BOB: Last month, shamed by press reports, the United States Army abruptly removed outdated language from regulations governing the ethnic terminology. Until Nov. 6, 2014, it was acceptable to describe African-Americans as negroes -- much as it was in civilian life, until about 40 years ago. The new policy limits the acceptable terms to “black” or “african american,” corresponding to contemporary usage. But we are not yet in a post-racial society, and language is still freighted. A new study published by The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology conducted by Emory University’s Erika Hall identifies significant difference of public perception based on which of the widely acceptable terms is applied. Erika welcome to OTM.
HALL: Thank you very much.
BOB: What did you learn?
HALL: We found that white Americans perceive the term 'black' more negatively than 'African-American.' We found this in a criminal study. We found this in a media study and also in an employment study.
BOB: A black employee was deemed to have lower status than a African American employee.
HALL: So we did an experiment to test this. Essentially we gave half of our white American participants an application for that read that a person was Chicago it had their address and the only difference between the two application forms we randomly assigned people to is that one had race listed as 'African American' and the other had race listed as 'black.' We noticed that white Americans rated the black applicant as having lower status as being less educated, having a lower income and less likely to be in a managerial position.
BOB: You analyzed newspaper articles and you were able to identify different tone based on which of those descriptors was used?
HALL: We searched for all articles that were in US major news and business publication from the years 2000 to 2012. And what we essentially found was that those that identify Americans of African descent as a black person the article actually has a more negative emotional tone. We created this custom dictionary that had about 300 negative emotional words and we found more of a presence of these negative emotional words and paragraph that refer to paragraphs of African descent as 'blacks' instead of 'African Americans.'
BOB: You say that in the criminal justice system when a suspect is described as black he faces a harder path.
HALL: We created a fictional crime report where the only difference that we had was that we labeled the suspect as either being African American suspect or a black suspect. What we found was that white Americans who evaluated the black suspect perceived him more negatively.
BOB: There was one sliver of I guess it was good news in your research and that was a brief study you did on the very advent of the Trayvon Martin verdict in Florida. THis was the case where George Zimmerman was charged in the shooting death of Martin a case in which the jury would come to acquit him. But just before that acquittal you asked some questions and found some answers that in some ways turned your other findings upside down.
HALL: With the Trayvon Martin study that we did, we evaluated a black or African American victim and this changes things totally around. Because if that victim is perceived to be low socioeconomic status or disadvantaged or needed help then you're more likely to have empathy for that victim than an African American victim which is perceived to be higher socioeconomic status and not in need of that help. When Trayvon Matrin was described as a black teenager then people were more favorable to his case than when he was described as an African American teenager. Furthermore they were more likely to say that Zimmerman was guilty when Trayvon Martin was described as a black teenager than when he was described as an African American teenager.
BOB: One of the reasons descriptives tend to mutate over the years because a stigma becomes attached and a degree of hateful can become attached to what began as a relatively neutral word. The risk of coming up with new terms is that eventually the stigma will catch-up to them and frankly I've always been skeptical of this sort of periodic shuffling of lexicon for the purposes of racial identification. But based on what you tell me I'm a little less skeptical now. Am I wrong to think that the stigma will always catch-up to the neologism.
HALL: I don't think you're wrong to think that. I think a lot of the stigmas embodied in the time in which the term was created. So if we do progress and I'm hoping that we do then eventually there shouldn't be a stigma with the word that's created out of a more positive time.
BOB: Which requires changes less to the dictionary and more to the society.
HALL: I would agree.
BOB: One final thing Erika. I couldn't help but notice that in this conversation and in this study itself you don't use the term African American or black. You've used Americans of African descent, or AAD's. Is that gonna be the next term of art?
HALL: I honestly think that since that term is so long it probably will not catch on. But when I describe the research I find that it's a lot more confusing when I choose a side.
BOB: Ok. But in the meantime I'm going to register AAD.com it could eventually have some value.
BOB: Erica thank you so much.
HALL: No problem. Thank you.
BOB: Erika Hall is Assistant Professor of Organizational and Management at the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University.