Black or African American?

by Frank Newport

"African American" slightly preferred among those who have a preference


PRINCETON, NJ -- One key principle of social science is the often substantial difference in human societies between reality and perception. When it comes to matters relating to racial and ethnic classifications, there are the biological facts of the matter (sometimes quite minor), and then socially created perceptions and patterns of behavior built from those differences.

One such socially created pattern is the label used to describe members of racial or ethnic groups. In the United States, the labels used to describe black Americans have undergone significant changes in the centuries since those of African origin first arrived on the continent. In recent times, two labels have been used most often to describe blacks in America -- "black" and "African American," but it is not generally clear what the preferred term is from the perspective of black Americans themselves. This is important, because it would appear than 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.

There has been a good deal of survey research over the years in which blacks are asked about the label of choice from their perspective. In 1992, Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Corporation reviewed the history of the use of labels for the black population in America in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, and found that preferences were in part predicated on how the survey question was phrased. Smith's conclusion: "When given an explicit option of saying that they have no preference between the two terms [black and African American], between a plurality and a majority of blacks have no preference. However, among those with a preference, 'African American' has grown in acceptance although 'Black' is still preferred by more Blacks."

Gallup has, since the time of Smith's article, asked random samples of black Americans on a number of different occasions about their preferred terminology, using question wording that includes the explicit "doesn't matter" alternative.

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?

African American


Doesn't matter

No opinion






2007 Jun 4-24





2003 Jun 12-18





2000 Dec 15-18





1994 Aug 23-24 † ‡





1994 Apr 22-24 † ‡





1992 May 7-10 †





1991 Jun 13-16 †





† = WORDING: "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?"

‡ = No opinion includes volunteered "other" responses.

The fundamental conclusion from these data underscores what has been found previously: A majority of blacks in America today do not have a preference for the use of the term black or African American when they are given the explicit opportunity to say so.

But what of those who do express a preference? Here, we see a pattern that suggests a gradual trend -- particularly when compared to most pre-2000 results -- towards a slight preference for the African American label among those who make a choice. The one exception to this trend is the survey conducted by Gallup in April 1994, showing an eight-point preference for the term African American among those who had a preference. Otherwise, polls conducted in 1991, 1992, and in August 1994 showed an essential tie between preferences for the two terms, while those polls conducted in 2000, 2003, and 2007 show a tilt toward the term African American among those who make a choice.

It's important to note that there can be different results from questions that do not offer the explicit "doesn't matter." For example, in a 2005 Public Opinion Quarterly article, two researchers -- Lee Sigelman and Stevan A. Tuch -- presented results of research conducted with a random sample of over 2,300 employed (or recently unemployed) black Americans in the 1998-2000 time frame. The question used in the research did not give respondents an explicit "doesn't matter" alternative, asking: "Do you prefer the term 'black' or 'African-American' to describe your racial identity?" The results showed a rough split, with 48% indicating a preference for the term "black" and 49% saying they preferred "African-American." Only 3% volunteered that they didn't have a preference or didn't know.

Bottom Line

The results of available survey research indicate no strong consensus among the American black community for how their racial group should be described. In response to questions that provide the explicit opportunity to do so, a clear majority of blacks say that they don't care which label is used. Other questions that do not suggest a "doesn't matter" alternative show fairly evenly divided responses. Still, among those blacks in America today who do express a preference even when given the option of saying it doesn't matter, recent Gallup data suggest a slight tilt toward preference for the term African American rather than black.

Survey Methods

The 2007 results are based on telephone interviews with 2,388 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 4-24, 2007, including oversamples of blacks and Hispanics that are weighted to reflect their proportions in the general population. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on sample of 802 blacks, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±6 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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