It’s not news that there’s often a racialized black tax associated with “black-sounding” names. You’re more likely to get called back for a job interview if you apply as Sarah Jones than you are as Tasha Jenkins. Some people try giving their kids less black-sounding names, but the reality is that latent racism can activate no matter what you do.
Which is why a new study—about the power, even, of the ways in which we verbally describe people of color—is so compelling and distressing. Forget about names—just being identified as “black,” as opposed to “African American,” elicits vastly different responses from whites in a recent study by Emory, highlighting the harsh reality that it’s not just visual cues that can activate latent racism.
Erika V. Hall, a professor at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, conducted a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology during which a group of white participants from across the country were asked a series of questions about scenarios relating to people identified as “black” or “African American.” The results were pretty startling.
In the case of a job applicant, when asked to speculate about education, ability and income, whites believed that the “black” applicant was less educated and estimated his income as about $29,000 a year. But the candidate labeled “African American” was thought to be more educated by white respondents, and making about $37,000 a year.
In another experiment, a suspect in a crime was labeled “black” or “African American,” and whites consistently had more negative emotions and were more likely to label the “black” suspect as guilty. In fact, throughout the experiment, “black” always lost out to “African American” among white respondents—but lest you get the impression that they thought better of African Americans, let us be clear: Whites simply liked blacks less. In the study, they didn’t necessarily hold more positive feelings toward African Americans compared with other groups—just compared with blacks.
So what does this mean for the modern black American in the workplace, applying for a loan or in any other serious interaction with white America?
The easy answer would be to suggest that we all start to employ the term “African American” more than “black,” in some vain attempt to curry favor with potential white employers. But that’s about as practical as the NAACP’s attempting to bury the word “nigger.” More realistically, this information should foster a discussion in our community about how these terms are used in relation to each other.
Language is elastic, and as we moved from Negro to black to African American—among other terms—there were different class and cultural perceptions associated with each new term.
Being “black and proud” or saying “black is beautiful” is a source of pride for many of us, and many times the word “black” certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than “African American.” At the same time, even a simple survey of news stories directed at or about the black community shows that there does seem to be a slight difference in what context the terms are used in modern language. The term “black” seems to be used frequently (but not exclusively) in relation to perceived problems or concerns in the community: “Black-on-black crime” and “#BlackLivesMatter”—even headlines that use the word “black”—tend to denote problems, whether cultural or political or both. Again, while not exclusive, the term “African American” seems to be used in association with more positive historical events or prospective social discourse.
Who knows—maybe we’d have fewer reality-TV shows and more substantive televised dramas if it were “African-American Twitter” that was filling up the networks’ timelines?
Ultimately, the Emory study speaks to a more important and pressing issue, which is the depth to which overt and even subconscious racial bias in the white majority impacts the lives of African Americans. If a loan application or a college admission form uses the term “black” instead of “African American,” it may play into a larger discrimination cycle already in motion.
Granted, more often than not, being hired for a job isn’t going to turn on whether you describe yourself as black or as African American. But given the results of this study, and the impact on jobs and lives, one has to wonder if the black unemployment rate is just a little bit higher than the African-American unemployment rate.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.