Not What I Expected



December 31
Still above ground.


JULY 3, 2009 10:14AM

Black or African-American: The Facts

Rate: 14 Flag

A recent post that appeared on the cover of Open Salon, "What's Wrong with Political Correctness?," makes the case that many American are impolite for calling people "blacks" instead of "African-Americans."  The core of the author's argument is a 2007 Gallup poll:

According to a 2007 Gallup poll, people of color with a preference would rather be called African-Americans by an almost two-to-one margin.  So why do so many whites insist on saying blacks?

The author concludes that it is a simple matter of politeness and manners to use"African-American," and thus implies that to use "black" constitutes a failure to show good manners.  In that context the author sees "political correctness" as nothing more than showing good manners, not as something to be ridiculed or rejected.

In fact, this post is a great example of what is wrong with political correctness.  It's political, but it's not correct.

In order to see why we need to go back to the original poll results, that, for the resder's convenience, I will list here:

Gallup Poll

 Note the author's interesting locution:  people of color with a preference...

In other words, he's only talking about the first two columns.  If we look at all the results from 2007 a very different picture emerges:  61 percent of blacks don't care, and an additional 1 percent had no opinion.

Stated differently, 76 percent of blacks either preferred "blacks," or didn't care.

Now, let's return to the author's original question:   So why do so many whites insist on saying blacks?

Why?  Because more than three-quarters of blacks either don't care or prefer "blacks."

For additional guidance on this issue, we can look to Obama's speech "A More Perfect Union," surely one of the most eloquent statements about race and America so far in this century.  We find the following word counts:

"Black" -- 39 instances          "African-American" -- 9 instances

 Eighty-one percent of the time, in an important prepared speech, Obama uses "black."


 The post in question illustrates one problem with political correctness:  it claims to speak for certain groups of people, while in fact often speaking for a relatively small minority of them.

For example, feminists often advocate various politically correct ideas in the name of "women," while in fact many of the women for whom they claim to speak do not support those ideas.

Political correctness tends to be the domain of left-leaning, university-educated people, many of whom do not have much in common with those in whose interests they claim to act.  The main enclaves of political correctness are the university, and to a lesser extent, the workplace.  This is because these are the only two places where people can actually be intimidated by threat of punishment into acting and speaking in accordance with politically-correct principles.  In other venues, political correctness is enforced through verbal conditioning, a process in which people are made to feel guilty about things that they say or write through public shaming.

The unfortunate thing is that some of what is called "political correctness" really is about politeness and manners.  But it's heavy-handed methods and sometimes extreme ideas tend to be distasteful to many people, causing them to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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Good work. I read but did not comment on that post. I'm glad you took the time to gather some facts and post a straight-forward response.
The problem I've always had with "Black" and "White" is that it sets up a polarity. I've never liked polarities as they suggest oppositeness. People create oppositions in an effort to distinguish themselves in conflict. When conflict subsides, we begin to see the Grays between the extremes.
In both the 2002 and 2006 Federal midterm elections, 63% of the voting age population did not even bother voting. Since so many Americans obviously do not care about democracy should we simply do away with Congressional elections? There certainly does not seem to be much demand for them.

Thanks to the apathy of the American people, who couldn't be bothered to form an opinion or to vote, we got eight years of Bush and a rubber stamp Congress. The apathy continues today when Obama's desecration of the rule of law--such as his backing of preventive detention--goes by largely unnoticed except for here on OS.

Personally I value the opinion of someone who takes the time to form one over that of one who cannot be bothered to.

And here is the link to the voting stats:
Travis writes: "Personally I value the opinion of someone who takes the time to form one over that of one who cannot be bothered to."

But in this case the 61 percent of the people who expressed no preference did in fact participate in the poll. They answered the question. It's just that they didn't care either way.

One can only speculate as to why it didn't matter to them. Perhaps it's because, like most other people, most blacks do not construct an identity around their race. It is simply a fact -- one of many facts -- about who they are, not something that fundamentally defines who they are. That's my guess anyway.
The problem I've always had with the term "African-American" is that it accurately describes only a small fraction of the people it is meant to. That, and, in mid-sentence, it hardly dances off the tongue. Signed, a proud Michigan-American.
I'm 55, and when I was a kid we used the word "Negro." Then that fell out of favor and was replaced by "black" then "African American." I prefer African American because I've never met a black man who was actually black or a white man who is actually white. Irish American, Norwegian American, African American works for me.
"Perhaps it's because, like most other people, most blacks do not construct an identity around their race. It is simply a fact -- one of many facts -- about who they are, not something that fundamentally defines who they are. That's my guess anyway."

I would have to agree with you there. In fact, I would prefer a world with no labels but I doubt that is realistic given how obsessed we are with categorizing people. I've read that minorities will be a majority in this country by 2055 and with intermarriage becoming more acceptable, hopefully race distinctions will fade away over time.

Then again, we Americans still insist on using feet, gallons and miles so never underestimate the obstinacy of the American people when faced with formidable logic.
Just like feminists do not speak for all women, so those academics who would censor others do not speak for all those who originally supported the political correctness movement. As per my comment on the other post, political correctness was originally intended to raise awareness about the power of language and the harm words can do, so that people would see they bore some personal responsibility for perpetuating disrespect and mistreatment when they use nasty words like the "N" word.

And many of us still see it that way, regardless of the few fascists who have tried to shove it down people's throats. (And let's not forget that right wingers deliberately tainted the term as well.) I think we need a new word for the original ideas behind the term "political correctness", since it seems that this has now come to mean the exact opposite in popular culture. The original point was a worthy one, and it deserves to be kept alive.
The main enclaves of political correctness are the university, and to a lesser extent, the workplace.

This is not my experience, and I've been immersed in a university environment since 1991, which means most of my adult life. Political correctness really hasn't been an issue in the science/engineering departments I've seen. Does anyone else have different personal experience? And if we're going to rely on news reports and such, I'd have to say that they're heavily influenced by rightwing political folks like David Horowitz and Ann Coulter, whose careers seem to depend on keeping the label of political correctness alive, whether most people care about it or not.

I'll also add that political correctness is generally interpreted as a failing on the left, but there are all sorts of shibboleths on the right no one dare question. These aren't to be found in the universities, of course.
Over time, political correctness can take away from the specificity of language. It's called the "democratization of language." The definitions of words are expanded so that they "cover" more people out of politeness. In the process, specificity is lost. Good post, mishima.
Excellent analysis revealing yet another misinterpretation or misuse or abuse of statistics. By omitting the majority's lack of preference, the original statement is totally incorrect and misleading.

But I find myself wondering what was the motive for the misleading post. The original post presented misinformation, but to what end? I'm hard-pressed to find a reasonable answer to that question. Who was going to benefit from such a misrepresentation?

As to the importance of forming an opinion, I would ask: is deciding one has no preference not an opinion? I think it clearly is.

man you are fuckin right on, bro...fuck, yah. these fuckin womans and their god-forsaken band of pretty boy inty-lecktual womanly men with thier pssywhipped political correctness, they oughta be taken

to a fuckin dominatrix and be taught to enjoy their master/slave relationships...ach...! meds havent kicked in ye. i take "proxamytl", the cure for my coarse male conditon. it was prescribed by a nice lady i feel better..

sir! i must take offense! the AfricnAmericans are a proud race, and should not be called anything that hurts their feelings. they are very sensitive.

james e, bipolar
Came over here because of Rick's link to your post. Thank you for publishing the whole poll. It is revealing. Interesting because a number of my friends prefer black. When it comes to identity, I do believe that there is something to be said for manners - perhaps when in doubt, ask? In any case, rated.
The terms "black people" and "white people" are relics of an era where nearly everyone in the US were either of Northern European or West African ancestry!

The terms "black people" or "white people" to refer to African-Americans and Europeans-Americans doesn't take into account the following

1) the people of South Asia, Micronesia, Melanesia as well as the Australian Aborigines have skin that is just as black as Africans. In fact, many South Asians, Micronesians, Melanesians and Aborigines are DARKER than many African-Americans!

2) Some of the people in places like Japan or Korea have skin that is just as white as Europeans. In fact, I've seen many East Asians whose skins are LIGHTER than your average European-Americans

3) You sometimes hear Latinos talk about "Brown Pride". But when we're talking about "brown people", who are we talking about? A lot of the people of Mexico, Middle East, Polynesia and Southeast Asia have brown skins!

So now that our country has mega-dark people from Sri Lanka and Nigeria, mega-light people from Japan and Russia, and brown-skinned people from Egypt, Mexico and Tonga, we might as well as just refer to people's ethnicity based on where their ancestors are from!

Therefore, the words "African-American", "European-Americans", "Asian-Americans", etc, etc.
Hi Mishima, had to come back and post here what I posted on Travis' blog... Rick, while I think that the point would have been better made had Travis posted the poll figures, I don't think that negates the primary point of the post - manners matter.

Yes, the majority of people who responded had no preference as to whether they were referred to as African American or black. However, the fact of the matter is that the majority of those who do care prefer the term African American.

Knowing that, why not be safe rather than sorry? When we are still trying to figure out how to get along in a multi-cultural world - let's face it, most folks our age "stick to our own" - these things matter. In another generation or two, I hope that language won't carry quite the same weight/baggage that it does now.
Most people of African descent that I have known use the word "black" to categorize themselves, so I used that word for a long time. However, a "black" MSW candidate corrected me once in class to "African-American." So I used that for awhile.

My dark-skinned substance abuse clients called themselves "black," but I called them "African-American," and I could see a sense of pride--a glance at the ground and a small smile, then back up to me to make eye contact--and some amusement at my expense. It's kind of fun to watch me navigate those waters, I guess. But most if not all of "them" like and trust me more than any other counselor. I can't be effective in my job if I cannot convey my respect to clients.

How much of this "black"/"African-American" designation choice is motivated by a class distinction within the communities themselves? This is an honest question. My "clients of color" were almost all from working class or impoverished families. Money gets people better legal representation (so not so many middle class inmates, and the upper class was entirely non-existent, of course) and better treatment centers.

Imagine my embarrassment when I once, without thinking, referred to a Brit of African descent as "African-American" while discussing something with the television. Clearly not American. I was using "black" interchangeably with "African-American," and you just can't do that successfully every time.

At least with "black" you can use it for those of African descent who live throughout the world. And Indians, let's not forget the Indians. Wait, Indians aren't black! Well, we don't call them that here anyway. They are of Asian descent, aren't they?

Is it important to classify people at all? I think we do; if we want to learn and understand global dynamics and cultural and historical underpinnings of this "modern" world, we do need to find a way to do it respectfully, but we will never get everyone to agree, and if we can agree for 15 minutes, it will all be changed again as soon as you finish exhaling with relief.

I think changing designation is done in order to remind folks to show respect, which brings about better acceptance and understanding over time. When it loses its luster after years of use, it's time to do it again, to jump-start the continuing process of earning and demanding the respect that all people are due. Because we do still struggle with accepting and understanding the incredible diversity of all kinds of people we are so lucky to have here.

So I'll keep listening, keep making mistakes, keep getting involved with people, and keep learning, but I will never get it utterly correct. And that's okay.

I'm tired of fiddling with this comment, so bomb's away.
it's not a question of "correctness" but of respect, if you know someone is offended by a particular label, using that label is a deliberate offense, which is always incorrect whether or not it has anything to do with politics

the label "politically correct" is a hammer the right uses to bludgeon the left, mostly over affirmative action, and I'm offended whenever I hear the term used as a snarky substitute for "liberal"

just sayin'
Ditto what both Leslie and Roy said...
Roy writes: "it's not a question of "correctness" but of respect, if you know someone is offended by a particular label, using that label is a deliberate offense, which is always incorrect whether or not it has anything to do with politics"

"Respect" is only one part of PC, and not the most important part. The other part is that the person who utters an un-PC expression is thought to be either unenlightened or morally defective.

For example, years ago I wrote a brief letter to the editor to the college newspaper in which I used "he" as a generic pronoun. A couple of women (womyn?) came up to me afterward and accused me of "oppressing women" by using that pronoun.

In other words, it wasn't merely that I had "offended" them, but that I actually had somehow oppressed women by using that pronoun -- thus the cause of their being offended.

Personally I don't think the generic "he" does oppress women. I still sometimes use it today when I think it is appropriate. For me not to use it so as not to "offend" someone would, in effect, mean that I was being coerced into operating in accordance with a certain view of language that in fact I do not have.

This is why people resent political correctness -- because it's often used to shame or coerce people into conformity with social and political ideas with which they may not agree ideas that are almost always on the far left of the spectrum. To the extent that it succeeds it merely drives the disagreement underground and creates resentment.
Mishima, I really think closing down the conversation because someone is perceived as out of touch DOES harm our efforts at understanding one another better.

The "he" pronoun problem became an issue some time ago. I don't use the "he" generically myself, and it does bother me a bit that it still gets used in some places. I am not a "he" and do not wish to be included under that umbrella. I do not feel I am included when the word is used, so it becomes all about men.

In my writing, I use "he/she," but it's clunky. The worst solution of all is "they," which is grammatically incorrect. I have seen "s/he" used, which might be better... except the "s" comes before "he" and will probably irritate men... like you, Mishima.

The world changes and language changes to keep up with it. We will always have issues like this to quibble about. Language is not static; it grows and changes all the time. It confuses us and infuriates us. It must be RIGHT, but it can't always be right if it is always changing.

We've been warring over language for a long, long time, and it can be fun and fascinating to watch. Can we try that?
Along these same lines, you might enjoy my post on sexism.
This is why people resent political correctness -- because it's often used to shame or coerce people into conformity with social and political ideas with which they may not agree ideas that are almost always on the far left of the spectrum.

That's the crux of the issue. As an example, I don't use the title "Father" as it's applied to Catholic preachers. In my interpretation of my faith, it's not "correct" to do so, merely "politically" appropriate from the preacher's perspective. Regarding the black v. A-A question, as cultural descriptors, "black" and "white" have so far transcended the notion of pigment that only a very narrow-minded interpretation would mention skin color. Since I don't usually get into deep, ancestral conversations with strangers, I have no use for being called A-A, which only serves to highlight a broken link to my past. One that ironically may have been broken by the ancestors of the person who uses the phrase.
Thanks for the thoughtful post--sorry to get here late.
I always prefer original source material. I agree with Rob, though, that universities aren't--at least in my experience--the major source of political correctness. I think they are the major perceived source of political correctness. It feels like a straw man to me, the way Bill O'Reilly's "War on Christmas" feels like a straw man.

No matter who's espousing or dousing it, I do loathe political correctness.

Contrary to common assumption -- the terms "Black" and
"African-American" DO NOT MEAN THE SAME THING !!!!!!

AAs & BAs: The KEY difference
between these TWO (2) groups ...

The African-Americans (AAs) are an ETHNIC
grouping of people that is comprised ONLY of:

*** The 'Descendants-Of-The-Survivors' of
the chattel-slavery system that took place on
the 'continental' United States of America
during the antebellum era of its history.***

Most (+70%) -- although not all -- of the people
who are born to two (2) AA parents are found to
have an ancestral "racial" lineage that includes
varying amounts of African (45-55%), Amerindian
(+25%) and also European (+20-30%) bloodlines
-- that were both admixed into and "continually
remained" within the lineage of their families.

(Meaning they are of the Mixed-Race category that is
referred to as "Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed"
or as 'MGM-Mixed' racially-admixed ancestral lineage)

Thus, this incredibly unique ETHNIC group of people is
actually not seen (by most scientists and geneticist)
as being a 'Black' RACE group (or any sort of RACE
group) at all --- but rather they are seen as actually
being comprised of people that span across
the following "racial" categories and groups ...

**** Multiracial (about 70% of the AAs -- ex. Jayne Kennedy)
**** Black (about 20% of the AAs -- ex. Oprah Winfrey)
**** Biracial (About 5% of the AAs -- ex. Jennifer Beals)
**** Amerindian or White (About 5% of the AAs -- ex. Walter White)


The Black Americans (BAs) are a RACE
grouping of people that consists ONLY of:

***The 'Volitional Immigrants' that are from nations
that are found all over the world and who are both
Fully of the Black Race group and who are also
NOT the descendants-of-the-survivors of the
chattel slavery system that was once found
on the continental United States of America.***

As noted, the BAs are a RACE group and
are seen as being of a fully-Black lineage.


THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN (AA) ETHNIC GROUP;_ylt=Al5eeK2CFwcv4rD5U5qzvEfty6IX?qid=20070527201834AAIhzhM&show=7#profile-info-CiC2JY9Maa;_ylt=AiebDu.tSshJzQ0wS5fMp7jty6IX?qid=20070623205206AANUzPN&show=7#profile-info-q1hdwifgaa


PRO-EUGENICIST ‘ONE-DROP RULE’;_ylt=AjwuxYj8agKY7yGgqaJ7i.Xty6IX?qid=20070704121228AA7ZMsA&show=7#profile-info-ezQwEaJLaa