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Why are some Americans named to indicate their ancestry? It is not common to say, German Americans, or Russian Americans; however, African American, and Asian American are accepted nomenclatures. Even President Obama's Wikipedia entry reads, "He is the first African American to hold the office."

What is the origin / reason for this?

Update: "I am an American. Black. Conservative. I don't use African-American, because I'm American, I'm black and I'm conservative. I don't like people trying to label me. African- American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people." -Herman Cain

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Your premise is suspect. If Italian-American or German-American is not (apparently) common, it doesn't follow that these are not accepted nomenclatures. If a usage or label for a group of people is (apparently) common, it doesn't follow that they have been "named" this. You cite Wikipedia for some reason, but you've failed to search for parallel usages. "Committee members had little taste for a second battle over Scalia and were in any event reluctant to oppose the first Italian-American Supreme Court nominee." [Wikipedia] –  jbelacqua Apr 3 '11 at 7:05
    
@jgbelacqua, one is accepted, another is uncommon; however, my question was only towards the history of the terms. I was sure there is some history behind this, which is an answer indicates. –  CMR Apr 3 '11 at 12:03
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There were objections from some american black politicians that Obama wasn't African-American because he had an African and American parent but wasn't a descendant of slaves and so wasn't African-American. So 'African-American' isn't the same as African-and-American –  mgb Apr 3 '11 at 16:12
    
@jgbelacqua, I understand. However, my knowledge is very limited, and I might hurt someone's feelings. I apologize if so. Would you be able to fix the question? –  CMR Apr 3 '11 at 22:49
    
@CMR I think perhaps it is too broad -- are you asking about hyphenated Something-Americans or African-Americans in particular? I'm partly cranky because there have literally been books written about any given Something-American group and their history. As it stands now, do you think Alain's answer is sufficiently enlightening? Perhaps this gives a good idea of your desired scope. –  jbelacqua Apr 4 '11 at 1:30

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

"African American" is a Politically Correct way of avoiding to say "Black" which replaced "Colored", which in turn replaced the infamous "N-word", because this was perceived to be too discriminatory. It was coined after the terms "Anglo American" and "Irish American". It is also more precise because you can have a dark skin and not be of African ancestry (see Papua New Guinea or Andaman for instance).

"Asian American" (replacing "Oriental") and "Native American" (replacing "Indian") were phrases coined in a similar way.

Neither the German nor the Russian immigrants have been markedly discriminated against as a community. Nevertheless the phrase "German American" and "Russian American" also exist if somewhat less commonly used. Other significant immigrant communities have their corresponding label as well ("Italian American" for instance).

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I think 'black' replaced 'colored' which replaced 'Negro' (the latter was probably replaced at the time because the N-word, a pronunciation variation, was derogatory back then, too). –  Mitch Apr 3 '11 at 15:15
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I don't think Africa-American is really the same as German/Irish-American etc. Those terms are only used when you need to be specific about somebodies culture - African American is purely a euphemism for black. –  mgb Apr 3 '11 at 16:09
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Negro is not the infamous "N-word", but it is slightly dated. It appears for example in the title of the United Negro College Fund started in 1944. –  Henry Apr 3 '11 at 16:20
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@Alain, this is probably a sensitive area, where words seem to have varying meaning in various countries. The term "coloured" is supposedly unacceptable in South Africa (Usage & Abusage - Eric Partridge) –  CMR Apr 3 '11 at 22:51
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It's wrong to say that German-Americans have never been discrimated against here. During World War I, all the stores and restaurants with "German" in their name were renamed with "Liberty" or something similar, because of discrimination. However, I do agree that Germans immigrants have had a much easier time than Irish, Jews, blacks, and Asians. –  Peter Shor Apr 4 '11 at 15:08

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