January 25, 2010

Racial Labeling in Survey Questions

Census takers aren’t the only ones who have struggled with racial labels. Over the past seven decades, America’s pollsters have used “colored,” “Negro,” “African American,” “Afro-American” and “black” in questions in national surveys, according to a review of survey questions archived by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

Here, for example, is a survey question asked in a May 1948 Gallup Poll:

It has been suggested that white and colored men serve together throughout the U.S. Armed Services—that is, live and work in the same units. Do you think this is a good idea or a poor idea?

Jeffrey Passel recently recounted the fascinating history of the Census Bureau’s efforts to label the races. As Census Director Robert Groves notes in his blog, this year the bureau will allow people to choose from 15 categories for race, including “black, African American, or Negro.”

The history of racial labeling in public opinion polls is briefly but vividly recounted by Lee Sigelman and Steven A. Tuch of George Washington University and Jack K. Martin of Indiana University in their article “What’s In a Name? Preferences for ‘Black’ Versus ‘African American’ among Americans of African Descent” in the  Fall 2005 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly.

They report that during the first-two thirds of the last century the prevailing usage “evolved from ‘colored’ to “Negro” and then to “black.” In the late 1980s, researchers found that preferences shifted again as civil rights leaders pressed to make ethnicity or culture the defining characteristic…and the term “African American” came into common usage.

In 2007 when Gallup asked a sample of blacks which term they preferred, 24% said “African American,” 13% said “black” and 61% said it didn’t matter to them. (Pollsters have a clear preference: A total of 1,345 survey questions asked since 2000 have used “black” to refer to the racial group, compared with 246 that use the term “African American.”)

Of course much more than the language of race has changed in America since pollsters started measuring racial attitudes in the late 1930s.  Today, blacks and whites—as well as men and women—serve shoulder-to-shoulder in America’s armed forces. Such a future must have seemed far away in 1948 when 60% of those surveyed by Gallup said it would be a “poor” idea for the races to serve together.