PC Courts
April 1, 2005 11:06 PM   Subscribe

When did the United States' court system stop using the term "negro" as the official term for African-Americans?

a pre-law friend of mine recently asked me this question, saying that there was probably a court decision at some point in the sixties or seventies. I think it may have changed on a state-to-state basis, or even that it naturally changed over time as a result of political correctness--any ideas?
posted by Kifer85 to Law & Government (13 answers total)
Jesse Jackson in 1988 made a famous speech in which he called for the use of the term "African American" to replace "black" -- and it actually had a widespread effect. The term was in limited use before then, but the speech very much popularized it. Therefore I would be surprised by a court decision to use "African American" prior to that date - in fact, I would be surprised if it was a court or a government "decision" so much as a rolling consensus around a new linguistic practice. By the same token, I doubt if there was a decision regarding the change in usage from "negro" to "black". If you have access to a good university library system this article is available electronically and is informative on around when these linguistic shifts took place in the African American community. I could email it to you if you have no access:

Vol/Issue: 66 (2), Date: 1991, Pages: 133-146
posted by Rumple at 1:26 AM on April 2, 2005

U.S. courts do not have "official" terms for anything. There is no centralized vocabulary list. Whoever is writing an opinion uses whatever language he or she wants, and if other judges or justices disagree with a word choice they can raise that disagreement before the opinion is made public.

Thurgood Marshall continued to prefer "negro" throughout his life. At his press conference announcing his retirement, he famously "corrected" a reporter who used some other term (I think "black" or "African-American") and insisted he use "negro."
posted by profwhat at 4:58 AM on April 2, 2005

It naturally changed over time, as "Negro" was for some time the polite "politically correct" term -- while "blackamoor", and by extension, "black" was impolite.

I recall Martin Luther King using "Negro", but I don't recall him ever using "black".

I know that academic works used "Negro "pretty much up to about 1970, 1971, and I recall seeing a book published circa 1971, on free Negroes in South Carolina, which used "black" in the book form but had used "Negro" in the original dissertation. All the books on free blacks published prior to the 1970s used "Negro", to the extent that if I think of that subject, I tend to think "free Negroes" and "translate" that to "free blacks" when I speak.
posted by orthogonality at 5:03 AM on April 2, 2005

The one constant truth about the American court system is that they very rarely agree on an "official" anything, especially semantics.
posted by MrZero at 6:27 AM on April 2, 2005

I recall Martin Luther King using "Negro", but I don't recall him ever using "black".

From King's "I Have a Dream" speech:

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
posted by Clay201 at 9:23 AM on April 2, 2005

Clay201 writes " From King's 'I Have a Dream' speech: "

Whoops. Thanks for the correction.
posted by orthogonality at 10:57 AM on April 2, 2005

There was a case we recently read in school dated in the 80s in which a Supreme Court Justice used the word "Negro" but I can't remember which one it was. A friend and I remarked on it so I'll see if she can remember which one it is. I'm not saying that's the last time it happened, but it at least shows that they were using the word fairly recently.
posted by jennyb at 8:33 PM on April 2, 2005

Let me just say, I have no idea what to call someone of that ethnic background. "Black" is seen as demeaning (I don't care if I'm called "white", though), but "african-american" (I'm in the US) seems presumptuous and plain wrong in a variety of cases. If I may piggyback a question, just what *is* the accepted terminology?
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:01 PM on April 2, 2005

As a twenty-something guy who has socialized in a few places, I can say that "black" is commonly used by people of most races. It would not be considered impolite to point out someone by saying they're next to "that black guy" or, likewise, "that white guy."
posted by wackybrit at 10:54 PM on April 2, 2005

Yeah, what do you call a black person from Antigua, Antiguan-American? Silly.
posted by berek at 11:57 PM on April 2, 2005

Yeah, what do they call an eminent and successful black surgeon who had saved hundreds of lives, when he's on a train in Mississippi?
posted by orthogonality at 9:28 AM on April 3, 2005

just what *is* the accepted terminology?

Black, usually. If it's an especially official capacity -- the sorts of official gov't or business forms where you see things like "Asian or Pacific Islander" or "Caucasian or white, not of Hispanic origin," then African-American (or "Black or African-American") might be preferred.

what do you call a black person from Antigua, Antiguan-American?

Some might prefer to be called Antiguan or West Indian, since they come from a somewhat different culture than "native" black people.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2005

Assuming that Antiguans are usually black, that is.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2005

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