Highlighting the chameleon nature of power
The social practice and ideological effects of the label “African-American”
This essay uses a poststructural/critical race analysis, and provides a specific example of how the social practice of labeling serves to create major ideological effects, which produce and reproduce unequal race-based power relations. Certain U.S. citizens are ascribed/branded with the seemingly politically correct label, “African-American”. Many believe that the shift from “Black” to “African-American” in 1988 was the result of Blacks exercising political power and achieving a hard-won right to change their identity. Also many view the new label as the common sense preferred alternative to “Black”. This article deconstructs the term “African-American” and views it within the context of the macro and micro interactive forces of politics, economics, sociology, history and socio-cultural phenomena. Instead of the intended purpose of fostering a sense of self-esteem, the label has also served to reinforce the socially constructed binary dualisms characterizing “Blacks” as being fundamentally different from “Whites”. Moreover, the notion of Black pride, self-esteem and heritage are concepts with the power to shift culpability and blame onto the victims of a race-based system. Power appeared to have been exercised by Black/African-Americans. However, the shift to African-American was not the result of autonomous thinking. It was a “reflex without reflection” (Billig 1991:8). It “echoed” dominating ideological structures of power. The “new” label unwittingly serves to further perpetuate racist ideology inherited from a foundational institution of slavery. America can enjoy the image of having a culture of freedom, equality and egalitarianism, while maintaining justifiable race-based political, social and economic inequality gaps.
Published online: 10 July 2003
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