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Study: White people see "black" Americans as less competent than "African Americans"

Calling someone black instead of African American could cast the person in a more negative light, according to a recent study.

The research, published in January in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that white people characterize a "black" person as belonging to a lower socioeconomic status, being less competent, and having a less inviting personality than an "African-American" person. And this difference in perception could have an impact on African Americans in various settings, from the labor market to the criminal justice system.

Researchers, led by Emory University's Erika Hall, came to these results by conducting multiple studies in which they asked different groups of white people to evaluate individuals and groups through hypothetical scenarios.

The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker reported:

In one of the study's experiments, subjects were given a brief description of a man from Chicago with the last name Williams. To one group, he was identified as "African-American," and another was told he was "Black." With little else to go on, they were asked to estimate Mr. Williams's salary, professional standing, and educational background.

The "African-American" group estimated that he earned about $37,000 a year and had a two-year college degree. The "Black" group, on the other hand, put his salary at about $29,000, and guessed that he had only "some" college experience. Nearly three-quarters of the first group guessed that Mr. Williams worked at a managerial level, while 38.5 percent of the second group thought so.

Previous research supports the results


Shakespeare may have been wrong when he wrote, "A rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." (John Moore/Getty Images News)

A 2001 study from City University of New York researcher Gina Philogène also found the term "black" is associated with more negativity than "African American."

And previous research unrelated to race has suggested that differences in language can be fairly important. A 1988 study from researchers Irwin Levin and Gary Gaeth, for example, found consumers are more favorable to ground beef that's labeled as "75 percent lean" than beef described as "25 percent fat."

Summarizing these findings for their recent study, Emory University's Hall and her colleagues wrote, "Contrary to Shakespeare's notion that 'a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,' studies have shown that the labels individuals apply to objects, ideas, or other people often affect their perceptions of and reactions toward those entities."

Language matters

jury box

A jury box in Milwaukee. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

These differences in language can seem abstract, but researchers say they can have serious effects on public opinion and individuals.

For one, it could impact a person's chances of gaining employment. If someone submits a résumé in which he describes himself as black instead of African American, the research suggests that it could raise bad connotations — potentially reducing the chances of getting hired.

The difference in language could impact criminal justice system, where racial disparities are already a problem. Researchers pointed out that presenting a defendant as black instead of African American could, based on the studies' results, affect how jurors perceive the evidence presented to them and ultimately reach a decision.

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