What’s in a name? A recent joint study from Columbia and Emory Universities says quite a bit. Using four separate experiments, researchers concluded that many whites will react differently to the same person, depending solely on whether they are referred to as “black” or “African American.” The report theorizes that Americans of African descent (AADs) referred to as “blacks” are often perceived as less competent than “African Americans.” Moreover, the report revealed that even within the African American community itself, a similar bias exists against those who identify themselves as “black.”
In one of the most compelling experiments, 110 Caucasians were shown profiles of various AAD males--each of whom was identified as either “Black” or “African American.” The white participants were then instructed to guess the social status, salary and education level of each of the men. In all three categories, “blacks” were ranked lower than “African Americans.” Furthermore, participants estimated the salary of “blacks” to be as much as seven-thousand dollars less than that of “African Americans.”
Researchers hypothesize the bias can be traced back to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the militant “Black Power” movement first became popular. But by the late ‘80s, community leaders began promoting the use of a new term: African American. Over 25 years later, it appears that the racial rebranding worked, and for many the word has come to represent a law-abiding, competent and better assimilated AAD.
Further muddling the conversation is the not-often-discussed topic of subgrouping within the AAD community discussed at length in the book "Black Ethnics" by Christina Greer. In it, Greer observes that Africans who recently migrated to the United States are widely believed to be hard workers, whereas those born in America are often perceived to be less motivated and carrying a sense of entitlement. Greer tells KPCC that “more African immigrants are opting to keep their foreign names, in an attempt to stand out from American blacks.“ She contends that even though hiring managers will still opt to hire an Indian or Chinese immigrant over an African one, there is no racial group that will struggle more with a negative public perception than American-born men and women of color.
Are you an American of African descent? Do these results surprise you? How do you navigate the complicated world of racial grouping and subgrouping? Do you feel your race has hindered your career advancement?
Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean with the Columbia Business School
Christina Greer, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University