I recently came across a medical article that accounted for a number of ethnic physiological profiles (women, blacks and diabetics) when interpreting the outcome of a trial. They consistently used the term "blacks", presumably for subjects of African descent.

My question is, how specific is the term "blacks" as an ethnic profile; what does and what doesn't it entail? And on a related note, how laden is the term "blacks"? In my native tongue "blacks" and "niggers" carry about the same connotation.

Edit in response to the comments

Thank you all for your comments. From your responses I distill that "blacks" is more or less equivalent to "African-American", but might carry a negative connotation.

@Xanne: "physiological profile" might have been more accurate than "ethnic profile", although I reckon the line between these two is blurred in the current context.

@Mitch There is a perceived difference between 'black' (the adjective for the group) and 'blacks' (the group label). Even though this seems infinitesimally different, they have pretty different connotations.

@AndyT "Black" is not equivalent to "African American". All African Americans may be Blacks, but not all Blacks are African Americans. There are plenty of black people who are not American!

Most responses have been concerning the connotation of the term "blacks". I would like to shift the focus to my other question: Does anyone think that "blacks" may refer to a more specific or a more broad group than "African-American"?

  • 2
    @Mari-LouA In daily life, at least here in the States, no one actually says "Afro-American", though "African-American" is very common. I'd say that it's safest to stick with that if you are not a member of that community.
    – Dan Bron
    May 14, 2017 at 14:54
  • 5
    If you're worried, ask the people you're worried about offending what they think. Nobody else's opinion counts, after all. May 14, 2017 at 15:29
  • 3
    The US has developed a grievance industry. People have discovered political and social power in being offended. There are "language police" on college campuses who manage to find so many words offensive that it becomes difficult to communicate. Almost any word can be claimed to offend somebody, or have potential to offend somebody. You can take reasonable steps to be sensitive to what are considered mainstream offensive words. But the rampant abuse of being offended and seeing micro-aggressions in everything is a form of bullying, and well-intentioned people facilitate it by buying into it.
    – fixer1234
    May 15, 2017 at 5:56
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA: The same interpretation is not true for all cultures. In Dutch, for example, "neger" is still accepted usage (since it is still considered as the Latin word for black). However, calling someone a "zwarte" (black, as a noun) is interpreted as being dismissive of the person other than their race. "Zwarte vriend" (black friend), however, is not considered dismissive but merely descriptive. I know we're on English.SE and not Dutch.SE, but though this cultural difference is relevant to the question at hand, even if only tangential.
    – Flater
    May 17, 2017 at 10:25
  • 3
    "Black" is not equivalent to "African American". All African Americans may be Blacks, but not all Blacks are African Americans. There are plenty of black people who are not American!
    – AndyT
    May 17, 2017 at 11:10

2 Answers 2


There are official US racial definitions that government agencies follow, in a accordance with a Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directive, as explained here. Two of the definitions are

Black or African American. A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used in addition to "Black or African American."

White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa

So keep in mind that some original people of Africa and their descendants, for example of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, etc., are considered "white", at least according to official US definitions.

The term "African-American" came into wide-spread usage after Jesse Jackson endorsed in 1988, as explained in the 31 January 1989 New York Times article 'African-American' Favored By Many of America's Blacks.

However, subsequently there has been some backlash against this term from blacks. See for example:

Why I'm Black, not African American Los Angles Times 08 September 2004.

I'm Not African American, I'm Black Ebony 2012

Even Jesse Jackson was recently (4 April 2017) quoted as saying the phrase "blacks building slave ships", as explained in Rev. Jesse Jackson: Latinos Building Border Wall is Like Blacks Building Slave Ships

The naming of black organizations such as Blacks in Government and National Association of Blacks In Criminal Justice further shows that "blacks" is not an offensive term.

  • 2
    "Black" (adj) has different connotation than "Blacks" (plural noun), so this answer is off the mark.
    – Colin
    May 20, 2017 at 13:23
  • 1
    @ColinZwanziger "Blacks" is in the title of the New York Times article of the answer. "Blacks" is used 12 times in the body of the NYT article.
    – DavePhD
    May 20, 2017 at 13:50
  • 1
    @ColinZwanziger I added a recent Jesse Jackson quote using the word "blacks", to supplement the answer.
    – DavePhD
    May 20, 2017 at 13:58
  • So we know that 1. NYT used this term in the 1980's. 2. Jesse Jackson uses the term. That's still not quite convincing that "blacks" is a preferred term in USA circa 2017.
    – Colin
    May 20, 2017 at 14:47
  • 1
    @ColinZwanziger I'm just saying it's not offensive (especially in contrast to the OP using the N-word), not that "blacks" is always the most preferred term for every situation. The House of Representatives uses "Black Americans" history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/… . "Black folks" is often good.
    – DavePhD
    May 20, 2017 at 17:48
  1. How specific is the term "blacks" as an ethnic profile? What does and doesn't it entail?

a. For medical research about people living in the U.S. (as in the case of the article you read), "black" as a racial category is clearly enough understood that, as you saw, the author didn't feel a need to define the term. (You might be able to get more information about this at Health.SE.)

b. In the U.S., outside the world of medicine, how an individual self-identifies has become more important than arbitrarily assigned designations.

  1. How laden is the term "blacks"?

In the U.S. there is a tremendous legacy of racism and unresolved misunderstandings, fair and unfair assumptions, hypersensitivities and resentments. As shown in some of the comments on this page, even the existence of feelings of resentment sometimes provokes irate reactions. In other words, when you asked this question, you stepped unknowingly into a minefield.

There are many possible permutations of speaker and listener, writer and reader. Ordered pairs can be made by selecting from the following: white person, black person, African American person (with subsets by age, urban vs. rural, etc.), international black person (with many subsets, such as visitor, recent immigrant, established immigrant, region of origin, etc.), mixed race person, and so on.

One could write a book about your question, considering all the possible permutations!

But you want some practical information. Was the medical researcher's use of the word black offensive? One would have to read the article to figure that out. As a non-native visiting or living in the U.S., can you safely use the word black as a synonym for African American? Frequently, but not always.

Example: Someone in my family recently needed a particular hair care product in a hurry before traveling. I called a certain department store and asked if they carried black hair care products. The clerk took offense and told me to say "African American," not "black."

Moral of the story: one should be prepared to be sensitive to individual preferences.

  • I think for hair, "black" is confusing because it could just refer to the color of the hair. I would recommend "Do you carry ethnic hair products"? kmart.com/beauty-hair-care-ethnic-hair-care/b-25141
    – DavePhD
    May 22, 2017 at 13:20
  • African Americans like Elon Musk might be ill advised to use "African American hair products"...
    – Ben McGah
    May 3, 2018 at 18:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.