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While rewatching the famous movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" I noticed that the term "negro" instead of "black" was often used. The following is a sentence taken from the movie.

From Guess Who's Coming to Dinner:

"He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro".

the following source notes that:

  • “Negro” is the very dated word for a black person, which quickly died out in the years immediately following the release of this movie.

(www.eslnotes.com)

Also Etymonline suggests that the term was replaced by "black" in the late 1960s.

  • because of its perceived association with white-imposed attitudes and roles the word was ousted late 1960s in this sense by "Black".

Given the subject of the movie was the representation of the controversial subject of interracial marriage during the Civil Rights Movement, I guess the terminology in the movie was very carefully chosen. This leads me to think that when the movie was released, the term "negro" was still a "politically correct" one, but for a very short time though.

Given the immediate popularity and success of the movie, is there evidence that the film itself actually contributed to the change in usage and the emergence of "black" as a more commonly accepted term?

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    Wait, what? Saying the use of the term Negro faded after the release of the film is a very far cry from saying the film is reponsible for the the decline, especially considering terminology is not a central focus of the dialog.
    – choster
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:17
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    The movie is not about terminology. If anything, it would have extended the use of the term in polite society.
    – choster
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:25
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    This will be very speculative to answer. Even if there are mass-media articles about the movie and the term in the couple years following it with someone explicitly writing 'That movie made me use another word". That's only one person's evidence and can't show cause for all. We could only conjecture, or conjecture that the movie itself was already out of date when released.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:27
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    I suspect, without convenient sources, that the change in the acceptable term and the release of the film were both effects of a shift in attitudes. Hollywood in the 50s wasn't exactly a stronghold of progressive attitudes. I doubt it can be settled one way or the other, but as it's still an interesting question (i.e. +1) I wouldn't mind being proved wrong.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:28
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    Many things contributed to it. Not one single thing.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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+100

According to this article, it is more likely due to the influential work of civil-rights figure Stokely Carmichael:

When did the word Negro become socially unacceptable?

It started its decline in 1966 and was totally uncouth by the mid-1980s. The turning point came when Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase black power at a 1966 rally in Mississippi. Until then, Negro was how most black Americans described themselves. But in Carmichael's speeches and in his landmark 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, he persuasively argued that the term implied black inferiority. Among black activists, Negro soon became shorthand for a member of the establishment. Prominent black publications like Ebony switched from Negro to black at the end of the decade, and the masses soon followed. According to a 1968 Newsweek poll, more than two-thirds of black Americans still preferred Negro, but black had become the majority preference by 1974. Both the Associated Press and the New York Times abandoned Negro in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, even the most hidebound institutions, like the U.S. Supreme Court, had largely stopped using Negro.

If this timing is accurate, then the frequent use of the term in a movie released in 1967 would not have sounded unusual, it would have simply been a reflection of the time.

It only sounds out of date to our modern ears.

The source is poor (PDF scan), but here is what Carmichael says about the term "Negro" on page 37 of his book Black Power:

Black people must redefine themselves, and only they can do that. Throughout this country, vast segments of the black communities are beginning to recognize the need to assert their own definitions, to reclaim their history, their culture; to create their own sense of community and togetherness. There is a growing resentment of the word "Negro", for example, because this term is the invention of our oppressor; it is his image of us that he describes. Many blacks are now calling themselves African-Americans, Afro-Americans or black people because that is our image of ourselves. When we begin to define our own image, the stereotypes--that is, lies--that our oppressor has developed will begin in the white community and end there. That black community will have a positive image of itself that it has created.

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    This is a good answer. I think it is worth emphasizing that the emerging hostility to Negro reflected in part a generational change in tactics and leadership between establishment anti-segregationists of the 1960s and earlier and the new generation of militant activists. W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1928, has an interesting exchange with a reader of The Crisis, two generations before the issue resurfaced in the late 1960s. To my knowledge, DuBois never abandoned his preference for the term Negro.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 20:43
  • It sounds like Carmichael himself propelled "Negro" down the euphemism treadmill. One can almost see the Wikipedia annotations after "There is a growing resentment" and "Many blacks" asking for corroborating evidence.
    – Paul Rowe
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 20:56
  • @PaulRowe Hard to say, based on these few quotes. Probably a better question, frankly, for history.SE.
    – BradC
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 21:40
  • @PaulRowe I get that you were just trying to be amusing but I would say that there's only a "euphemism treadmill" here if you consider that black/negroness is inherently unpleasant. Calling the retarded "special" will only poison the meaning of special because retardation is inherently negative and will always poison any term for it. There's no reason that a respectful term for people of African ancestry or appearance should need to be continually adjusted.
    – lly
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:25
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There is no one point when Negro stopped being used.

A now-small, mostly elderly, group of Americans still prefers to self-identify as "Negro".

For example Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett recently (2015) said:

I call myself an American Negro, not an African-American

In fact, in the 2000 census, 56,000 Americans so-preferred the term "Negro" that they refused to state they were "Black or African American" and instead stated they were "some other race" and hand-wrote that they were "Negro".

The Etymonline is wrong to say "ousted late 1960s".

As of April 1970, blacks strongly preferred "Negro" to "Black" as shown by the following Roper Louisville data, as reported by NASA:

Percent of Blacks preferring to be called the following terms (April 1970):

"Negro" 51%

"Colored" 11%

"Black" 8%

"Afro-American" 8%

Other 4%

No difference 16%

No opinion 3%

Among whites "Negro" was marginally (27% to 25%) preferred over "black" in the same poll.

NASA adds in this report, written in 1971:

It is interesting to note that three times as many whites as Negroes seem to feel that it is better to use the term "black." It was pointed out in the article on the Louisville study that the term "black" was formerly considered to be the most derogatory of all, and this may be one reason why it is not appealing to Negroes. In the Louisville study, "black" was not even preferred by Negro youth. But in the Gallup poll, the sharpest difference in preference was shown between younger and older Negroes--at least in the North: among Negro northerners in their twenties, "black" was chosen either ahead of or equal to the name "Negro." Also in the same poll, the higher-income Negroes preferred "black' more often than those of lower income; Southerners were less likely to name "black;" and the term "Afro-American" was not liked at any level, remaining in the 5 to 10 percentile.

The Chicago Tribune used the term "Negro" in headlines up through 1973, perhaps the last time being Negro elected L.A. mayor 30 May 1973.

Some use of the term continued much longer, even though "black" and later "African-American" became preferable.

The US National Institutes of Health said in a 08 January 2015 release titled Racial and Ethnic Categories and Definitions for NIH Diversity Programs and for Other Reporting Purposes:

Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used

The US army stopped using the term in 2014 and Census Bureau stopped in 2013 as explained in U.S. Army apologizes, will drop term 'Negro' from policy document (7 November 2014).

The 2010 census gave the below form, which clearly says "Negro", to every family in the US:

enter image description here

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opposed changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon as recently as 2012, one of 757 US place-names containing "Negro", the president of the Salt Lake City chapter insisting:

Negro is an acceptable word

The 2010 article Polls Reveal Black Americans' Contradictory Feelings On "Negro" says:

...when the forms for the 2010 Census were released at the beginning of this year, many were surprised to see that one of the choices provided for a person’s race is “Black, African Am., or Negro.” As if that wasn’t perplexing enough, last week it was revealed that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Barack Obama was electable in part due to the fact that he is “light-skinned” and speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

So how do Black people feel about the word? In one poll, NewsOne/Blackplanet asked members, “Does the word ‘Negro’ offend you?” 70 percent said no, the word does not offend them, while only 30 percent said yes.

However, in a follow-up poll, we asked, “If a white person called you a negro, would it offend you?” and the responses almost completely switched. 67% said they would be offended, while only 33 percent said they would not.

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    @Josh Well it's your question, but the phrase "final blow" makes it sound very absolute. The Chicago Tribune stopped using the term in typical headlines around 1974. archives.chicagotribune.com/1973/05/30/page/1/article/… "Negro elected L.A. mayor" 30 May 1973 is the last I see other than about baseball or quotations or specific organizations.
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 16:03
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    So what does Etymonline ( and others ) mean when they say the the term (Negro) was ousted by the late '60s by Black?
    – user66974
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 16:20
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    Ironically, "Negro Bill Canyon" is a cleaned-up version of the canyon's earlier name. The WPA Guide to Utah (1941) includes this note: "NIGGER BILL CANYON (R), 3.2 m., was named for William Granstaff, a mulatto who came to Moab Valley in 1877. He departed hurriedly through this canyon in 1881, when some of the white settlers charged him with contributing to Indian trouble by selling whisky. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 18:50
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    You cannot use the word "Negro" in the same way you could have fifty years ago. That's an outrageous claim. Today, the word "Negro" is confined to referring to the college fund and the baseball league. Or referring to black people as a group in a historical sense. There's no other common usage today.
    – user83454
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 2:20
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    It takes years for new words to catch on fully. That would explain certain publications lagging behind others. In more modern times, think of "Asian" vs. "Oriental". It was OK to say either for a period of time in the 90's. But if you called an Asian person "Oriental" in the year 2000, people would look at you funny.
    – user83454
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 2:23
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Prior to the 1960s black was an offensive term often used as an adjective as in, “you black something-else-offensive”. Negro (capitalized) was the polite, respectful term. About this time Negroes became sensitive to the fact that they are more or less intrinsically black. Thus it was asserted that “black is beautiful” (black not capitalized). And so it is.

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    What about the movie? That is what this question focuses on; I think you should mention it specifically
    – herisson
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 23:32
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    @sumelic but the movie itself cannot deal a final blow; it could be people's reactions to it that dealt a final blow (but I doubt people's reactions to any movie have dealt a final blow to anything). Commented May 24, 2017 at 16:22
  • @sumelic I agree with Clare that that part of the question is rather patently and inherently wrong-headed. Every answer doesn't need to start with a variation of "Of course not, silly"; "How would you even prove that"; and "In what universe do you imagine a successful and respectful movie would undo its own diction choices?" The usage-of-negro part is still a good question to ask and this is a good (if anecdotal) answer to it.
    – lly
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:50

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