Opinion|’African-American’ Is the Correct Term to UseImageCreditCreditThe New York Times Archives
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February 15, 1989
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To the Editor:
”A movement led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to call blacks African-Americans has met with both rousing approval and deep-seated skepticism in a debate that is coming to symbolize the role and history of blacks in this country” (front page, Jan. 31).
The social and economic evolution of African-Americans has been and continues to be difficult and painful. Much of African America’s problem stems from a secular identity crisis, one of the many symptoms of more than 400 years of systematic oppression. This identity crisis involved a virtual erasing of the African-American’s history, culture and name. Use of the term ”African-American,” as opposed to ”black,” constitutes a positive and important step in regaining some of our African heritage.
Most of the debate over the appropriateness of the term African-American centers on a deeply ingrained misconception that Caucasians are the standard of humanity: a man is considered a priori to be a ”white man.” A non-Caucasian is not a man but a ”black man,” a ”Hispanic” or an ”Asian.” This semantic egocentricity correlates to the way Caucasians perceive other ethnic groups.
Conversely, non-Caucasians, especially blacks, have entangled themselves in a web of ego-marginality -i.e., they see themselves as black people, as opposed to just people, namely white people. This attitude leads to the false conclusion that if one is not white, one is something less.
The term African-American is not only less offensive than black, but it is also the correct term to use, because it is geopolitically accurate. It denotes a person of United States citizenship and upbringing, but of African heritage and origin.
More important, it connotes a person with a sense of history and culture, who is clear on his or her background. On the other hand, black denotes nothing but a color and connotes a person who is not white, thus who is not a normal person, thus who is less than a person.
At best, black is the term branded on us by colonialists who fooled African-Americans into thinking they should have been born something else. The initiative by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to have the term African-American adopted by all Americans is a step toward resolving the identity crisis that has impeded the progress of African-Americans – and indirectly, the progress of America.
It is not a redefinition of who we are, but a reaffirmation of who we always were. Thus, if ”many who are black favor ‘African-American’ ” (as you state), it is our prerogative to do so, and it is the rest of America’s respectful duty to call us what we wish to be called. AHPALY J. G. CORADIN Brooklyn, Feb. 2, 1989
A version of this article appears in print on
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‘African-American’ Is the Correct Term to Use