Monday, January 11, 2010

Suddenly "Negro" Is the Word on Everyone's Lips

Cross-posted from AlterNet

The week that began with a minor controversy about a dated racial term used to describe African-Americans, and ended with a major one that involved the use of the word by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The word is "Negro".

First, the census. After finding that more than 50,000 census respondents wrote in "Negro" as their racial identification on the 2000 census, the U.S. Census Bureau decided to include it as a check-off option in the section of the survey where respondents are asked to identify their race. Many cried foul, seeing it as a derogatory adjective that hearkened back to the segregationist era. Others argue that elderly blacks may not view it the same way, and that the terms "African-American" and "black" may not be embraced by those descended from cultures other than the African-descended one whose people were brought to the land of the free in chains.

When I was a little girl, "Negro" was the politically correct term for those otherwise known as "colored" people or described by white people by a range of epithets, the most egregious being what we now call "the 'N' word." As a white woman who grew up in a very segregated New Jersey, I'm hardly qualified to wax forth on the appropriateness of the Census Bureau's use of the word Negro. (For an excellent discussion on the subject, see Melissa Harris-Lacewell's discussion with Rachel Maddow [video].) But I can see why the census-takers chose to use it. Harry Reid, now -- that's another story entirely.


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