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Describing Race a Delicate Affair

AR Articles on Racial Identity
Ethnic Genetic Interests (Feb. 2003)
Is a Multiracial Nation Possible? (Feb. 1992)
What Makes a Nation: The Case of Japan (Sep. 1991)
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More news stories on Racial Identity
Oliver White, Washington Square News (New York University), October 11, 2007

A recent Gallup poll shows that a majority of blacks — 61 percent — have no preference when it comes to being described as either “black” or “African-American.” Of course, such labeling is ideally avoided at all costs, but when it comes to the bottom line, the majority of the minority will accept either.

Among those who had a preference, “African-American” is preferred, by about 24 percent of the total people surveyed.

Surprisingly, the percentage of blacks that don’t have a preference has remained around 60 percent for the last six polls, dating back to 1991. Clearly “no preference” is the ideal answer. Having a preference can be kind of a hassle.

Not only does it awkwardly jilt an otherwise pleasant conversation, but the popular answer of “African-American” has errors in factuality. Simply stated, not all Africans are black, nor are all blacks African.


The statistics of the situation may be encouraging, but one might also ask why the numbers have remained somewhat static. Isn’t America still changing? Aren’t there any dynamic discussions about this? Does anybody care?

Maybe there’s something wrong with the survey.

The exact wording of the poll was as follows: “Some people say the term ‘African-American’ should be used instead of the word ‘black.’ Which term do you prefer: ‘African-American’ or ‘black,’ or does it not matter to you either way?”


As Frank Newport wrote in an article that inspired this piece, “This is important, because it would appear that many non-blacks in America — and editors and producers in the news media — earnestly attempt to use the term that is most acceptable to the group being described.”

Televised media will probably always light-step issues such as this: Why risk ratings over something so trivial? Are Americans really this easily offended, or is it just the ones offended who write letters? It can get ugly.


If a black man dies in the forest, and a tree falls on his body, and then you show up alone on a camping trip, how would you describe him to the authorities? Is that answer different than how you would describe him to yourself?


Original article

Email Oliver White at

(Posted on October 11, 2007)

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