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.

Black or African-American?

Two years ago, I noted that a survey of black Americans reported a tie between those who prefer "black" and those who prefer "African-American." I just ran across a Gallup survey (from last Summer) that reports a slightly more complex picture: The survey (again, of black Americans) asked,

Some people say the term "African-American" should be used instead of the word "black." Which term do you prefer -- "African-American" or "black," or does it not matter to you either way?

61% said it doesn't matter, 24% preferred African-American, and 13% preferred black. The maximum margin of error (at, I take it, the 95% confidence level) is reported to be 6%, but as I understand it the margins of error in such surveys are generally lower for the smaller percentages, so the 24%/13% difference is statistically significant at the 95% level (though you shouldn't take the precise magnitude of the difference to the bank).

My conclusion: Even if you believe that members of various identity groups should generally be called by whatever term the group prefers (I've criticized that position here, but let's assume it for the sake of argument), in this instance we see no clear preference. You might want to use "African-American" to maximize the appeal to black audiences, or for other reasons -- or you might want to use "black" for other reasons as well. But I don't think you can be faulted as a matter of good manners for using a label ("black") that three-quarters of the black American population finds to be either no less acceptable than "African-American" or actually better.

And, of course, you should recognize that while the two terms are roughly synonymous in the U.S., they are very different when you're considering the world at large: "Black" is a racial category, and "African-American" (in its common American meaning) is a subset of that category limited to those blacks who are also American. For an example of an error related to this unthinking substitution of "African-American" for "black," see this CNN transcript: "Hard to say because it's been 11 days since two African-American teenagers were killed, electrocuted during a police chase, which prompted all of this" -- "all of this" being rioting in France, which was triggered by the deaths of black teenagers who I'm pretty sure were not American tourists. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the pointer.)

Native American or American Indian?

A 1995 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reported the following preferences among surveytakers who identified themselves as one or the other (or as related term):

American Indian49.76%
Alaska Native3.51%
Native American37.35%
Some Other Term3.66%
No Preference5.72%

So, again, even if you believe that members of various identity groups should generally be called by whatever term the group prefers -- a position that I've criticized -- there seemed to have been no overwhelmingly preferred term as of 1995, and I doubt that there is one now. (If you know of more recent surveys, please let me know.) And the older term, American Indian, is actually more popular than the term that I've often heard labeled as the modern preference, Native American.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Native American or American Indian?
  2. Black or African-American?
  3. Black or African-American?