Black. African-American. Negro?

By , January 10, 2010 12:25 am
Commerce Secretary, NY Mayor Bloomberg Launch 2010 U.S. Census

Brace yourself for Question No. 9.

In case you haven’t heard, Question No. 9 on the 2010 U.S. Census, which will begin to be mailed on March 15, asks “What is Person 1′s Race?” One of the choices is “Black, African Am., or Negro.”


The antiquated word “Negro” has apparently been on previous census forms. (I can’t remember the census form 10 years ago. Does anyone know if it was on the 2000 form?) Bureau spokesperson Shelly Lowe is quoted in theGrio saying census questions were tested and using Negro “outweighed the potential negatives.” Another Census Bureau spokesperson Jack Martin said in this New York Daily News article, “Many older African-Americans identified themselves that way, and many still do..Those who identify themselves as Negroes need to be included.”

Inclusion is a great sentiment, but Martin may have been overstating how many people prefer to be called Negro. This 1995 study (which was referenced in theGrio piece) found that 3.28% of blacks wanted to be called “Negro.” That seems like a small percentage of people to decide to use such a charged word.

An interesting tidbit from the Daily News piece is that it said the Census form was approved by Congress last year. I find it difficult to believe that the Democratic-controlled Congress, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, approved “Negro” being on the Census. Either our representatives or their aides didn’t read the census closely enough, or they are way out of touch with a lot of Americans.

I’m not particularly offended that Negro is on the census form. I don’t think the folks at the U.S. Census Bureau are racist. It’s just strange that a Census Bureau official or a congressional staffer didn’t raise a hand and say, “Wait, this isn’t right.” What’s offensive is that the Bureau and Congress are out of touch.

It’s also a reminder of a race of people that don’t have a name. People of African descent who were stolen and enslaved had their cultures stripped away from them. Yes, we’re all American, but most Americans have a qualifier that denotes a place and culture of origin: Irish-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American. Our locator isn’t a country. It’s a continent with hundreds of cultures. African-American, is one of many terms used to describe people of African descent here in the U.S.: black, Afro-American, Negro, Colored. There’s not even an agreement in the black community on when or how to use nigger or nigga.

African-Americans, blacks, Negroes – people of African descent – have had a long and tragic history in the country. Equality in law is recent relative to the founding of the country. Equality in practice is incomplete. I wonder if this journey (or search?) to name ourselves is an indication of a search for an identity and secure place in America.

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