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South Polls What's in a Name? BY JOHN SHELTON REED In 1975 poUtical scientist Harold Isaacs wrote that "a name wül seldom itself be the heart of the matter of group identity, but it can often take us to where the heart can be found, leading us deep into the history, the relationships, and the emotions diat Ue at the center of any such affair." The truth ofthis observation has been nowhere more evident dian in the question of what label should be appUed to Americans of African ancestry. The NAACP was founded in 1909 to work for the advancement oícoloredpeople, but by the 1950s Negro had become the preferred term. The shift to bkck in the mid1960s marked the end of one era in race relations and the beginning of another. Now it has been more than a decade since the Reverend Jesse Jackson first suggested , in December 1988, that blacks be caUed AfricanAmericans. Since 1994, interviewers for the Southern Focus PoU have recorded verbatim what black respondents repUed to the question "What is your race?" The responses are tabulated on the following page (combining the spring and faU surveys for each year, due to smaU sample sizes). Despite considerable sampling error, it is clear that Jackson's suggestion has made some headway. His assertion that blacks preferred the new label, however, was somewhat premature. A large majority—better than two to one—stiU describe themselves as black rather than AfricanAmerican. It may be, in fact, that the use ofAfrican American has peaked. Among nonsouthern respondents in 1 996 a sUght majority referred to diemselves as African American, but the percentage has since decUned. (For what it may be worth, die MilUon Man March, at which some speakers—notably Louis Farrakhan—conspicuously avoided the term, took place on 16 October 1995.) Moreover, black southerners have been consistendy unUkely to use the new expression . Averaging aU of the surveys, something on the order of 71 percent of southern respondents caUed themselves black, 25 percentAfricanAmerican, 4 percent something else (usuaUy Negro or colored), and these numbers have not changed appreciably since the Southern Focus PoU began recording them. We can only speculate why southern blacks have been less inclined to change. One possibility, of course, is just that in this respect (as in others) black southerners are more conservative than their northern counterparts. Another possibility , though, is that nonsouthern blacks simply find the coinage African American less strange, since "hyphenated Americans" of many other sorts have been more common outside the South, while within the South the important distinction 96 historicaUy has been between whites (of whatever sort), on the one hand, and blacks, on the other. 19941995199619971998 Nonsouthern Black8160417465 Afr. American1836522434 Other148 3 1 (N)(65)(77)(62)(49)(45) Southern Black7071727068 Afr. American2524242628 Other4 5 4 3 5 (N)(250)(210)(270)(233)(210) Sampling error in the table above is approximately +7 percent for southerners and +18 percent for nonsoutherners. The Southern Focus PoU is a semi-annual telephone survey conducted by the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel HiU 27 5 99-3 355. Data can be obtained for further analysis from the Institute , and die Institute's survey data holdings also can be searched on-Une at: Greene County, Georgia. Courtesy ofthe Southern Historical Collection, the University ofNorth Carolina at ChapelHill. South Polls 97 ...


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