One hundred years ago, “Colored” was the typical way of referring to Americans of African descent. Twenty years later, in the time of W.E.B. Du Bois, it was purposefully dropped to make way for “Negro.” By the late 1960s, that term was overtaken by “Black.” And then, at a press conference in a Hyatt hotel in Chicago in 1988, Jesse Jackson declared that “African American” was the term to embrace; that one was chosen because it echoed the labels of groups, such as “Italian Americans” and “Irish Americans,” that had already been freed of widespread discrimination.
A century’s worth of calculated name changes are a testament to the fact that naming any group is a politically freighted exercise. A 2001 study catalogued all the ways in which the term “Black” carried connotations that were more negative than those of “African American.” This is troubling on the level of an individual’s decision making, and these labels are also institutionalized: Only last month, the US Army finally stopped permitting use of the term “Negro” in its official documents, and the American Psychological Association currently says “African American” and “Black” can be used interchangeably in academic writing.
But if it was known that “Black” people were viewed differently from “African Americans,” researchers, until now, hadn’t identified what that gap in perception was derived from. A study, to be published next month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that “Black” people are viewed more negatively than “African Americans” because of a perceived difference in socioeconomic status. As a result, “Black” people are thought of as less competent and as having colder personalities.
The study’s most striking findings shed light on the racial biases undergirding the professional world. Even seemingly innocuous details on a resume, it appears, can tap into recruiters’ biases. A job application might mention affiliations with groups such as the “Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers” or the “National Black Employees Association,” the names of which apparently have consequences—and are also beyond their members’ control.
In one of the study’s experiments, subjects were given a brief description of a man from Chicago with the last name Williams. To one group, he was identified as “African-American,” and another was told he was “Black.” With little else to go on, they were asked to estimate Mr. Williams’s salary, professional standing, and educational background.
The “African-American” group estimated that he earned about $37,000 a year and had a two-year college degree. The “Black” group, on the other hand, put his salary at about $29,000, and guessed that he had only “some” college experience. Nearly three-quarters of the first group guessed that Mr. Williams worked at a managerial level, while 38.5% of the second group thought so.
Curiously, the authors of the study itself avoid taking a side in the question of whether to use the term “Black” or “African American,” instead using “Americans of African descent.” The lead author, Emory University’s Erika Hall, told the podcast On the Media that this was done primarily out of a desire not to confuse the reader. She has doubts about the practicality of the term “Americans of African descent”—it’s kind of a mouthful—but is hopeful that a new phrase, purged of the old weight, will arrive someday. “I think a lot of the stigma is embodied in the time in which the term was created,” Hall told On the Media. “Eventually, there shouldn’t be a stigma attached with the word that’s created out of a more positive time.”
Hall’s findings suggest there’s an argument to be made for electing to use “African American,” though one can’t help but get the sense that it’s a decision that papers over the urgency of continued progress. Perhaps a new phrase is needed, one that can bring everyone one asymptotic step closer to realizing Du Bois’s original, idealistic hope: “It’s not the name—it’s the Thing that counts.”