America's Negro problem just won't quit. The Census Bureau has been using the term "Negro" as a racial identifier on its decennial forms since 1950, later joined -- though not supplanted -- by "black" and "African Am." But when the website thegrio.com recently pointed out that "Negro" was going to appear once more on the 2010 census, many black folks reacted with shock and pointed distaste. Bloggers and pundits condemned the term as a relic of the bad old days of segregation and Jim Crow that has no business in official records anymore.
The Census Bureau says it simply wants to ensure that everybody of color is counted, and that its meticulously vetted decision is based on the fact that more than 50,000 older blacks wrote in "Negro" on the last census, in 2000. But that purely scientific stance hasn't quelled the protests.
I get why. Though it was the accepted term until the late '60s, for those born after that, "Negro" is something they never answered to, a word that sounds only slightly less incendiary than "nigger." Even older blacks tend to use it ironically or sarcastically when they use it at all, as in: "Those Negroes just can't get it together." Its taint goes back to slavery, when Southerners paternalistically referred to even free blacks as "our Negroes." Contrast this unpleasantness with Barack Obama, who has established a 21st century standard of racial consideration that's figuring into just about every discussion of color these days. To blacks of all ages, "Negro" and President Obama sharing the same era just feels wrong -- maybe he isn't post-racial, but isn't he at least post-Negro?
This controversy may be new, but the angst about what to call ourselves is ancient. Over the last 40 years, we have self-identified as "black," "Afro-American" and "African American" in an attempt get out from under the subjugationrepresented by "Negro" and, before that, "colored." But the history of all this is hardly a straight line. "Black" is associated with '60s pride and power, but it was once considered derogatory and far less appropriate than "Negro," which evolved after emancipation into a relatively respectable term. "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the stirring James Weldon Johnson song that will be performed regularly during African American History Month -- or is it Black History Month? -- started out as the "Negro National Anthem."
"Afro-American" has a similar reputation of '60s radicalism, but its use dates to the turn of the 20th century, a time when blacks were fighting for social inclusion against frightful odds; the magazine Advance described as part of its mission "obtaining for the Afro-American an equal chance." The term "African American," popularized in the '80s by Jesse Jackson, is an amalgam of all the terms before it that sought to bring a measure of peace to the conflicted notion of being a black American, a notion that demanded acknowledgment of citizenship and common history as well as a racial experience and identity that's separate and unique. But even the bold word "African" was not new, having had its turn in colonial times, when the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded. It had also been used by whites to describe slaves and blacks in general, and by the 19th century had fallen out of favor.
Like the president, I am part of that black generation whose lifetime spans pretty much all of the above. I was born a Negro in 1962 -- it's on my birth certificate -- and in short order became black, Afro-American and African American. Although I appreciate the impulse for self-definition and self-determination that attended each of these name changes, I can't say that any of them has impacted my life in any measurable way. I will say that I've never liked "African American" -- too cumbersome and self-conscious. Nor does it cover the African diaspora in America as neatly as the word "black," which most people of color I know use most commonly to describe themselves.
"African American" also gave too many blacks the sense that simply changing a name to something more dignified or ethnically accurate counts as racial progress. What it has mostly done is let us say that 30% of African Americans live in poverty, and that more than half of African American men of working age are unemployed in some cities. Do we value African Americans now more than we valued blacks or Negroes in the past? I submit that we don't. The real problem is not names at all, but the imperiled status of black people that persists from one age to the next, from one "acceptable" term to another.
That's acknowledged in the fact that, controversy notwithstanding, nobody today quibbles with the names of advocacy groups such as the National Council of Negro Women. In his civil rights rhetoric, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly infused "the Negro" with urgency and even poetry, turning the isolation and alienation of the phrase into a powerful part of his argument for racial inclusion. Black leaders before him did the same thing with the often pejorative "the colored man." But that was then, and this is now: "Negro" is officially the last of the oppressor appellations, and for many people it's past time to retire it for good.
And so here we are in 2010. May I suggest that we count black folks any way that makes sense and turn our national attention to the big racial issues that really matter? Though it's interesting to note that when the 2000 census allowed people to check more than one racial category -- in a nod to mixed-race folks who objected to being identified as black only -- it fueled concerns among blacks/African Americans/Negroes that our numbers would diminish as our lines of demarcation blurred. Whatever you think about "Negro," whom it refers to is abundantly clear.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to Opinion.