Recently I stopped subscribing to the National Review, sensing that it, like many of its rivals in the modern American political marketplace of ideas, had thrown in the towel and begun to let politically correct references seep onto its pages. Every time I would come across a "businessperson" or a "female" or an "African American" or "the Holiday Season," it was a jarring distraction. Like hitting a speed-bump at highway cruising speed.
So I switched to The Weekly Standard whose editors I have admired for a long time. However, after enjoying a few issues I ran into another speed bump. In its Valentine's Day issue, the editors poke fun at Maureen Dowd for trying to equate civil rights and racial segregation with "gay rights," a familiar liberal refrain. In doing so, the editors acknowledge that until 1948 the Army had no "...black officers...; but African Americans have fought bravely..." in all of America's wars. "...180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army; and even the Confederate Army recruited blacks...there has almost never been a time in our history that African Americans..." didn't serve in the armed forces. Oy.
There doesn't seem to be a rule for using (or not) the term "African American." I have written before on this blog about the seemingly arbitrary usage in print. It is particularly annoying in print because it would seem that a writer has time to think and compose, as it were, his thoughts. A public speaker may be forgiven the occasional rhetorical flourish that allows him to begin or end every clause with "going forward." It's just as nauseating, but more easily forgiven.
The writer, however, does not deserve that latitude. Especially in an age of word processors when sentences and paragraphs can be crafted and re-crafted in the blink of an eye, without having to roll in another sheet of paper or get more paper or re-wind the ribbon. The editors are even less forgivable. They are not haunted by a deadline or taken by a beguiling turn of phrase.
No, the editor's job is to read and to say, "Why did you say 'black' in this sentence and 'African American' in the next?" I have been trying to get someone to tell me what the difference is or what rule calls for one and not the other. Not having that rule makes the PC reference even more annoying because gives the impression that writer (and editor) is an idiot who cannot make up his mind, or who is so possessed by 'inclusive multicultural diversity celebrations' that he is incapable of being honest with himself let alone you. And you are paying to subscribe to the magazine that produces such pap!
But just before I decided to pull the plug on National Review, the editors supplied me with a round-up of sorts illustrating the problem of the arbitrary PC reference in their November 23, 2009 issue.
In describing the historic achievement of a black woman winning a gold medal in the bobsled competition in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the NBC Sports correspondent hobbled by political correctness had this to say: "She is the first Africa-American woman from any country to win the Gold Medal."
"In the American media," NR goes on, "Nelson Mandela has been described as the first Africa-American President of South Africa....students have written that Othello was African-American." The National Review then slams The New Republic whose review of a biography on Booker T. Washington began, "Once the most famous and influential African-American in the United States (and probably the world)... [my emphasis]."
This is the reason why black intellectuals such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell (as far as I have been able to tell) don't use the term "African American." They don't want to legitimize a term coined by the liberal elite and force-fed to a generation of Americans who as a result don't know the difference between Americans of African descent and black citizens of other nations! Now as far as I can tell there are no African-Germans or African-Britons or Africans of any other nationality. Why? Someone, please tell me!
"Muslim-American" is a more troubling PC term because it is even more meaningless, if that is possible. The potential clash of the arbitrary and subjective is enormous given that Islam is practiced by people of nearly every ethnic stripe. What do the PC-obsessed do when faced with describing a black American of the Islamic faith? Muslim-African-American? Or African-Muslim-American?
If one is trying to make a racial distinction, black would be the appropriate term. "African" is not a race. It refers to a place. There are Africans of both black and white races. If one is describing an ethnicity, I don't believe "African" is specific enough. Being a continent populated by nations of many distinct cultures, lumping them into a single ethnic group would be insulting to members of those different nations. In fact black Americans have little in common culturally with their distant cousins from Africa.
So "African" is reduced to meaning "not white" and, specifically, not "white American." If you, dear reader, can help me to understand the correct usage of the term, I will gladly post it for everyone's edification. I have checked AP StyleBook Online, but since I am not (and never will be) a subscriber, I only have access to teaser content. Apparently subscribers can submit questions on usage to the oracle of newspaper writing style.