May 2, 2014


I got into a discussion of race on Facebook the other day. Well, the discussion was not really about race per se; it was about how one should refer to what used to be called Negroes.

I don’t intend to discuss race here, and I won’t even concede that race is a useful scientific concept. Most Americans, however, do classify people by “race,” based primarily on their appearance. And America’s legacy of slavery still casts a long shadow over our nation.

The matter at issue then—it was not originally framed this way—was what dark-skinned Americans of sub-Saharan ancestry should be called.

This question immediately calls to mind, for me, at least, a cartoon I once saw (in the late 60s, I believe). A white man was speaking to a black man. The caption was “What are you people calling yourselves these days?” Even today, white people can sympathize with that question. So can black people.

My correspondent was a black man who averred that he did not liked to be called African-American; he just wanted to be called an American. I could appreciate the sentiment, but, if one actually wanted to name his race, however understood, “American” is not really helpful.

In fact, “African-American” is both curious and problematic. To begin with, it is a poor proxy for race. I have some friends who are whites from South Africa. They are surely African-American, but they are certainly not black. If one gets into the habit of calling black people African-Americans, what is a black woman from Africa who happens to live in London? Is she an English African-American?  The term really refers to geographic ancestry, not racial ancestry.

But it is odd that we call someone African-American whose ancestors may have been in the United States even before there was a United States. We don’t call a white person who has been on our shores for so long an English-American or Dutch-American or German-American. For anyone but a black person, the hyphenated American designation seldom extends to more than two generations.

I’m not sure when or why the term “African-American” became politically correct in the U.S. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of “Negroes.” “Colored” was current at the same time, though it was tainted with an air of condescension.  In a time of rising consciousness, “Negro” was uncomfortably similar to a less respectful designation. “Black” became popular, along with the phrases “black is beautiful” and “black power.”

Perhaps the concepts of black pride and black power caused the white establishment to prefer a term that de-emphisizes “black,” and maybe even race itself. “African-American,” however, also subtly diminishes American-ness. A black man is an African-American, not quite a fully American American.

Race still matters in America. We have not yet achieved the color-blind society or the society with equal opportunity for all. It’s time to dump “African-American” and talk honestly about Americans who are black.


  1. There was an Internet story this week about DNA researchers who say that race as such doesn't exist, so they ignore it:
    "Existing biogeographic algorithms are essentially based on racial definitions, and have proved fairly vague. . . . A multinational research team led by Dr Eran Elhaik of Britain’s University of Sheffield is taking a different tack. Patterns of genetic diversity in human populations are often described as genome-based estimates of several ancestries that sum to 100%. In other words, admixture is everywhere. So Dr Elhaik figured that a better starting point for tracing ancestry might be the hypothesis that everyone is to some extent genetically mixed."

    1. And there is reason to believe—hope?—that, at some time in the future, there will be a single human race.


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