Edict from on High Enters the Sticky Racial Debate of 1990

Interesting news this week from the majestic mountain in the clouds from which the lords of style congregate and proclaim the rules of words across the land.

The official AP Style has long been a hold-out for the use of the term “black” to describe a, um, black person in news stories, even as individual newspapers changed their internal styles to “African-American.” The Washington Post and NPR are the two examples that come to mind that use the sometimes clunky African-American instead of black. In my sophomore year of college, my head still swimming with all the yearning for political correctness and do-goodedness that would eventually be slowly beaten out of my by the GW administration and its affirmative action policies that required a 95 percent douchebag acceptance rate, I remember using “African-American” in a story about a controversy at Howard University. My managing editor, never one for subtlety, asked me if I knew for a fact these people were from Africa. Well, uh, um, no, I stammered, searching my oversized corduroy pants for my notebook. Well then, they’re just “black,” he said. Lesson learned, I suppose. (That same editor would also make a scene if he thought you were backing into a lead by rocketing his rolling chair backwards from his desk, making beeping noises and yelling “Watch out everyone! I’m backing up here!”)
Note: I just checked and he works for the Salt Lake Tribune now. Another reporter I worked with at that paper was on The Daily Show the other day because he had been reporting in Iraq for Newsweek. Which is exactly like writing about traffic circle construction and tax increment financing, as far as I’m concerned.

But lo, the clouds hath parted and the booming voice of style deities has spake into the changing winds. AP Style now accepts African-American as a description of black people. It is unclear what phrasing Vogue used when describing LeBron James, however.

Here’s the AP update we received:


Acceptable for an American black person of African descent. Black is also acceptable. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. People from Caribbean nations, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean-American. Follow a person’s preference. See nationalities and races, and race entries.


Acceptable for a person of the black race. (Use Negro only in names of organizations or in quotations.) Do not use colored as a synonym. See colored, nationalities and races, and race entries.

So this creates an interesting question. If African-American is acceptable only for people genuinely of African descent, are we as reporters not obligated to ask everyone where their ancestry comes from? If so, why not fine tune it to say “Nigerian-American,” or “Kenyan-American?” Or you have the indelicate task of asking a question “What do you prefer to be called?” I’m sure most interview subjects would prefer to you not really parse race politics in your article.

Not being a blackrican-American person myself, but sympathetic to the cause, I don’t know the best way to handle this. I have a feeling continuing to use “black” and “white” to describe people when necessary will win out, only because hyphenated descriptions are far too clunky for your average news story, and race is so imprecise a way to describe someone anyhow. Most of the instances when race is relevant in a news story is when it’s a factor in someone’s treatment or someone’s actions. The Media have a horrible habit of classifying all persons of race as a monolithic slab, such as the Will Black People Vote For Obama? frenzy of late or the
How Do Hispanics Feel About Immigration? question that Lou Dobbs wets himself over at night.

So does this represent some seismic shift in the way media talk about race? Probably not. But us white people do love talking about how uncomfortable we are talking about race.

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