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No Preferred Racial Term Among Most Black, Hispanic Adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most Black Americans, 58%, do not have a preference between the terms “Black” and “African American” when asked which term they would rather people use to describe their racial group. The one in three who express a preference divide evenly between preferring each term.

These findings from a June 1-July 5 Gallup poll are similar to Gallup’s prior tracking of Black Americans’ preferred terms using a differently worded question asked from 1991 to 2019. The new wording makes it clear that the question is asking what the group should be called — not how the respondent prefers to be referred to, themselves. The earlier surveys also found majorities saying it didn’t matter to them which term was used, and usually, no clear preferred term was identified among those who did have a preference.

Although the term “African American” was used as early as 1782, it was popularized in the late 1980s by a group of Black leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, who argued that this term had “cultural integrity.” But like Gallup’s findings today, the Black public mostly had no preference between the two terms in the early 1990s and the following decades, while similarly sized minorities preferred one over the other.

Style guides of the Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists say that both “Black” and “African American” are acceptable terms — but not necessarily interchangeable ones — and advise reporters use the preferred terms of their subjects.

Societally accepted terms do change over time. Gallup found in 1969 that “negroes” was the most popular term among Black Americans at the time, while “colored people” and “Blacks” were about equally as preferred, each by about one in five, and “Afro-Americans” were favored by one in 10.

Gallup primarily used the term “negro” in early decades of polling, including its very first question about Black people in 1939, though the term “colored people” was used as well. Both terms were retired by the company in the early 1970s, when “Black” became a staple term Gallup used to poll about Black Americans thereon.

If They Had to Choose, Most Black Adults Would Choose “Black”

In the current survey, for the first time, Gallup asked a follow-up question of Black respondents who did not have a preference whether they lean toward one term over the other if they had to choose.

Black Americans were fairly mixed on the question, with a slight preference for “Black” (52%) over “African American” (44%). Four percent had no opinion either way.

Most Hispanic Adults Have No Preference on Subgroup Label

Hispanic respondents were asked a similar question about their preference among the terms “Hispanic,” “Latino” and “Latinx” — with this final option being a newer, gender-neutral term favored by some Hispanic Americans.

Most Hispanic adults (57%) say it does not matter to them which term is used, though nearly one in four (23%) prefer “Hispanic” and 15% prefer “Latino.” Few expressed a preference for “Latinx” (4%).

These findings are fairly consistent with a differently worded question Gallup polled among Hispanic Americans in 2013 that also found that most said the term used did not matter, though “Hispanic” was slightly preferred over “Latino.”

“Hispanic” the Most Preferred Term by Hispanic Adults When Asked to Choose

In the follow-up question in which Hispanic respondents were asked which term they lean toward, most prefer “Hispanic” (57%), while more than a third choose “Latino” (37%). Five percent prefer “Latinx.”

Bottom Line

American language and terminology evolve, as do the terms certain groups use to refer to themselves.

As for the terms “Black” and “African American,” however, both terms have been accepted by most Black Americans for at least three decades — though sizable and roughly equal, minorities of Black adults have had a preference for one of the terms in particular. Today, when they must choose one, “Black” enjoys a slight preference, though many opt for “African American” as well.

Most Hispanic Americans, too, are content with the use of multiple terms to describe their subgroup. Most favor “Hispanic,” though many prefer “Latino,” while few have adopted “Latinx” as their preferred term. Gallup’s historical polls illustrate the extent to which preferences can change over time, however, and future updates will tell if this new, lesser-used term is on the rise — and also if even newer labels have emerged to rival it.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Originally posted on Gallup.