:45pm