The end of the Negroes
Where have all the Negroes gone? Finally the Census Bureau is dropping the word “Negro” from the census. Now the option will simply be “black” or “African-American.” The Bureau considered dumping “Negro” from its surveys for the 2010 census but didn’t because they argued some older blacks preferred the term.
They dumped “colored” long ago. Colored is definitely offensive. It implies that white is the norm and that darker skinned people are colored in. There’s white supremacy built into the term and it makes most black folks bristle when they hear it.
I don’t find the term Negro offensive as much as I just find it outdated. It’s a relic of the past and we’ve moved on. The only time I hear it these days is when my brothers and I use it as a laugh.
But what about “African-American?” A 2011 Washington Post-NBC poll found that 42 percent of respondents preferred the term “black,” while 35 percent preferred “African-American.” Thirteen percent had no preference.
You want to know something? I’ve been black all of my life and I’ve never heard a single black person refer to blacks as “African-American” in private. The only time I use it in columns is when I get tired of writing “black” so much. Just to break up the prose.
The resistance to African-American is that many blacks, while they acknowledge their historic roots to Africa, don’t feel a connection to the continent. It’s different from being Italian-American or Polish-American because those are specific countries. White folks have the surety of knowing what country their ancestors immigrated from so they’re not walking around calling themselves “European-Americans.”
Besides, Secretary of State John Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz, was born in Mozambique but became an American citizen, so isn’t she “African-American” even though she’s a white woman?
Mostly, I think resistance is because the intelligentsia forced this label on us. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and black scholars popularized the term during the ’80s and the media picked up on it soon afterwards. It at least sounded better than “Afro-Americans,” a term that sounds like something the Johnson Products Co. came up with to sell more Afro Sheen in the 70’s.
It wasn’t organic like how regular black folks cast off “Negro” through the rise of slogans like “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful.” There was a resonance to James Brown’s 1968 hit “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Black people began to accept themselves and love themselves.
“African-American” is clunky. I’m not going to write about “African-American on African-American crime.” “Say it loud — I’m African-American and proud!” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.
But the term will continue to gain ground. It has already become the official term for black Americans by the media. One of the troubles with the term is when it’s applied outside our borders. In November 2005, riots roiled Paris streets. CNN anchor Carol Lin reporting on the violence said, “…it’s been 11 days since two African-American teenagers were killed, electrocuted during a police chase, which prompted all of this.” Well, no, they weren’t African-Americans, they were French citizens of Tunisian origin. She meant two black French guys.
So while it’s perfectly okay to refer to black Americans as “African-Americans,” “black” works just as well.
Some may question why have these racial distinctions in the census. Aren’t we all Americans? Yes. But it important to keep information on racial groups to monitor and mitigate things like black on black crime, health problems, discrimination, redlining, incarceration rates, educational progress and other things. Data is important. Not to mention, descriptions are important if we want to be able to identify people. If a 20-something year old white man with blonde hair robbed you, that racial information is important in identifying the assailant.
So there is still value.
But still… my 8 year old grandson of mixed black, white and Japanese heritage, looks at his café au lait complexion and proclaims himself, “brown.” It’s the cutest thing. I’m glad that the burden of this nation’s racial history and schism hasn’t yet burdened him. The real interesting thing is that he doesn’t look black, white or Japanese and he’s the future of a browning America. Perhaps one day a majority of Americas will have to check so many of those little boxes on the census form that racial identity itself will lose meaning.
What a day that’ll be.