African Americans also referred to as Black Americans or Afro-Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States. As a compound adjective, the term is usually hyphenated as African-American.
Black and African Americans constitute the third largest racial and ethnic group in the United States after White Americans and Hispanic and Latino Americans. Most African Americans are descendants of enslaved peoples within the boundaries of the present United States. On average, African Americans are of West/Central African and European descent, and some also have Native American ancestry. According to US Census Bureau data, African immigrants generally do not self-identify as African American. The overwhelming majority of African immigrants identify instead with their own respective ethnicities (~95%). Immigrants from some Caribbean, Central American and South American nations and their descendants may or may not also self-identify with the term.
African-American history starts in the 16th century, with peoples from West Africa forcibly taken as slaves to Spanish America, and in the 17th century with West African slaves taken to English colonies in North America. After the founding of the United States, black people continued to be enslaved, and the last four million black slaves were only liberated after the Civil War in 1865. Due to notions of white supremacy, they were treated as second-class citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only, and only white men of property could vote. These circumstances were changed by Reconstruction, development of the black community, participation in the great military conflicts of the United States, the elimination of racial segregation, and the civil rights movement which sought political and social freedom. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States.
A large majority of African Americans support the Democratic Party. In the 2004 Presidential Election, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the African-American vote compared to 11% for Republican George W. Bush. Although there is an African-American lobby in foreign policy, it has not had the impact that African-American organizations have had in domestic policy.
Many African Americans were excluded from electoral politics in the decades following the end of Reconstruction. For those that could participate, until the New Deal, African Americans were supporters of the Republican Party because it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who helped in granting freedom to American slaves; at the time, the Republicans and Democrats represented the sectional interests of the North and South, respectively, rather than any specific ideology, and both conservative and liberal were represented equally in both parties.
The African-American trend of voting for Democrats can be traced back to the 1930s during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program provided economic relief to African Americans; Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition turned the Democratic Party into an organization of the working class and their liberal allies, regardless of region. The African-American vote became even more solidly Democratic when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation during the 1960s. In 1960, nearly a third of African Americans voted for Republican Richard Nixon.
African Americans have improved their social and economic standing significantly since the civil rights movement and recent decades have witnessed the expansion of a robust, African-American middle class across the United States. Unprecedented access to higher education and employment in addition to representation in the highest levels of American government has been gained by African Americans in the post–civil rights era.
African Americans have fought in every war in the history of the United States. The gains made by African Americans in the civil rights movement and in the Black Power movement not only obtained certain rights for African Americans, but changed American society in far-reaching and fundamentally important ways. Prior to the 1950s, Black Americans in the South were subject to de jure discrimination, or Jim Crow laws. They were often the victims of extreme cruelty and violence, sometimes resulting in deaths: by the post World War II era, African Americans became increasingly discontented with their long-standing inequality. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans and their supporters challenged the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed that all men are created equal .”
The civil rights movement marked an enormous change in American social, political, economic and civic life. It brought with it boycotts, sit-ins, nonviolent demonstrations and marches, court battles, bombings and other violence; prompted worldwide media coverage and intense public debate; forged enduring civic, economic and religious alliances; and disrupted and realigned the nation’s two major political parties.
Over time, it has changed in fundamental ways the manner in which blacks and whites interact with and relate to one another. The movement resulted in the removal of codified, de jure racial segregation and discrimination from American life and law, and heavily influenced other groups and movements in struggles for civil rights and social equality within American society, including the Free Speech Movement, the disabled, the women’s movement, Native Americans, and migrant workers.
Since 1977, in an attempt to keep up with changing social opinion, the United States government has officially classified black people revised to black or African American in 1997 as “having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Other federal offices, such as the United States Census Bureau, adhere to the Office of Management and Budget standards on race in its data collection and tabulations efforts. In preparation for the United States 2010 Census, a marketing and outreach plan, called 2010 Census Integrated Communications Campaign Plan (ICC) recognized and defined African Americans as black people born in the United States. From the ICC perspective, African Americans are one of three groups of black people in the United States.
The ICC plan was to reach the three groups by acknowledging that each group has its own sense of community that is based on geography and ethnicity. The best way to market the census process toward any of the three groups is to reach them through their own unique communication channels and not treat the entire black population of the United States as though they are all African Americans with a single ethnic and geographical background. The United States Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation categorizes black or African-American people as “A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa” through racial categories used in the UCR Program adopted from the Statistical Policy Handbook (1978) and published by the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards, United States Department of Commerce, derived from the 1977 Office of Management and Budget classification.
Before the independence of the Thirteen Colonies until the abolition of slavery in 1865, an African-American slave was commonly known as a negro. Free negro was the legal status in the territory of an African-American person who was not a slave. The term colored later also began to be used until the second quarter of the 20th century, when it was considered outmoded and generally gave way again to the exclusive use of negro. By the 1940s, the term was commonly capitalized (Negro); but by the mid-1960s, it was considered disparaging. By the end of the 20th century, negro had come to be considered inappropriate and was rarely used and perceived as a pejorative. The term is rarely used by younger black people, but remained in use by many older African Americans who had grown up with the term, particularly in the southern United States The term remains in use in some contexts, such as the United Negro College Fund, an American philanthropic organization that funds scholarships for black students and general scholarship funds for 39 private historically black colleges and universities, as well as in Latin America where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken. Pronounced slightly differently, it is the word for the color black, and is rarely perceived as a pejorative.
There are many other deliberately insulting terms. Many were in common use (e.g., nigger), but had become unacceptable in normal discourse before the end of the 20th century. One exception is the use, among the black community, of the slur nigger rendered as nigga, representing the pronunciation of the word in African American English. This usage has been popularized by the rap and hip-hop music cultures and is used as part of an in-group lexicon and speech. It is not necessarily derogatory and, when used among black people, the word is often used to mean “homie” or “friend”.
Acceptance of intra-group usage of the word nigga is still debated, although it has established a foothold among younger generations. The NAACP denounces the use of both nigga and nigger. Mixed-race usage of nigga is still considered taboo, particularly if the speaker is white. However, trends indicate that usage of the term in intragroup settings is increasing even among white youth due to the popularity of rap and hip hop culture.