Leonard Pitts wrote a tremendous article, Dumbest idea in history? Race. You should read the whole piece.
Among other things, He explains that race became “that which would allow one person in rags to feel superior to another person in rags.” In the United States, “Whiteness was something that had to be learned and earned, particularly for those — Jews, Poles, southern Italians, Hungarians, the Irish — who were regarded as congenitally inferior. They were seen as white, says [Nell Irwin] Painter, but it was a sort of defective whiteness. They were ‘off white’ for want of a better term, and as such, a threat to American values and traditions. And they were mistreated accordingly until, over the passage of generations of assimilation, they achieved full whiteness.”
“As whiteness was invented, so was blackness. When Africans were gathered on the shores of that continent to be packed into the reeking holds of slave ships for the voyage to this country, they saw themselves as Taureg, Mandinkan, Fulani, Mende, or Songhay — not black. As Noel Ignatiev, author of How The Irish Became White, has observed, those Africans did not become slaves because they were black. They ‘became’ black because they were enslaved.”
This remained true, to an obsessive degree, even after slavery ended in the United States. Check out the detailed recording of black people in the 1890 Census: “Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word ‘black’ should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; ‘mulatto,’ those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; ‘quadroon,’ those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and ‘octoroon,’ those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.”
If ‘black’ is an imprecise term, then ‘African-American’ is even more so, as Pitts explains: As the example of Charlize Theron, the fair-skinned, blond actress from South Africa, amply illustrates, it is entirely possible to come from [Africa], yet not be what we think of as ‘black.’ Indeed, Theron, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, is by definition an African American. Yet, she fits no one’s conception of that term, either.”
I never embraced the term ‘African-American’; it’s SEVEN syllables, versus one for ‘black’. As long as the distinctions are made, I prefer the term ‘black’; after all, as Ken Levine noted, the James Brown anthem would sound very different if it were, “Say It Loud! I’m African-American and I’m Proud.”
Pitts also wrote about How Black Is Black Enough?
A great story by Bob Costas about the late baseball player Stan Musial on an extended section from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, January 28, 2012.