What to call the Other: A data-driven history of the New York Times’ racial labeling

The word negro makes me uncomfortable. I never hear it, but I occasionally read it. There’s a pretty famous book by sociolinguist Walt Wolfram (Professor of English, North Carolina State University) called A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech published in 1969. Every time I see the book, the title makes me cringe, but I don’t think Wolfram had any intention to use a word he felt was pejorative. Indeed, he was trying to make the point that African Americans’ speech was not a sloppy, substandard use of language but rather a rule-governed variety of English in its own right. And if you’re not convinced then consider this: in his speech, “I Have a Dream” (delivered in 1963), Martin Luther King Jr. used the term negro fifteen times. I, of course, did not live through the 1960s. I’m part of a generation that seems to have a collective gut feeling that the word is unacceptable. 

Before I get into my examination of this history, I think it’s important to point out that the practice of applying racial labels is complex and controversial. Race has no biological reality and is instead better thought of as a social construct, a set of categories that are constructed and maintained by cultural beliefs (or myths) about “types” of people. As such, deciding what to highlight in a racialized label, such as geographic origin (as in African American) or apparent skin color (as in black people), is fraught with difficulty since any choice leads to obvious inaccuracies and conflations. Racial labeling thus often places people in categories they do not necessarily identify with or even ignores their very existence. Of course, since race and racialization have been the basis of persistent oppression and inequality in our society, we try to find some way to place names to races so as to render the effects of race visible in our public discourse.

As I was thinking about these processes today, it occurred to me that this issue is potentially a good opportunity to try out a new dataset that I’ve been meaning to use, NYT Labs’ Chronicle, which allows you to plot the historical usage of a word in the New York Times from 1851 to 2014, which is an impressive span of time, considering that the other corpus I commonly use on this blog, COCA, only goes back to 1990 (though to be fair, COCA is much more representative of general language use; Chronicle is only able to show us what New York Times writers do with language).

Anyway, I generated a list of terms used for black men and women in the United States over the years. In alphabetical order, I came up with the following (all pluralized for consistency in searching):

  1. African Americans
  2. Afro Americans
  3. blacks
  4. black Americans
  5. black people
  6. coloreds
  7. colored Americans
  8. colored people
  9. negroes
  10. niggers
  11. people of color (although this is a more inclusive term than the others)

I was trying to be as exhaustive as I could, but if you know of any others, please suggest them in the comments below).

Table 1 below presents these eleven racial labels ranked according to the average percentage of articles they occurred in for each year from 1851 to 2014.


For me, these figures are interesting because they show that taking the New York Times’ history from 1851 to 2014 into account, we find that terms that are considered preferable or politically correct today (for example, people of color or African Americans) are far from the most historically prevalent labels NYT writers have used. Indeed, the first two terms–negroes and blacks–are both much more characteristic of the NYT’s history of reporting on African Americans. Current labeling practices then are rather different from historical labeling of African Americans.

You can get a better sense of the way the top eight terms have waxed and waned over time in the plots below. If you click on the image, it will open in a new window that is easier to view.


Looking over these plots, I see indications especially of two time periods in which race in the United States was under heavy public scrutiny: (1) the US Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period (from around 1850s to 1880s) and (2) the Civil Rights Movements (from around 1950s to 1960s or 1970s).

Racial labels used during the civil war and immediately after included particularly negroes, blacks, and colored people. In addition, the NYT used the term niggers with disturbing frequency. I did look over some articles from the 1850s that contained the word, and in all cases that I observed the word was presented in quotation marks (perhaps in recognition of the word’s derogatory nature), such as in this case from an 1853 article paternalistically describing black people in Charleston, SC to northern readers:

Cotton and Rice, the only prime articles of commerce peculiar to this port, make the streets hum with busy “niggers,” who handle the whole of these two crops, as they leave the planter for their foreign destiny; and a busier, happier class of working-men it has not been my lot to see.

One final point that I noticed in this time period (around the 1850s to the 1880s) was that the term people of color, was also used albeit infrequently but later fell out of use entirely only to be resurrected nearly one hundred years later and is currently gaining in use as a term used especially by contemporary progressive writers, although it is as of yet still quite infrequent in the NYT.


Looking at the period of the Civil Rights Movement, I notice that around 1960 the newspaper’s preferred racial label appears to have been negroes and to a lesser extent colored people. Interestingly, the word begins to drop off rapidly around 1968 and is replaced particularly by blacks.


It was not until the 1990s that the paper began to use the word African Americans. Today, NYT writers use that term as well as blacks, black people, and people of color. The terms preferred in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, colored people and negroes, have all but disappeared from NYT writing.

The use of racial labels in general in the NYT began to decline around the 1980s or 1990s, and this decline has at least two competing explanations, which I think are both partially accurate. The first and perhaps more readily obvious is that many of the overt forms of oppression leveled against African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement were partially addressed, diminishing in some small way the relevance of race in society. The second explanation I think is even more important. US society, and especially white people and the institutions they control (for example, the New York Times), has become to a large extent colormute, avoiding the explicit discussion of race. We do so for various reasons. For example, open discussion of race may lead to the (potentially accurate) accusation that we are racist. Whether we intend this or not, the avoidance of race in our discourse also has the effect of ensuring that problems in our society that are in part attributable to racial oppression are also avoided. For example, it’s true that the practice of explicitly segregating schools on the basis of race is illegal. People would be rightfully outraged if a school official suggested sending black and white children to different schools. And yet, it’s undeniable that some level of racial segregation of schooling still exists in practice. As a result, the gradual fading out of racial labels from the NYT seems to suggest the paper’s tendency toward colormuteness.

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Posted in Language and race, Media discourse and media bias

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