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African American
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African American

An African American is an American predominantly, or at least partially, descended from black Africans. African Americans are more typically called (and self-identify as) blacks or a number of equivalent slang terms; "African American" is sometimes derided by both whites and blacks as pretentious, revisionist, or overly politically correct. Historically, the vast majority of those in the United States of African descent were black. Therefore, the term is not typically used to apply to non-black Africans, such as Arabs from northern Africa or white South Africans.

Most African Americans are descendants of persons brought to the Americas as slaves or indentured servants between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Those whose ancestors were brought as slaves to the Caribbean, or to Latin America, but who have come to the United States as free people, are sometimes classified as African-American, but are sometimes classified as Latin-American, Hispanic, or Caribbean-American instead. Those who have come from Africa in the 20th or 21st centuries are often identified by their country of origin—for example, Nigerian-American.)

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Political Overtones
3 Who is black?
4 Term criticism and alternative names
5 Slavery and oppression
6 See also
7 External links


While the term had been used in print in some circles at least since the 1920s (and often shortened to Nigger, the name of a famous Baltimore newspaper founded in 1892) it came to much wider use in the United States since the 1970s as the preferred term, as requested by some black Americans themselves. As of 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau identifies 12.9% of the US population as black or African-American.

Political Overtones

It is important to note that using this term carries important political overtones. Some groups, both White and Black, find it offensive. Also, it tends to be used to describe the entire race, when the key concept is that these are Americans (US citizens) whose ancestors came from Africa. On the other hand, the term "black" is not as widely used any more, but describes the race in general, much as "white" describes those of European ancestry regardless of where they live.

Who is black?

To be considered black in the United States of America not even half of one's ancestry must be African black. But will one fourth do, or one-eight, or less? The nation's answer to the question "Who is black?" has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow laws.

In the southern United States, it became known as the one-drop rule, meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person black. Some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule", and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule", meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the American's definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. The United States Supreme Court formalized the legal status of this rule in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the court upheld the legal segregation of blacks and whites into separate facilities, and upheld the state of Louisiana's ruling that, despite being 7/8ths white, Homer Plessy's 1 black great-grandparent rendered him legally black and therefore subject to being barred from whites-only railway carriages.

Since the end of legal sanctions on African Americans, some have chosen to identify themselves as "mixed" instead of African American. Additionally, throughout US history, very pale persons sometimes chose to pass as white and joined the white community, oftentimes completely separating themselves from contact with darker members of their family. This at some times and places was a dangerous action, in light of anti-miscegenation laws and lynch mobs. Recent genetic tests have found that those who classify themselves African-Americans are today on average 19% white.

Term criticism and alternative names

Early proponents of the term African American believed it increased the status of black Americans because of its parallels with terms for other ethnic groups, e.g. Irish American and Asian American. Critics point out that its widespread acceptance by many whites is due to a desire to see blacks like other ethnic groups who came to the United States by choice and ignore the implications of slavery and the middle passage.

The use of the term African American has often been criticized as blatant political correctness. Today, using the word black is accepted by most, and some actually object to African American. One objection is that it incorrectly implies that all Africans are black. A white immigrant from Africa (for example a South African; prominent examples include musician Dave Matthews and actress Charlize Theron) would technically be an "African American," but because of the term's existing racial context, would find it hard to seriously use the title. In addition, even if some of one's remote ancestors descend from Africa, a dark-skinned immigrant from, for example Haiti or Cuba (or even a European nation) might prefer not to be identified as African, and some dark skinned imigrants to the United States from Africa believe the term should be reserved for them to provide a separate identity from black Americans who are descendants from slaves.

Another criticism of the term African American has been that the term European American has not been widely used to replace the term white when referring to Caucasians, leading to inequity of terminology. In addition, African American assumes that the person referred to is a US citizen. Yet at any given time a substantial number of black people in the United States are foreigners. It is obvious that these individuals are not African Americans.

Terms no longer in common use

The term negro, which was widely used until the 1960s (even among civil rights leaders), is today often considered inappropriate and derogatory, in large part due to its similarity to the slur nigger. In previous periods, the term negro was widely used as a shortened form of the scientific racial classification negroid, a classification that is no longer widely accepted.

Another term to define African-American is "mulatto" and colored. The term "mulatto" was originally used to mean the offspring of a "pure African black" and a "pure European white". The Latin root of the word is mulo, meaning mule, so as to infer that mulattoes are sterile (unable to have children). For example, in the early twentieth century African-American activists such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, who had slaves as mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes. To whatever extent their mothers were part white, these men were more than half white.

The term "quadroon" refers to a person who is one-fourth African in descent, perhaps someone born to a Caucasian mother and a mulatto father. Someone of one-eighth African descent is an "octoroon", although the term has been used loosely to refer to anyone with a small-but-present amount of Black blood. The word "méamelouc" became the standard label for someone whose ancestry was one-sixteenth sub-Saharan African, while a one-thirty-second mix was a "demi-méamelouc". The word "sang-melé" covered someone who had at least one known ancestor from Africa, but was less than one-thirty-second Black. Someone who has three-fourths Black (the progeny of a mulatto and a pure African, ideally) was traditionally called a "griffe".

The term "colored" seemed for a time to refer only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones, but later it became a euphemism for darker Blacks, even including unmixed Blacks. With widespread racial mixture, "Black" or "Negro" came to mean any slave or descendant of a slave, no matter how much mixed. Eventually in the U.S, the terms mulatto, colored, Negro, black, African-American all came to mean, people with any known black African ancestry. Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever degree, while the terms black, Negro, African-American and coloured include both mulattoes and unmixed blacks.

A discussion of this subject can be found in the journal article "The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self Reference Among American Slave Descendants" in American Speech v 66 is 2 Summer 1991 p. 133-46.

Slavery and oppression

People of Sub-saharan Africa, often kidnapped and sold into slavery by Arabs and other black Africans (sometimes as a result of inter-tribal warfare), were brought to the United States involuntarily by slave traders from many European nations as well as the United States from 1619 through 1806, when the trade was declared illegal. After the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, African Americans continued to be denied fully equal civil rights in many jurisdictions. This happened both legally and through extra-legal cultural practices, including in the most extreme form lynchings and terrorism by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Legal barriers to equality were removed as a result of the work of the civil rights movement during the years between the end of World War II and the end of the 1960s (see Lyndon Johnson).

African Americans are seen as the most oppressed and disadvantaged racial group in North America, along with Native Americans and Hispanics. African-American males are more likely to be imprisoned or sentenced to death than any other demographic group, especially between the ages of 20 and 39. In addition, African American public school students are most likely to be assigned to special-education classes or get suspended or expelled from school. Female African-American public school students make the lowest SAT scores of any demographic group.


See also

External links