Black or African-American: Which is Correct in Our Society?

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What's in a name? Image by BBoomerinDenial.

What’s in a name? Societies use various terms for different ethnic groups, but the debate between ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ continues. Image by BBoomerinDenial.

Black vs. African-American: If you’re confused about which term to use, you are not alone. Debate about this subject is wide-spread, both among researchers and civilians.

‘African-American’ vs. Other Terminology in Our Culture

The term ‘African-American’ entered the popular discourse during the 1980’s. During the Civil Rights Movement, words such as ‘Colored’ and ‘Negro’ fell into misuse and developed a derogatory connotation.

‘African-American’ eventually became an accepted manner of describing people with black skin, regardless of their origin. The term was considered a positive way of giving Americans of African descent the equivalent of terms describing other Americans of foreign descent, such as Italian-American and Cuban-American.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, ‘African American’ and ‘Black’ are interchangeable terms. The Bureau defines Blacks or ‘African-Americans’ as any people with origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. ‘Africa’ in this context includes Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Kenya or Nigeria, as well as the Caribbean, such as Jamaica or Haiti. The Census Bureau defines ‘White’ as having origins in any of the original peoples of North Africa, Europe, or the Middle East.

Social Groupings For Research’s Sake

An article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health points to the problems inherent in using ‘African American’ as a broad phrase. From a health perspective, it is illogical to lump people from the Caribbean, Europe and Africa under one label based on a few physical characteristics.

Scientifically, the majority of genetic differences are found within populations on the same continent. Few genes have been found to correspond to physical characteristics, such as facial features and skin color, and those few genes are rarely related to disease. Therefore, drugs that are targeted toward certain populations would not affect people from different continents differently, regardless of the term someone uses to describe them.

This study, which Charles Agyemangl of the Netherlands led, recommends a far more precise use of descriptive terms. The researchers would recommend using ‘African’ only when it is attached to a specific subpopulation, such as African-Surinames. When it comes to African-Caribbean, they would use the name only to describe people from African descent who originated in the Caribbean, and even then, define people as first-, second- or third- generation African-Caribbeans.

Likewise, they say that African-Americans should be described by their generational distance from Africa, such as the slightly-unwieldy, but more correct: ‘African-American of distant ancestry from West Africa.’ These researchers would limit the label ‘African-American’ to those whose African ancestry spans back to at least three generations, and call more recent arrivals by their specific origins, such as ‘American-Caribbeans.’

‘African-American:’ Who Owns the Term?

The researchers’ contentions touch upon the debate raging among various group of blacks in the U.S. Some say that African-American should describe only those Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and not those who arrived in the U.S. in the 1960’s and beyond. Those whose families endured slavery believe that they earned the label through their suffering, and relative newcomers belittle their struggle when they lightly adapt the label.

In the 1960’s, changes in federal immigration law led to great numbers of Africans and Caribbeans immigrating to the U.S. Some feared that the number of blacks with recent roots in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean would eclipse the number of non-immigrant blacks. Many American blacks, who felt their identity was shaped by their struggle to win opportunities for blacks, did not want their identity as ‘African-Americans’ adopted by individuals who had no relationship to that struggle.

Semantics-Based Disagreement

Columnist Charles Mosley even goes so far as to say that the term ‘African-American’ stereotypes individuals and creates a sense of apartheid. He notes that the African continent comprises thousands of tribes and ethnic groups, but ‘African-American’ throws all Africans into the same culture. Furthermore, he believes the term refers only to black slave descendants, so using it prevents cohesiveness among blacks, which dilutes their social and political power.

Others define the term differently. According to the Bloomberg Style Guide, any ethnic description that is used in hyphenation with ‘American’ is reserved for immigrants or first-generation Americans. For example, an ‘Italian-American’ would either have emigrated from Italy or have a parent who had emigrated from Italy.

By this logic, President Barack Obama would be described as an African-American, because his father was from Kenya. First Lady Michelle Obama would not be considered an African-American, as her family has been in the U.S. for generations.

African-American or Black History Month: Terms in Our Culture

The term ‘African-American’ is difficult to define. Therefore, disagreement about its use has not dissipated, and the dispute about which term to use is likely to rage on. Is it Black History Month, or African-American History Month? In the absence of a united movement towards one term, individuals can decide for themselves.

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© Copyright 2014 Gilan Gertz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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