[Note: We’re repeating this post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It originally appeared on March 21, 2010. However, usage changes, so we’ve inserted updates indicating the latest preferences.]
Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?
A: In general the terms “Black American” and “African American” are synonymous.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”
The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary have similar definitions.
Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most Black Americans anyway?
The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a Black American.
But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a Black news organization, has this to say:
“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”
We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.
Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”
He notes that “Colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”
The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “Colored,” which was accepted by both Whites and Blacks. But “Colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”
Consequently “Negro” began to replace “Colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”
By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “Colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.
“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”
Thus “Black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”
So “Black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.
But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.
This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “Black” as the preferred term.
The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.
“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, Blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”
This distinction—race versus ethnic group—is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.
“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”
Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”
In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”
Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”
A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition, published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”
[Update, Sept. 5, 2021: American Heritage dropped the usage note from later editions. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “Black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Black” has now become widely established.]
Does any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”
“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”
“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”
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