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What good will dropping “illegal immigrant” do?

Sign at an immigration rights rally

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Daniel Foster

In a 1968 Newsweek poll, more than two-thirds of African Americans preferred to self-identify as “Negro.” By 1974, a majority preferred “black.” The swift shift was in no small part spurred, according to Brian Palmer at Slate (writing in the context of Harry Reid’s 2010 “Negro dialect” infamy), by Stokely Carmichael’s publishing of Black Power, in which Carmichael argued that “Negro” was inherently derogatory.

As the Reid incident illustrates, “Negro” didn’t disappear all at once, clinging on in certain regional usages of the old and out-of-it (much as the way more obviously derogatory descriptor “wetback” lingers). Indeed, the 2010 Census still offered Americans “Negro” as an option for self-identification — though just 36,000 (mostly, it is thought, older blacks in the deep South) ticked the box, down from 50,000 in 2000.

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But the mass turning-away from “Negro” in the late civil-rights era was very real, representing a remarkable and swift transformation in the understanding and self-understanding of an entire race of people. And by the late 1970s, the major elements of the press — whose job is in part to chronicle the way we understand ourselves — had all officially dropped “Negro.”

This was all undoubtedly to the good. “Negro” really did smuggle derogatory connotations into purportedly neutral terminology — it was, along with “colored,” part of the nomenclature of Jim Crow Officialdom. It really did become archaic, and almost all at once, after the civil-rights revolution, and its abandonment probably helped, in a small way, to close the door on a dark chapter in America. Perhaps most simply put, the shift reflected the fact that most black Americans no longer wanted to be called “Negroes,” and on the subject of what others wish to be called we are rightly inclined to maximal deference. As a sort of added bonus, in its American usage, “Negro” — which refers to the color “black” in Romance languages — was sufficiently divorced from its original content that no descriptive power was lost, and indeed a great deal was gained, in the transition to “black” and eventually “African American.” So not only were there good historical and psychological reasons to abandon “Negro,” there were good linguistic reasons, as well.

Compare all this with the Associated Press’s decision Tuesday to drop the phrase “illegal immigrants” to refer to immigrants in the country illegally. The AP, too, offered a mix of normative and linguistic arguments for the switch. The AP emphasized, on the normative front, that it didn’t want to be in the business of “labeling people,” and, on the linguistic front, that it is insensible to describe people, rather than behavior, as “illegal.”



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