Note: This popular post originally appeared on our site in September, 2014. In light of Ornette Coleman’s passing, we’re bringing it back to the top for a while.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the terms “black” and “African-American” evoke stark differences in the way white people perceive individuals labeled as one or the other.
Erika Hall, a professor at Emory University’s business school and the lead author of the study, says she was inspired to undertake the inquiry after noticing that she routinely found white people fumbling over their words when it came to choosing between the two terms in polite cocktail conversation. While she identifies as a woman of color comfortable with both black and African-American, she decided to look into the matter as a social scientist to establish if the distinction was purely semantic.
As it turns out, the terms differ significantly in the kinds of ideas they evoke.
“African-Americans” are respected more than “blacks.” Hall and her colleagues carried out a number of experiments that found that, among white Americans, the term “black” elicits more negative associations and lower perception of ability across the board than “African-American.”
The most compelling study shows that when viewing job applications, white participants made dramatically different estimations of an applicant’s salary, probability of holding a managerial role, estimated education level and socioeconomic status based on whether they were identified as black or African-American. Black was consistently viewed less favorably.
“By significant margins, white participants believed that the black applicant was lower status, with less education and less annual income than the African-American applicant. Moreover, only 38% of participants who evaluated the black applicant believed he could be in a managerial position, compared to 70% of participants who evaluated the African-American application,” wrote Hall in a description of her findings at the Washington Post.