Coloring Our Perception

Erika Hall presents her findings on people who use “African-American” versus “black”:

[A]long with colleagues Katherine Phillips and Sarah Townsend, I conducted a series of studies to determine whether white Americans perceived African Americans more favorably than blacks. In one study, we randomly assigned white participants to associate words with either blacks or African-Americans. Specifically, they selected 10 terms out of a list of 75 (e.g. aggressive, ambitious) that they felt best described each group. The participants that evaluated blacks chose significantly more negative words than those who evaluated African-Americans. Notably, whites did not associate more negative words with “Whites” than with “Caucasians.” …

Naturally, we were interested in nailing down the “Why?” question.

Perhaps, each term evoked different individuals. For example, if White Americans were told that an African-American man was at the door, would they expect a refined gentleman who looked like former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell? If they were told that a black man was at the door, would they expect a more thuggish man who looked like a character from the hit crime series, the Wire? We wondered whether whites perceived blacks as lower socioeconomic status than African-Americans, and we speculated that whites’ feelings toward blacks (vs. African-Americans) could be explained by this factor.

Should concludes with the question, “How many of our youth would have been more rightfully vindicated in the justice system if they were first identified as an ‘African-American’ rather than ‘Black’ suspect?” Meanwhile, Lori L. Tharps insists on capitalizing the “b” in “black”:

Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.

Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. Both Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized, but the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black with a lowercase b. Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” should be capitalized. What are Black people, then? …

If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?

Spoken Like A True Leader

Authors David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon highlight examples of speech patterns among politicians:

Take “my good friend”—politician-speak for somebody he or she often can’t stand. “My good friend” is most commonly used on the House or Senate floors when addressing a colleague. Usually it’s a thinly veiled way of showing contempt for the other lawmaker while adhering to congressional rules of decorum. When Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Texas first arrived on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, he recalled, “The joke we had was, when someone calls you their good friend, look behind you. I try not to say it unless people really are my good friends.’”

A linguistic cousin of “my good friend” is another term favored by an older generation of House members:

“minimum high regard.” Former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who held several Democratic leadership positions during his tenure from 1979 to 2005, turned us on to this time-honored knock against political foes. Frost recalled “one House member saying to another during floor debate: ‘I hold the gentleman in minimum high regard.’” Frost helpfully translated the phrase for us: “It means, ‘You are an idiot.’”

There’s also “counterproductive,” which, as Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott told National Public Radio, is “a word we use here in Washington to mean ‘stupid.’” And lawmakers have found they can get away with almost anything if they preface it with, “With all due respect.” That’s just what Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen did in a December 2013 MSNBC interview chiding Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul that Congress would be doing a “disservice” to workers by extending unemployment benefits. “With all due respect to Sen. Rand Paul, that is a ridiculous argument,” said Van Hollen.

Mark and McCutcheon’s new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, is available here.