NEW YORK -- Like so many people who phone this city's radio talk shows, Norma Johnson had crime on her mind when she called WLIB recently.
"I feel that, as black people, we are particularly vulnerable right now," Johnson said, on the city's most popular black radio station.
"Yes," the moderator replied gently. "But don't you mean as 'African-American' people?"
Johnson quickly assented and continued talking about safety on the streets. But nearly two years after Jesse L. Jackson and others publicly called on the nation's blacks to reject using that word to describe themselves and replace it with "African American," the suggestion still generates powerful and sometimes painful debate.
Many people have made the switch naturally, saying the issue was not about a name or a word but about a more meaningful way to define and describe the one large group of ethnic Americans who in large part did not immigrate by choice.
Others, black and white, are skeptical. Having lived through the bitter passage from "colored" to "Negro" and in the 1960s to "black," they express concern at a growing insistence that the word "black" should be discarded because it has become so negative and tainted.
" 'African American' is a segregated term," said Fred Buggs, program director of New York's popular black-owned FM radio station WBLS, sister station of WLIB. "When you use it, you are cutting yourself off from many of your brothers. When you say black, you cover everybody -- Trinidad, Jamaica, London. On the street, black folks still call themselves black folks."
In this city, if a dozen people are asked what they would prefer to be called, most will say black, some will say African American and others frequently wonder aloud why they have to waste their time answering.
"I want to be treated with respect," said Michael Florel, 32, a jazz drummer. "It's more the way people use the words than what they are that matters."
That could be changing, however. Textbooks, politicians and many large institutions, including dictionary publishers, newspapers and several universities, have begun to examine policy on use of "African American."
No major municipal government commands its use by employees or in official reports. But New York Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) never refers to blacks or Hispanics in speeches, preferring "African American" and "Latino." New York City school teachers have been encouraged, but are not required, to use "African American" in their lessons.
The District of Columbia has no written policy either, but the trend toward use of "African American" has been strong there for several years.
"We don't have a mandated policy on this," said Kay Hixson, director of communications for the District government. "But people have just gravitated toward use of 'African American' as a more meaningful and descriptive and ideologically significant term. It is an expression of political power and global unity."
In many cities, "black" and "African American" are increasingly used interchangeably, but there are those who believe that "black" is doomed as an appropriate ethnic designation.
"I do foresee a day when using the term 'black' to refer to an African American will seem as derogatory and offensive as it would be to call that person a Negro today," said Joseph Hollander, director of publications for the Modern Language Association. The 32,000-member group publishes one of the nation's most prestigious grammatical style manuals and is among the world's largest academic organizations. "We prefer 'African American,' and we always try to make a case for that. But we don't object to 'black' if it is used in a nonracist way."
Not everyone agrees. The switch from use of "Negro" to "black" was particularly difficult, coming after black activists insisted the word "black" become a positive symbol of pride and power. Its political nature has led some people to contend it should remain dominant.
"The word 'black' has been pathologized for so many years," said Manthia Diawara, associate director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. "It has always been white as good and black as darkness. But in the 1960s, there came a whole new meaning for 'black.' It became a metaphor for race and power and freedom-seeking people."
Sixty-six percent of blacks and 75 percent of whites prefer "black" to "African American," according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll and other recent surveys. In the late 1960s, a majority of both races also favored "Negro" over "black."
Name changes are common for ethnic groups and others. For years, homosexuals have demanded, and generally won, the right to be called "gay." Increasingly, Hispanics are referred to as "Latinos," and many institutions, including the Census Bureau, use "Native American" rather than Indian.
"This whole business of names has been a constant troubling issue in the history of African Americans," said Charles V. Hamilton, professor of political science at Columbia University and editor of a forthcoming four-volume encyclopedia of African-American history and culture. "Each time we have seen this happen, it has been related to an effort to achieve a new status in society. It is the struggle of a people to locate themselves.
"What I find exceptionally interesting now," he said, "is that another term -- 'people of color' -- is coming to be used. It is just a short step from there to colored people, a description we fled from 60 years ago."
Common as they are in the history of American usage, such new terms for ethnic groups often are viewed with skepticism and anger. American women, for example, fought for nearly two decades before "Ms." became used widely in such weather vanes of daily life as newspapers, hospital forms or address labels on junk mail.
Many major newspapers, including The Washington Post, are discussing usage in news columns. Most major newspapers and broadcast organizations use "black" more frequently but also permit "African American," particularly in reference to cultural issues.
"We try as much as possible to communicate with people in language they understand and use," said Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's managing editor. "We are undecided here whether America as a whole, and black Americans in particular, have shifted from a generally preponderant use of the word 'black.' "
Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, is perhaps the person who has pushed hardest and most publicly for use of "African American."
"I hate to see this fighting over a name change," she said. "This is about so much more than that. Other Americans have been able to assimilate. They can celebrate at home their historical roots and go into the marketplace and leave it all behind when they wish. We don't have that option.
"There is just no question that 'African American' is a better, more appropriate designation for us," Edelin said. "Black and white are racially charged polar opposites. We are not just a color. We have a proud cultural history that was cut off by slavery."
Not everyone in the black community agrees.
"So much time is wasted on this, really," said Charles Rowell, professor of English at the University of Virginia and editor of Callaloo, a literary and arts journal that serves as a forum for writers and scholars concentrating on people of African descent.
"Let's not battle over words," he said. "Let's battle over teenage pregnancy, homelessness and the dissolution of the black family.
"Wouldn't we be better off if our time was spent talking about AIDS in the black community, economic poverty, the plague of drugs and the censorship that prevents black writers and artists from developing their talent? Those issues are so much more important than holding debates over a word or a name."