New research indicates that White Americans associate the racial labels “Black” and “African American” with different ideologies. The findings, which appear in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that small linguistic choices can have important consequences on people’s perceptions.
“I remember attending networking/cocktail parties where my White conversation counterparts would intently call me African American after I had already referred to myself as Black. This made me wonder whether there was a stigma, or some other type of association, with the word Black,” said study author Erika V. Hall, an associate professor of organization and management at Emory University.
“In my first paper (Hall, Phillips, & Townsend, 2015), I found that there was negativity associated with the word Black (vs. African American),” Hall told PsyPost. The new research, which included four separate studies, provided evidence that “the negativity associated with the word Black (vs. African American) stemmed from its association with the Black Power (vs. Civil Rights) social movement.”
“Specifically, because the Black label became prominent amidst the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and the African American label gained popularity amidst the late Civil Rights Movement in the 1980s, people and organizations that use each term are perceived to embody the ideologies of those movements,” explained co-author Sarah S. M. Townsend in a news release.
In their first study, the research collected the first 100 results of Google Images searches for the phrases “African American people” and “Black people.” The images were downloaded on January 14 and 15, 2014, and a sample of 292 White American participants then viewed and rated the images.
Hall and her team found that images from the “Black people” search tended to be rated as more negative, stereotypical, and derogatory than images from the “African American people” search. Participants also viewed images from the “Black people” search as depicting people who were more victimized, more disadvantaged, and of lower socioeconomic status.
In their next study, the researchers collected 6,183 op-ed news articles published between 1980 and 2019 that used “Black” and/or “African American” at least five times. The articles were further broken down into 18,305 paragraph segments that used either “African American” or “Black.” (Paragraphs that included both terms were removed from the analysis.)
Using an automated text analysis program, the researchers found that paragraphs that used “Black” tended to also use more bias and discrimination terminology, such as “racism,” “bigotry,” “unfair,” and “favoritism.” Paragraphs that used “African American,” in contrast, tended to use more civil rights and equality terminology, such as “freedom,” “justice,” “respect,” and “struggle.”
For their third and fourth studies, Hall and her team asked 912 White American participants to guess the ideology of organizations that used the racial labels “Black,” “African American,” or “people of color.” Most participants guessed that the ideological platform of “Black” organizations was related to “Eradicating Bias and Discrimination” and that their goal was to defund the police. Participants guessed that the ideological platform of “African American” organizations was related to “Civil Rights and Equality” and that their goal was to stop voter suppression. Participants guessed that the ideological platform of “people of color” organizations was related to “Customs and Culture” and that their goal was to encourage the diversity of holidays in schools.
The researchers also found evidence that these inferences influenced financial support for the organizations. White participants who personally prioritized bias and discrimination were more willing to donate to an organization with the “Black” label than one with the “African American” label.
“Words have a great deal of power,” Hall told PsyPost. “Seemingly synonymous labels (African-American vs. Black) have deeply embedded meanings that may affect perceptions of the people or organizations they label. Consequently, we need to be really conscientious about the words we use to label ourselves and others.”
The study, “What’s in a Name? The Hidden Historical Ideologies Embedded in the Black and African American Racial Labels“, was authored by Erika V. Hall, Sarah S. M. Townsend, and James T. Carter.