How Calling Yourself “Black” Impacts Your Earning Potential


By Victor Ochieng

For most people, “Black” and “African American” can be used interchangeably and, of course, they refer to the same group of people.

The way Americans of African descent are officially referred to in the United States has evolved over time. A century ago, they were typically referred to as “Colored.” This later changed to “Negro” and then in the 1960’s, it switched to “Black.”

In 1988, during a press conference, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson declared that “African American” was the term to be embraced to refer to Americans of African descent. This was in line with other references such as “Irish Americans” and “Italian Americans,” terms that had already been rid of any connotations of racial discrimination.

A look into what the terms “Black” and “African American” carry with them demonstrates that “Black” has been used with numerous negative connotations, way more than “African American,” confirms a 2001 study.

But then again, some of these names were systematically institutionalized such that even the United States Army used “Negro” in its official communications until about a year ago. The American Psychological Association, on its end, says “Black” and “African American” are interchangeable in academic writing.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology noted that “Black” is considered more negative than “African American,” with “Black” considered colder and less competent.

It also showed that these terms lead to some level of bias even in the professional field. In fact, this is so serious that using either of the references in a resume leads to different effects on one’s job application.

To best establish the bias, two different groups were given descriptions of a Chicago man by the name Williams. For one group, they were told Williams was “African American,” while for the other he was “Black.”

The “African American” group estimated Williams’ salary to be $37,000 a year, while the “Black” group had Williams salary estimated at $29,000. In terms of education and position, the “African American” group estimated that Williams had a two-year college degree and close to three quarters of the group believed he was working at a managerial level, while the “Black” group estimated that Williams just had some college degree, with only 38.5% guessing he worked at a managerial level.

Not to appear to be taking sides, the authors of the study used “Americans of African descent.”

“I think a lot of the stigma is embodied in the time in which the term was created,” said Emory University’s Erika Hall, the study’s lead author. “Eventually, there shouldn’t be a stigma attached with the word that’s created out of a more positive time.”

From the studies, maybe it’s okay to coin another name with more positive connotations.


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