Erika Hall, assistant professor of organization & management
Assistant Professor of Organization & Management; Faculty Advisor at The Roberto C. Goizueta Business & Society Institute

ATLANTA, May 25, 2021 – New research shows that white Americans associate the label “Black” with being targets of racial bias more than the label “African Americans.” The findings from professors at Goizueta Business School and the USC Marshall School of Business have implications for outcomes as varied as the tone of media coverage, non-profit fundraising, and even image search results.

The results are detailed in a new paper to be published by Psychological Science this week. “What’s in a Name? The Hidden Historical Ideologies Embedded in the Black and African American Racial Labels” is co-authored by Professors Erika V. Hall of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Sarah S. M. Townsend of the USC Marshall School of Business, and doctoral student James T. Carter of Columbia Business School.

In one particularly stark finding, white Americans wanting to eradicate racial injustice will donate more to non-profit organizations describing themselves as “Black” compared to “African American.”

Key Conclusions:

  • Activists and journalists may not be aware of the ideologies embedded in these labels. They must carefully choose which one to use: either “Black” or “African American.”
  • People and organizations should be allowed to self-label in the way that most closely reflects their identity.
  • Associations between racial labels and past social movements may alter white American’s perceptions of minorities’ intentions.

By the Numbers:

  • If whites personally endorse bias and discrimination ideologies, they are 99% more likely to donate to an organization labeled as a “Black” organization, rather than an “African American” one. 
  • If whites personally endorse civil rights ideologies, they are 50% less likely to donate to an organization labeled as a Black organization, rather than one labeled as African American.
  • Interchanging the labels in a non-profit organization’s name (e.g., Black Alliance vs. African-American Alliance) altered whites’ perceptions of the organization’s goal. The majority of participants estimated that a Black organization’s main goal was to ‘defund the police’ (55.1%), rather than to ‘stop voter suppression’ (35.6%). But they believed that the African American organization’s goal was to ‘stop voter suppression’ (38.2%) rather than to ‘defund the police (27.3%).

“Americans of African Descent have long fought for equality. But white Americans often misunderstand or misrepresent their advocacy,” said Hall. “We show the use of the Black versus African American label may fundamentally alter white Americans’ perceptions of their intentions.”

The studies explored the association between the African American and Black labels and the ideologies of the historical movements within which they gained prominence.

“Specifically, because the Black label became prominent amidst the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and the African American label gained popularity amidst the late Civil Rights Movement in the 1980s, people and organizations that use each term are perceived to embody the ideologies of those movements,” explains Townsend.

The authors argue that this means that the African American label is associated with voting rights and political participation and the Black label is associated with racial victimization and degradation. The authors find that the use of one or other label skews the results of Google image searches and the content of editorials in media. Use of the Black label leads to more racially victimized imagery, while use of the African American label leads to more civil rights and inequality imagery.

Critically, this research also shows that use of these labels in any media can substantially influence white audiences’ financial support of the causes they advocate.

“It is possible that our findings may only generalize to groups that are not of African descent. Americans of African Descent may be unlikely to apply ideological stereotypes to people and organizations labeled by these terms,” said Carter.

“Seemingly small changes in labels can make a big difference,” said Hall. “Although activists and journalists may not be aware of the ideologies embedded in these labels, they must carefully choose which one to use: either Black or African American.”

“Of course, our studies also represent a snapshot of a particular time,” said Townsend. “The meaning of these words may shift with highly visible race-based events.”

About the Authors:

  • Dr. Erika V. Hall is Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Atlanta.
  • Dr. Sarah S. M. Townsend is Associate Professor of Management and Organization and the Interim Assistant Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, at the USC Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles.
  • James T. Carter is a Ph.D. candidate in Management at Columbia Business School, NYC

About Goizueta Business School:

Emory University’s Goizueta Business School prepares principled leaders to have a positive influence on business and society. Business education has been an integral part of Emory University’s identity since 1919. That kind of longevity and significance does not come without a culture built around success and service. Goizueta Business School offers a unique, community-oriented environment paired with the academic prestige of a major research institution. Goizueta trains business leaders of today and tomorrow with an Undergraduate degree program, a Two-Year Full-Time MBA, a One-Year MBA, an Evening MBA, an Executive MBA (Weekend and Modular formats), a Master of Analytical Finance, a Master of Business Analytics, a Doctoral degree and a portfolio of non-degree Emory Executive Education courses.

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