Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.
CHICAGO — Everyone understands that words matter. Observers of my writing know that I hopscotch my way through racial and ethnic labels quite a bit, using the conventions of my source materials whenever possible so as to not tinge my point with an easily misperceived term.
But labels can be landmines. They can be perfectly acceptable to some in a particular group and at the same time deeply insult others. As it turns out, which racial label is used in communicating neutral information can also have a wide-ranging impact on those who are taking in descriptive information about a group or a person.
In a recent study — “A rose by any other name?: The consequences of subtyping ‘African-Americans’ from ‘Blacks’” — researchers Erika Hall, Katherine Phillips and Sarah Townsend found that these two racial labels have a disparate impact on how minority social groups are perceived by whites.
The researchers conducted four distinct studies in the realms of employment, media and criminal justice to determine the perceptions of the two labels in different contexts.
The data they collected point to whites believing that the label “Black” evokes a mental representation of a person with lower socioeconomic status, education, positivity, competence and warmth than the label “African-American.” And whites “will react more negatively” toward “Blacks” than toward “African-Americans.”
Even more chilling, the researchers found that use of the label “Black” in a newspaper crime report is associated with more negative emotional words than in an article featuring the words “African-American.” And whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when that person is identified as “Black” versus “African-American.”
Speaking on NPR’s “On the Media,” Hall also discussed surveys her team conducted in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting death.
They evaluated perceptions of a “Black” or “African-American” victim and found that respondents felt more empathy for “Black” victims than for “African-American” victims because of the belief in blacks’ disadvantage. The hypothesis is that “African-Americans” are perceived to have more advantages in life and, presumably, more personal responsibility.
Whatever your choice of terms — the researchers used “Americans of African Descent” — they can’t win for losing.
This will come as no surprise to those who already believe that — to paraphrase signs at protests for victims of harsh law enforcement by white officers — black lives don’t matter in America.
But it is a wake-up call for those who don’t really understand the depth to which racial bias still exists in this country and those who are too sunny on race relations in general, and I’ll include myself in this latter category.
That a perpetrator’s innocence or culpability and a victim’s worthiness of empathy or scorn can hinge on two terms that are used interchangeably in the media — and have been assumed to carry the same weight — is frightening. And there’s no easy fix.
To start, different sources of demographic statistics refer to groups differently. For instance, the Pew Research Center sticks to lower-case “black,” and upper-case “Hispanic” and “Asian” whereas other research organizations opt for “African American,” “Asian American” (with or without hyphens) and “Latino.”
And because all these terms have differing cultural resonance and are as likely to be embraced as shunned by the members of the race, a solution to this problem of perception cannot simply be to change reporting standards.
Finally, the label dilemma will almost certainly never be solved because what people choose to call themselves — and how they’ll accept being described -- is too emotional and dependent on generation, regionality and personal experience to codify to anyone’s satisfaction.
The burden here is on the humanity of both the writer and the reader.
How fair can each of us be when describing or interpreting an event that includes a human being who carries a label?
This will remain an open question. But first we must understand that no matter how post-racial any of us thinks we are, we’re all carrying around varying degrees of racial and ethnic bias.
All of us.
And the only way we’ll ever get past these biases is by understanding that they exist and must be confronted.
It’ll take strength to overcome our enlightened self-image to do so, but our nation’s racial unrest will not be healed until we try.