Racial or Ethnic Labels Make Little Difference to Blacks, Hispanics

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Very few say they are offended if not called their preferred term

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Growing sensitivity to minority cultures in this country has led many to seek the least offensive and most preferred labels to describe blacks and Hispanics. In the late 1980s, many people began referring to blacks as "African-Americans" rather than "blacks," believing the term "black" was offensive. Today, there is still debate and uncertainty about the appropriate label for the racial group and its members. Similarly, there is uncertainty regarding the proper label -- "Hispanic" or "Latino" -- for people of Hispanic ethnicity. Recent polls conducted by Gallup show that many blacks and Hispanics have no preference for either group label; among those who do have a preference, most say they are not offended or made uncomfortable when referred to by the other label.

Black or African-American?

Two recent Gallup polls in the past year have looked into racial label preferences among blacks, using slightly different question wording. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in December 2000 asked the following:

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?

Sixty-seven percent of blacks said they did not have a preference for either the "African-American" or "black" label. Of those who do have a preference, slightly more said they preferred the term "African-American" to "black."

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?.
Dec. 15-17, 2000

Among those who do express a preference, most say they are not offended or made uncomfortable if their preferred term is not used to describe them.

Does it bother or offend you, or does it make you feel uncomfortable, when people use the term black/African-American instead of African-American/black?
Dec. 15-17, 2000

A recent Gallup Poll Social Audit on race relations shows similar results. The poll, which interviewed 1,000 blacks, asked a slightly different question:

When identifying yourself, what term do you prefer to use, African-American, black, it doesn't matter which, or do you prefer something else?

Forty-one percent said it did not matter which term is used, while 27% preferred African-American and 20% preferred black.

Given the large sample size of blacks in this study, it is possible to see if certain subgroups of blacks differ in their preference for self-identification. The results are similar by age and education, although differences do exist by gender and income. Among all age categories, 40-45% did not express a preference, and 25%-30% preferred the term African-American. Women are more likely to say they prefer to identify themselves as African-American than are men, by a 33% to 24% margin. Men and women are equally likely to prefer to identify themselves as black, but men are more likely to say it does not matter to them which term is used (48% to 40%). Blacks whose household income is below $45,000 prefer the African-American label by 31% to 20%, with 39% saying it does not matter to them. Blacks with household incomes of $45,000 or more show a slight preference for black over African-American (24% to 17%), but more (49%) say it does not matter to them.

An historical review of the work of other survey organizations shows that question wording can make a difference in the apparent preferences of blacks among the two labels commonly used to describe their race. The different approaches to the question used by other research organizations reveal an interesting result. When asked what they preferred to be called on a personal level, blacks typically showed a slight preference for the term "black" over "African-American"; however, when asked what they preferred the race to be called, a majority of blacks said they preferred the term "African-American" over "black." It should be pointed out that most of these polls did not offer respondents the option of saying the label does not make a difference to them, but even so, 20% or more of respondents volunteered this response.

Numerous NBC/Wall Street Journal polls conducted in the mid-1990s assessed black preferences on a personal level, with the following question wording.

When someone refers to your race, do you prefer to be referred to as black, African-American, or do you prefer some other term?

 

 

 

 

Black

 

African-American

 

Another term

NO DIFFERENCE (vol.)

 

No
opinion

           
 

%

%

%

%

%

1997 Sep 11-15 ^

35

29

10

20

6

1997 Jul 26-28 ^

42

21

10

24

3

1997 Jun 19-23 ^

36

27

8

27

2

1997 Mar 6-10 ^

30

30

8

21

11

1997 Jan 25-27 ^

29

39

9

20

3

1994 Jun 10-14 ^

38

33

7

20

2

1993 Jun 4-8 ^

37

28

9

24

2



^NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Hart-Teeter, results for blacks only

vol. – Volunteered Response

Overall, the results generally showed a slight preference for the term "black." A Los Angeles Times poll conducted in January 1991 showed similar results to these NBC/Wall Street Journal polls. The more recent Gallup Social Audit suggests that more blacks may now prefer "African-American" to "black" when describing themselves. However, given differences in question wording between the earlier and more recent polls, it is not clear if this is the case.

Several CNN/Time polls conducted in the 1990s appeared to show that blacks did have a preference for what their race should be called. The question was worded as follows:

Which would you prefer as a name for your race -- African-American or black?

 

 

 

 

Black

 

African-American

 

OTHER

(vol.)

NO DIFFERENCE (vol.)

         
 

%

%

%

%

1997 Sep 23-Oct 2 ^

29

52

1

18

1997 Feb 5-6 ^

35

52

1

12

1995 Oct 18-19 ^

33

52

3

13

1995 Oct 4-5 ^

32

51

--

17

1995 Mar 22-23 ^

32

54

2

13

1994 Feb 16-17 ^

36

53

1

10

1991 Apr 24-29 ^

48

39

4

9



^ CNN/Time polls conducted by Yankelovich; results for blacks only

vol. – Volunteered Response

In each poll since 1994, a slim majority of blacks said they preferred the African-American name for their race, while about one in three preferred "black" and less than 20% volunteered that it made no difference. This particular question did not offer respondents an explicit option to say that the label made no difference, although up to 18% volunteered that it does not. In any case, the percentages for both labels were probably inflated as a result, as many who may not have had a preference nevertheless indicated one when asked this question. This question or something similar has not been asked since 1997, so it is unclear if the results would still hold today.

CNN/Time asked blacks in September/October 1997 if it bothered them when someone used the term they did not prefer to describe their race. Nearly nine in 10 (89%) said it did not bother them, while just 9% said that it did. Even further back, a CBS/New York Times poll of February 1993 showed more than six in 10 blacks said that it did not matter to them which term is used. Thus, even in the recent past it did not appear to matter much to blacks which of the two terms people used to describe them or their race.

Hispanic or Latino?

To date, little survey research work has been conducted on the label preferences of Hispanics. A special sample of 247 Hispanic adults in a June 11-17 Gallup poll shows a preference for the term "Hispanic" to "Latino," by a margin of 67% to 13%. Fourteen percent did not express a preference either way, although the question did not offer respondents an explicit option to say they had no preference.

Some people prefer the term "Hispanic" while others prefer the term "Latino." Which term do you prefer -- Hispanic, Latino, or something else?
Jun. 11-17, 2001

A follow-up question indicates that it also makes little difference to Hispanics if they are called the term they do not prefer. Just 14% who express a preference say they would be uncomfortable or offended if they were called the term they do not prefer, while 84% would not.

Does it bother you, offend you or make you feel uncomfortable, when people use the term Latino/Hispanic instead of Hispanic/Latino?
Jun. 11-17, 2001
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