Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Negro? No longer. Black? Bye bye? African-American? Affirmed!

After Harry Reid's remarks about Barack Obama's favorable political utility were revealed, my brother told me that he'd heard a local conservative talk radio host predictably sputtering over the majority leader's comments, which served to illustrate leftist racism and hypocrisy. What Reid said of Obama:
[Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama --
a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.
After apologizing to the President, he hastily spread his contrition around:
An aide to the senator told CNN that Reid offered apologies to several prominent African-Americans, including House Democrats Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Barbara Lee of California; the Rev. Al Sharpton; CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile; NAACP chairman Julian Bond; and the head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Wade Henderson.
My reaction was similar to Ward Connerly's. The popular right does those who hold freedom of expression in the highest regard no favors by being leftist-lite in their hysterical seizures over such inconsequential remarks. The next Trent Lott episode has now been cued, and the stupid omertas that support the perpetual fear people have of saying the 'wrong thing' are strengthened instead of sustaining welcome cracks in their foundations. A little candidness is refreshing. Everything Reid said is at least plausible, and in my judgment objectively true.

While many whites pay scant attention to the social consequences of differences in black skin tone, it's salient in the black community. But even in popular culture, melanin matters. Caramel-colored black women tend to rise to the top (Beyonce, Rihanna). When the rare jet does so, it's often by way of association (Michelle Obama) or through sheer merit (the Williams' sisters). And there are reasons nearer the ground for why people tend to associate lighter skin with greater competence. The following table shows the estimated mean IQ (converted from wordsum scores, under the assumption that the average black IQ is 85 with a standard deviation of 15) for three subgroups of black respondents as assessed by interviewers in 1982:

Skin toneIQ

As listening to the radio makes clear, black vocal inflections are usually easily detectable. Obama's strong frame and emphatic delivery are obvious political assets. If his public presence was akin to Ron Paul's, he wouldn't be in the White House.

Finally, "negro" is an antiquated but not necessarily derogatory term to use in describing people of African descent. The US Census uses it alongside "black" and "African-American", as older blacks apparently prefer it to the newer labels.

My brother was incredulous about the last point. I explained to him that "negro" used to be favored over "black". I wasn't sure when the swapping of acceptability occured, but guessed it was sometime in the seventies. Fortunately, Agnostic's clever method of tapping the New York Times' archives to gauge the popular presence of ideas, people, and phrases over time offers the chance for greater precision.

The following graph shows the percentage of total articles containing the word "negroes", "blacks", and "African-Americans" by decade from 1851 to 1959, and then by individual year thereafter*. The blue line tracks "negroes", the black line "blacks", and the red line "African-Americans":

There was a spike during the 1860s as the US Civil War was fought. A century later, focus again shifted to blacks as a separate group of Americans, and stayed there up through most of the previous decade. It's difficult to tell whether or not the decline in reference to blacks as a group has settled around 1 of 100 articles, or if it will drop further still. The decrease in usage may be due to the increasing attention given to Hispanics, leading to the substitution of "blacks" or "African-American" with the broader "minorities".

"Negro" was clearly the word of choice until 1969, the year of the 'culmination' of the black civil rights movement and the year following MLK's assassination. By 1972, "negro"--viewed as having an ugly association with slavery--had essentially fallen out of the respectable media's lexicon, thoroughly replaced by "black". The 20 to 30 articles using the word from that time are mostly referencing historical quotes from books or people.

In the late eighties, Teddy Roosevelt's dreaded hyphenated Americanism was given semantic legitimacy. Up to that point, it had never been used to describe American-born blacks. I was in preschool at the time, and given how inchoate politically correct phraseology doesn't seem to benefit from the most meticulous of record-keeping, I am not sure of the impetus for the third-generation descriptor. Please enlighten in the comments if you are able to [Xenophon has kindly done just that]. It looks as though "African-American" will assume primacy over "black" in the next few years.

Reid was thirty when "negro" went over the precipice. He grew up using it just as I use "black" to describe people today. God forbid that, in my seventies, I momentarily forget an update to the most current version of newspeak and say something I would've innocently said as a young adult. I hate political correctness.

GSS variables used: COLOR(1-2)(3)(4-5), WORDSUM

* The plural form of each term is used to avoid the problem of "black" as an adjective describing the color of something (other than human skin!). It seemed too arbitrary and tedious to run a string of phrases like "black man", "black woman", "black student", etc. The important thing is that each descriptor is plural, so the comparisons are not apples-to-oranges. Also, I made sure "African-Americans" would catch "African Americans" as well. It does.


Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to add additional words to the chart: "colored" and "of color". Growing up in the deep south in the 1970's, I know that "colored" was still used in polite conversation mostly by the older generations, black or white. And in the 1980's "of color" spun out of the political correctness movement. Could you search the archives for these terms and add them to the chart?

Anonymous said...

Both comments were regrettable, but its shocking that some people don't understand the obvious difference between Trent Lott's statements and Harry Reids statements.

Putting aside their political leanings for a moment: Trent Lott suggested that a man who ran on a pro-segregation (i.e. pro-oppression of black people) campaign should have one and would have made this country better. In other words, Lott believes that a country were blacks are treated as second-class citizens would have been better than what we have now.

Reid suggested that American society favors blacks who have lighter skin tones over blacks with darker skin tones, and those who speak "standard" English without any inflection usually associated with African American speakers. Harry Reid is a 70+ year old man who grew up during a time when "Negro" was the preferred term. So what he said was INSENSITIVE to say the least, but its not the same as saying that white supremacist principles should have won during Strom Thurmond's day.

Let's stop comparing the two. It shows lack of historical understanding.

Finally, IQ is heavily influenced by privilege. American society does NOT favor lighter skin over darker skin because of IQ standardized tests. The preference for light skinned started in the 1600 way before any such tests. American (and Western) society places higher value on lighter skin because we place higher value one white people. So the closer a "black" person is to looking white, the more white America accepts that person. In other words, the preference is based on racial bias against black people and for white people.

Although what Reid said was true (a light skinned black person has an easier time being accepted than a darker skinned person) there is no rational reason fore people to favor light skin.

silly girl said...

"Finally, IQ is heavily influenced by privilege."

Um, yeah, just like height and hair color.

The "privilege" is parents with the traits, duh.

Xenophon Hendrix said...

I believe the rise of "African American" instead of "black" is Jesse Jackson's doing.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yes, I'd also like to track the use of "minorities", "Hispanics", and "Latinos". It's on the to-do list.


Please. Trent Lott wasn't insinuating that he favored racial segregation. Strom Thurmond put more emphasis on the 10th amendment than most other contemporary politicians. He towed the typical conservative line on a host of red-meat Republican issues. Lott was paying respect to the guy on his 100th birthday. That leftists are only able to see him as dixiecrat segregationist, as if he stood for nothing else at all, however, was Lott's downfall.

Re: people's lying eyes telling them nothing, I suppose it's similarly the case with Asians--they are more successful than whites because white society loves Asians more than they love themselves.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

It would also be interesting to chart "Orientals" vs. "Asians." In the US, at least, the former seems to have fallen out of favor.

Black Sea said...


Trent Lott was flattering an old man on his birthday, and uttered a few innocuous banalties suitable to the occasion, nothing more.

Some people have no sense of perspective, nor of humor. Do you really think that 50 years hence, your children and grandchildren will look back approvingly on everything you ever thought, said, and did?

Grow up a little, or don't grow old.

Anonymous said...

For some reason this post reminds me of the joke by George Wallace (the chubby Negro/Black/African-American comedian, not the irascible Caucasian/White/Cracker politician):

"You know what we ought to do to really mess with white people's minds? Let's all tell 'em we want 'em to stop calling us 'black' or 'African-American' and just go back to calling us niggers."