What to call black people has to be confusing to white people. Having been around for 73 years, I have been through a number of names.
Among the polite names are: colored, Negro, Afro-American, black and now African-American. Among those names, African-American is probably the most unintelligent. You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” Suppose I told you I had a European-American friend or a South-America-American friend, or a North-America-American friend. You probably would say, “Williams, that’s stupid. Europe, South America and North America are continents consisting of many peoples.”
You might insist that I call my friend from Germany a German-American instead of European-American and my friend from Brazil a Brazilian-American rather than a South-America-American and my friend from Canada a Canadian-American instead of a North American. So would not the same apply to people whose heritage lies on the African continent?
For example, instead of claiming President Obama is the first African-American president, it should be that he’s the first Kenyan-American president. In that sense, Mr. Obama is lucky. Unlike most American blacks, he knows his national heritage; the closest to a national heritage the rest of us can identify is some country along Africa’s Gold Coast.
Another problem with the African-American label is that not all people of African ancestry are dark. Whites are roughly 10 percent of Africa’s population and include not only European settlers but Arabs and Berbers. So is an Afrikaner who becomes a U.S. citizen a part of the United States’ African-American population? Should census takers and affirmative action/diversity bean counters count Arabs, Berbers and Afrikaners who are U.S. citizens as African-Americans, and should those citizens be eligible for racial quotas in college admittance and employment?
Are black Americans a minority group? When one uses the term minority, there is an inference that somewhere out there is a majority, but in the United States, we are a nation of minorities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 census, where people self-identify, our largest ethnic groups are people of German ancestry (15.2 percent), followed by Irish (10.8 percent), African (8.8), and English (8.7) ancestry. Of the 92 ethnic groups listed in the census, 75 of them make up less than 1 percent of our population.
Race talk often portrays black Americans as downtrodden and deserving of white people’s help and sympathy. That vision is an insult of major proportions. As a group, black Americans have made some of the greatest gains, over the highest hurdles, in the shortest time of any racial group in mankind’s history.
This unprecedented progress can be seen through several measures. If one were to total black earnings and consider black Americans a separate nation, he would find that in 2005, black Americans earned $644 billion, making them the world’s 16th-richest nation - that is just behind Australia but ahead of Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.
Black Americans are, and have been, chief executives of some of the world’s largest and richest cities, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington. It was a black American, Gen. Colin L. Powell, appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1989, who headed the world’s mightiest military and later became U.S. secretary of state and was succeeded by Condoleezza Rice, another black American. Black Americans are among the world’s most famous personalities, and a few are among the richest. Most blacks are not poor but middle-class.
On the eve of the Civil War, neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed these gains possible in less than a mere century and a half, if ever. That progress speaks well not only of the sacrifices and intestinal fortitude of a people; it also speaks well of a nation in which these gains were possible. These gains would not have been possible anywhere else.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.