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African American
Frederick Douglass (2).jpgOfficial portrait of Barack Obama.jpgRosaparks.jpg
Condoleezza Rice cropped.jpgMartin Luther King Jr NYWTS.jpgMichael Jackson 1984.jpg
Malcolm X NYWTS 2a.jpgOprah closeup.jpgWEB DuBois 1918.jpg
Michael Jordan.jpgHarriet Tubman cropped.jpgAli.jpg
Frederick Douglass · Barack Obama · Rosa Parks
Condoleezza Rice · M. L. King, Jr. · Michael Jackson
Malcolm X · Oprah Winfrey · W. E. B. Du Bois
Michael Jordan · Harriet Tubman · Muhammad Ali
Total population
African American

37,586,050 [1]
Non-Hispanic Black
36,701,103 [1]
Black Hispanic
884,947 [1]


American English · African American Vernacular English · minorities speak Spanish · French  · Brazilian Portuguese  · Haitian Creole  · African languages


Predominantly Protestant, some Catholics. Minorities practice Islam and other religions

Related ethnic groups
African-Native Americans · Americo-Liberian · Afro-Latin American

African Americans (also referred to as Black Americans or Afro-Americans) are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black populations of Africa.[2] In the United States, the terms are generally used for Americans with at least partial Sub-Saharan African ancestry.

Most African Americans are the direct descendants of captive Africans who survived the slavery era within the boundaries of the present United States, although some are—or are descended from—immigrants from African, Caribbean, Central American or South American nations.[3] As an adjective, the term is usually spelled African-American.[4]

African American history starts in the 17th century with indentured servitude in the American colonies and progresses onto the election of an African American as the 44th and current President of the United StatesBarack Obama. Between those landmarks there were other events and issues, both resolved and ongoing, that were faced by African Americans. Some of these were: slavery, reconstruction, development of the African-American community, participation in the great military conflicts of the United States, racial segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Black Americans make up the single largest racial minority in the United States and form the second largest racial group after whites in the United States.[5]



Slavery era

An artist's conception of Crispus Attucks (~1723–1770), the first "martyr" of the American Revolution.

The first recorded Africans in British North America (including most of the future United States) arrived in 1619 as indentured servants who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. As English settlers died from harsh conditions more and more Africans were brought to work as laborers. Africans for many years were similar in legal position to poor English indenturees, who traded several years labor in exchange for passage to America.[6]

Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom.[7] They raised families, marrying other Africans and sometimes intermarrying with Native Americans or English settlers.[8] By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards.

The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 1700s. The first black congregations and churches were organized before 1800 in both northern and southern cities following the Great Awakening. By 1775, Africans made up 20% of the population in the American colonies, which made them the second largest ethnic group after the English.[9]

During the 1770s Africans, both enslaved and free, helped rebellious English colonists secure American Independence by defeating the British in the American Revolution.[10] Africans and Englishmen fought side by side and were fully integrated.[11] James Armistead, an African American, played a large part in making possible the 1781 Yorktown victory, which established the United States as an independent nation.[12] Other prominent African Americans were Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell, who are both depicted in the front of the boat in George Washington's famous 1776 Crossing the Delaware portrait.

By 1860, there were 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the United States due to the Atlantic slave trade, and another 500,000 African Americans lived free across the country.[13] In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all slaves in states which had seceded from the Union were free.[14] Advancing Union troops enforced the proclamation with Texas being the last state to be emancipated in 1865.[15]

Reconstruction and Jim Crow

African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, in the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement.[16] Most African Americans followed the Jim Crow laws, using a mask of compliance to prevent becoming victims of racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.[17]

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States. These discriminatory acts included racial segregation—upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896[18]—which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities.

Great Migration and Civil Rights Movement

An African American boy outside of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1940s
March on Washington, August 28, 1963, shows civil rights and union leaders

The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South that sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century,[19] combined with a growing African American intellectual and cultural elite in the Northern United States, led to a movement to fight violence and discrimination against African Americans that, like abolitionism before it, crossed racial lines.

The Civil Rights Movement between 1954 to 1968 was directed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans, particularly in the Southern United States. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the conditions which brought it into being are credited with putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson put his support behind passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act (1965), which expanded federal authority over states to ensure black political participation through protection of voter registration and elections. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1966 to 1975, expanded upon the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from white authority.[20]

2008 election of Barack Obama

On November 4, 2008, Democratic Senator Barack Obama defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the first African American to be elected President of the United States. Ninety-nine percent of African American voters voted for Obama.[21] He also received overwhelming support from young and educated whites, a majority of Asians, Americans of Hispanic origin,[22] and Native Americans[23] picking up a number of new states in the Democratic electoral column.[21][24] Obama lost the overall white vote, although he won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous nonincumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.[25] The following year Michael S. Steele was elected the first African American chairman of the national Republican Party.[26]


African Americans as percent of population, 2000.
U.S. Census map indicating U.S. counties with fewer than 25 black or African American inhabitants

In 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Africans (including slaves and free people) numbered about 760,000—about 19.3% of the population. In 1860, at the start of the American Civil War, the African American population had increased to 4.4 million, but the percentage rate dropped to 14% of the overall population of the country. The vast majority were slaves, with only 488,000 counted as "freemen". By 1900, the black population had doubled and reached 8.8 million.

In 1910, about 90% of African Americans lived in the South, but large numbers began migrating north looking for better job opportunities and living conditions, and to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence. The Great Migration, as it was called, spanned the 1890s to the 1970s. From 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million black people moved north. But in the 1970s and 1980s, that trend reversed, with more African Americans moving south to the Sun Belt than leaving it.

The following table of the African American population in the United States over time shows that the African American population, as a percent of the total population, declined until 1930 and has been rising since then.

African Americans in the United States[27]
Year Number  % of total population Slaves  % in slavery
1790 757,208 19.3% (highest) 697,681 92%
1800 1,002,037 18.9% 893,602 89%
1810 1,377,808 19.0% 1,191,362 86%
1820 1,771,656 18.4% 1,538,022 87%
1830 2,328,642 18.1% 2,009,043 86%
1840 2,873,648 16.8% 2,487,355 87%
1850 3,638,808 15.7% 3,204,287 88%
1860 4,441,830 14.1% 3,953,731 89%
1870 4,880,009 12.7% - -
1880 6,580,793 13.1% - -
1890 7,488,788 11.9% - -
1900 8,833,994 11.6% - -
1910 9,827,763 10.7% - -
1920 10.5 million 9.9% - -
1930 11.9 million 9.7% (lowest) - -
1940 12.9 million 9.8% - -
1950 15.0 million 10.0% - -
1960 18.9 million 10.5% - -
1970 22.6 million 11.1% - -
1980 26.5 million 11.7% - -
1990 30.0 million 12.1% - -
2000 36.6 million 12.3% - -

By 1990, the African American population reached about 30 million and represented 12% of the U.S. population, roughly the same proportion as in 1900.[28] In current demographics, according to 2005 U.S. Census figures, some 39.9 million African Americans live in the United States, comprising 13.8% of the total population. The World Factbook gives a 2006 figure of 12.9%[29] Controversy has surrounded the "accurate" population count of African Americans for decades. The NAACP believed it was under counted intentionally to minimize the significance of the black population in order to reduce their political power base.

At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8% of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6% of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7% in the Midwest, while only 8.9% lived in the western states. The west does have a sizable black population in certain areas, however. California, the nation's most populous state, has the fifth largest African American population, only behind New York, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.05% of African Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino in origin,[5] many of whom may be of Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Haitian, or other Latin American descent.

The only self-reported ancestral groups larger than African Americans are Irish Americans and German Americans.[30] Because many African Americans trace their ancestry to colonial American origins, some simply self-identify as "American".[citation needed]

U.S. cities

Almost 58% of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas in 2000. With over 2 million black residents, New York City had the largest black urban population in the United States in 2000, overall the city has a 28% black population. Chicago has the second largest black population, with almost 1.6 million African Americans in its metropolitan area, representing about 18 percent of the total metropolitan population.

Among cities of 100,000 or more, Gary, Indiana had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city in 2000, with 84% (though it should be noted that the 2006 Census estimate puts the city's population below 100,000). Gary is followed closely by Detroit, Michigan, which was 82% African American. Other large cities with African American majorities include New Orleans, Louisiana (67%), Baltimore, Maryland (64%) Atlanta, Georgia (61%), Memphis, Tennessee (61%), and Washington, D.C. (60%).

The nation's most affluent county with an African American majority is Prince George's County, Maryland, with a median income of $62,467. Within that county, among the wealthiest communities are Glenn Dale, Maryland and Fort Washington, Maryland. Other affluent predominantly African American counties include Dekalb County in Georgia, and Charles City County in Virginia. Queens County, New York is the only county with a population of 65,000 or more where African Americans have a higher median household income than Americans of European descent.[31]


Mount Zion United Methodist Church is the oldest African American congregation in Washington, D.C.

The majority of African Americans are Protestant of whom many follow the historically black churches.[32] Black church refers to churches which minister predominantly African American congregations. Black congregations were first established by freed slaves at the end of the 17th century, and later when slavery was abolished more African Americans were allowed to create a unique form of Christianity that was culturally influenced by African spiritual traditions.[33]

According to a 2007 survey, more than half of the African American population are part of the historically black churches, the majority are Baptist, with large numbers of Methodists and a few Pentecostals, while a fifth are part of Evangelical or mainline Protestant churches.[32] There are 12 million African American Baptists,[34] distributed in four denominations, including the National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention of America.[35]

There are 6 million Methodists,[36] the largest sects are the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.[35][37] Pentecostals are mainly part of the Church of God in Christ.[35] About 16% of African American Christians are members of white Protestant communions,[36] these denominations (which include the United Church of Christ) mostly have a 2 to 3% African American membership.[38] The number of Roman Catholics is from 2.3 to 3 million.[39] Of the total number of Jehovah's Witnesses, 22% are black.[32]

Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York City, formerly known as Mosque No. 7.

Some African Americans also practice Islam. Historically, between 15 to 30% of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims, but most of these Africans were converted to Christianity during the era of American slavery.[40] However during the 20th century, many African Americans converted to Islam, mainly through the influence of black nationalist groups that preached with distinctive Islamic practices; these include the Moorish Science Temple of America, though the largest was the Nation of Islam, founded during the 1930s, which attracted at least 25,000 people (in 1968),[41][42] prominent members included activist Malcolm X and boxer Muhammad Ali.[43]

Malcolm X is considered the first person to start the movement among African Americans towards mainstream or Sunni Islam after he left the Nation and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.[44] In 1975, Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad who took control of the Nation after his death, guided most of the membership to Sunni Islam.[45] However, some members rejected these changes, including Louis Farrakhan, who revived the Nation of Islam in 1978 based on its original teachings.

Religions of African Americans

Today the majority of African American Muslims are orthodox or Sunni Muslims. It is estimated that there are around 2 million black American Muslims,[46][47] and they represent about 30% of the total U.S. Muslim population.[48][49][50] It is estimated that the Nation of Islam has between 10,000 to 50,000 members.[51] Most of todays growth in blacks practicing Islam has been fueled by the increasing number of black African immigrants.[52]

There are relatively few African American Jews; estimates of their number range from 20,000[53] to 200,000.[54] Most of these Jews are part of mainstream groups such as the Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox branches of Judaism; although there are significant numbers of people who are part of non-mainstream Jewish groups, largely the Black Hebrew Israelites, whose beliefs include the claim that African Americans are descended from the Biblical Israelites.[55]

Contemporary issues

"Harmony", oil on canvas by Philippe Derome, Alabama, 1987

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.

Nevertheless, due in part to the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination, African Americans as a group remain at a pronounced economic, educational and social disadvantage in many areas relative to European Americans. Persistent social, economic and political issues for many African Americans include inadequate health care access and delivery; institutional racism and discrimination in housing, education, policing, criminal justice and employment; crime, poverty and substance abuse.

One of the most serious and long standing issues within African American communities is poverty. Poverty itself is a hardship as it is related to marital stress and dissolution, health problems, low educational attainment, deficits in psychological functioning, and crime.[56] In 2004, 24.7% of African American families lived below the poverty level.[57] In 2007, the average African American income was $33,916, compared with $54,920 for whites.[58]

Politics and social issues

President Barack Obama with First Lady Michelle

Collectively, African Americans are more involved in the American political process than other minority groups in the United States, indicated by the highest level of voter registration and participation in elections among these groups in 2004.[59] African Americans collectively attain higher levels of education than immigrants to the United States.[59] African Americans also have the highest level of Congressional representation of any other minority group in the U.S.[60]

African Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in U.S. elections. Even most conservative African Americans tend to vote for Democrats[citation needed]. In the 2004 Presidential Election, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the African American vote compared to 11% for Republican George W. Bush.[61] 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.[62]

Historically, 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 right and left 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.

After over 50 years, marriage rates for all Americans began to decline while divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births have climbed.[63] These changes have been greatest among African Americans. After more than 70 years of racial parity black marriage rates began to fall behind whites.[63] Despite that and heavy Democratic leanings, African Americans favor "traditional American values" about family and marriage.

While 52% of Democrats support same-sex marriage, 30% of black Democrats do. In 2008, though Democrats overwhelmingly voted (64%) against the California ballot proposition banning gay marriage, blacks overwhelmingly approved (70% in favor) it, more than any other racial group.[64] The high-profile candidacy of Barack Obama is credited with increasing black turnout on the bill which has been seen as the crucial difference in its passing.[65]

Blacks also hold far more conservative opinions on abortion, extramarital sex, and raising children out of wedlock than Democrats as a whole.[65] On financial issues, however, African Americans are very much in line with Democrats, generally supporting a more progressive tax structure to provide more services and reduce injustice and as well as more government spending on social services.[66]

News media and coverage

BET founder Robert L. Johnson with former U.S. President George W. Bush.

News media coverage of African American news, concerns or dilemmas is inadequate, some activists and academics contend.[67][68][69] Activists also contend that the news media present distorted images of African Americans.[70] To combat this African Americans founded their own television networks. Black Entertainment Television, founded by Robert L. Johnson is a network that targets young African Americans and urban audiences in the United States.

Most programming on the network consists of rap and R&B music videos and urban-oriented movies and series. Additionally, the channel shows syndicated television series, original programs, and some public affairs programs. On Sunday mornings, BET broadcasts a lineup of network-produced Christian programming; other, non-affiliated Christian programs are also shown during the early morning hours daily. BET is now an global network that reaches 85 million viewers in the Caribbean, Canada, and the United Kingdom.[71]

In addition to BET there is Centric, which is a spin-off cable television channel of BET, created originally as BET on Jazz to showcase jazz music-related programming, especially that of black jazz musicians. Programming since has been expanded to include a block of urban programs as well as some R&B, neo soul, and alternative hip hop, with the focus on jazz reduced to low-profile hours.[72]

TV One is another African American-oriented network and a direct competitor to BET. It targets African American adults with a broad range of programming. The network airs original lifestyle and entertainment-oriented shows, movies, fashion and music programming, as well as classic series such as 227, Good Times, Martin, Boston Public and It's Showtime at the Apollo. The network primarily owned by Radio One. Radio One, Inc., founded and controlled by Catherine Hughes, it is one of the nation's largest radio broadcasting companies and the largest African American-owned radio broadcasting company in the United States.[73]

Other African American networks scheduled to launch in 2009 are the Black Television News Channel founded by former Congressman J. C. Watts and Better Black Television founded by Percy Miller.[74][75] In June 2009, NBC News launched a new website named The Grio[76] in partnership with the production team that created the black documentary film, Meeting David Wilson. It is the first African American video news site which focuses on underrepresented stories in existing national news. The Grio consists of a broad spectrum of original video packages, news articles, and contributor blogs on topics including breaking news, politics, health, business, entertainment and Black History.[77]


By 2000, African Americans had advanced greatly. They still lagged overall in education attainment compared to white or Asian Americans, with 14 percent with four year and 5 percent with advanced degrees, though it was higher than for other minorities.[78] African Americans attend college at about half the rate of whites, but at a greater rate than Americans of Hispanic origin. More African American women attend and complete college than men. Black schools for kindergarten through twelfth grade students were common throughout the U.S., and a pattern towards re-segregation is currently occurring across the country.[79]

Historically black colleges and universities remain today which were originally set up when segregated colleges did not admit African Americans. As late as 1947, about one third of African Americans over 65 were considered to lack the literacy to read and write their own names. By 1969, illiteracy as it had been traditionally defined, had been largely eradicated among younger African Americans.[80]

US Census surveys showed that by 1998, 89 percent of African Americans aged 25 to 29 had completed high school, less than whites or Asians, but more than Hispanics. On many college entrance, standardized tests and grades, African Americans have historically lagged whites, but some studies suggest that the achievement gap has been closing. Many policy makers have proposed that this gap can and will be eliminated through progressive policies such as affirmative action, desegregation, and multiculturalism.[81]

In Chicago, Marva Collins, an African American educator, created a low cost private school specifically for the purpose of teaching low-income African American children whom the public school system had labeled as being "learning disabled."[82] One article about Marva Collins' school stated,

Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as 'unteachable,' Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in only a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public.[83]

During the 2006–2007 school year, Collins' school charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said that the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system.[84] Meanwhile, during the 2007–2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.[85]

Economic status

Oprah Winfrey, the wealthiest African American of the 20th century.[86][87][88] A pair of economists estimate that Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama delivered one million votes for him in the close 2008 Democratic primaries.[89]

Economically, African Americans have benefited from the advances made during the Civil Rights era, particularly among the educated, but not without the lingering effects of historical marginalization when considered as a whole. The racial disparity in poverty rates has narrowed. The black middle class has grown substantially. In 2000, 47% of African Americans owned their homes. The poverty rate among African Americans has decreased from 26.5% in 1998 to 24.7% in 2004.[57] African Americans are the second largest consumer group in America with a combined buying power of over $892 billion currently and likely over $1.1 trillion by 2012.[90][91] In 2002 African American owned businesses accounted for 1.2 million of the US's 23 million businesses.[92]

In 2004, African American workers had the second-highest median earnings of American minority groups after Asian Americans, and African Americans had the highest level of male-female income parity of all ethnic groups in the United States.[93] Also, among American minority groups, only Asian Americans were more likely to hold white-collar occupations (management, professional, and related fields),[94] and African Americans were no more or less likely than European Americans to work in the service industry.[95] In 2001, over half of African American households of married couples earned $50,000 or more.[95] Although in the same year African Americans were over-represented among the nation's poor, this was directly related to the disproportionate percentage of African American families headed by single women; such families are collectively poorer, regardless of ethnicity.[95]

By 2006, gender continued to be the primary factor in income level, with the median earnings of African American men more than those black and non-black American women overall and in all educational levels.[96][97][98][99][100] At the same time, among American men, income disparities were significant; the median income of African American men was approximately 76 cents for every dollar of their European American counterparts, although the gap narrowed somewhat with a rise in educational level.[96][101]

Overall, the median earnings of African American men were 72 cents for every dollar earned of their Asian American counterparts, and $1.17 for every dollar earned by Hispanic men.[96][99][102] On the other hand by 2006, among American women with post-secondary education, African American women have made significant advances; the median income of African American women was more than those of their Asian-, European- and Hispanic American counterparts with at least some college education.[97][98][103]

African Americans are still underrepresented in government and employment. In 1999, the median income of African American families was $33,255 compared to $53,356 of European Americans. In times of economic hardship for the nation, African Americans suffer disproportionately from job loss and underemployment, with the black underclass being hardest hit. The phrase "last hired and first fired" is reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment figures. Nationwide, the October 2008 unemployment rate for African Americans was 11.1%,[104] while the nationwide rate was 6.5%.[105]

The income gap between black and white families is also significant. In 2005, employed blacks earned only 65% of the wages of whites, down from 82% in 1975.[57] The New York Times reported in 2006 that in Queens, New York, the median income among African American families exceeded that of white families, which the newspaper attributed to the growth in the number of two-parent black families. It noted that Queens was the only county with more than 65,000 residents where that was true.[31]

In 1999, the rate of births to unwed African American mothers was estimated by economist Walter E. Williams of George Mason University to be 70%.[106] The poverty rate among single-parent black families was 39.5% in 2005, according to Williams, while it was 9.9% among married-couple black families. Among white families, the comparable rates were 26.4% and 6%.[107]

According to Forbes magazine's "wealthiest American" lists, a 2000 net worth of $800 million dollars made Oprah Winfrey the richest African American of the 20th century; by contrast, the net worth of the 20th century's richest American, Bill Gates, who is of European descent, briefly hit $100 billion in 1999. In Forbes' 2007 list, Gates' net worth decreased to $59 billion while Winfrey's increased to $2.5 billion,[108] making her the world's richest black person.[87][109] Winfrey is also the first African American to make Business Week's annual list of America's 50 greatest philanthropists.[110] BET founder Bob Johnson was also listed as a billionaire prior to an expensive divorce and has recently regained his fortune through a series of real estate investments. Although Forbes estimates his net worth at $1.1 billion, which makes him the only male African American billionaire, Winfrey remains the only African American wealthy enough to rank among the country's 400 richest people.[108] Some black entrepreneurs use their wealth to create new avenues for both African Americans and new opportunities for American business in general. Examples such as Tyler Perry who created new filming studios in Atlanta, Georgia which makes it possible to film movies and television shows outside of California.[111]


Ben Carson (left) being announced as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on June 19, 2008.

African Americans continue to have lower life expectancies on average than whites in the United States. Even when adjusted for age, African Americans are 1.6 times more likely to die from one of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States than European Americans.[112] However, there is evidence that this may be changing: by 2003, sex had replaced race as the primary factor in life expectancy in the United States, with African American females expected to live longer than European American males born in that year.[113]

In the same year, the gap in life expectancy between American whites (78.0) and blacks (72.8) had decreased to 5.2 years, reflecting a long term trend of this phenomenon.[113] By 2004, "the trend toward convergence in mortality figures across the major race groups also continued", with white–black gap in life expectancy dropping to five years.[114] The current life expectancy of African Americans as a group is comparable to those of other groups who live in countries with a high Human Development Index.

At the same time, the life expectancy gap is affected by collectively lower access to quality medical care. With no system of universal health care, access to medical care in the U.S. generally is mediated by income level and employment status. As a result, African Americans, who have a disproportionate occurrence of poverty and unemployment as a group, are more often uninsured than non Hispanic whites or Asians.[115] For a great many African Americans, healthcare delivery is limited, or nonexistent. And when they receive healthcare, they are more likely than others in the general population to receive substandard, even injurious medical care.[116] African Americans have a higher prevalence of some chronic health conditions.[117]

African Americans are the American ethnic group most affected by HIV and AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has been estimated that "184,991 adult and adolescent HIV infections [were] diagnosed during 2001-2005" (1). More than 51 percent occurred among blacks than any other race. Between the ages of 25–44 years 62 percent were African Americans. Dr. Robert Janssen (2007) states, "We have rates of HIV/AIDS among blacks in some American cities that are as high as in some countries in Africa". The rate for African Americans with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. is 3 percent, based on cases reported. In a New York Times Article, about 50 percent of AIDS-related deaths were African American woman, which accounted for 25 percent of the city's population. In many cases there are a higher proportion of black people being tested than any other racial group. Dr. Janssen goes on by saying "We need to do a better job of encouraging African Americans to test. Studies show that approximately one in five black men between the ages 40 to 49 living in the city is HIV-positive, according to the TIMES. Research indicates that African Americans' sexual behavior is no different than any other racial group. Dr. Janssen says "Racial groups tend to have sex with members of their own racial group.[citation needed]

Crime also plays a significant role in the racial gap in life expectancy. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice states "In 2005, homicide victimization rates for blacks were 6 times higher than the rates for whites" and "94% of black victims were killed by blacks."[118]

Cultural influence in the United States

The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra photographed in Houston, Texas, January 1921

From their earliest presence in North America, African Americans have contributed literature, art, agricultural skills, foods, clothing styles, music, language, social and technological innovation to American culture. The cultivation and use of many agricultural products in the U.S., such as yams, peanuts, rice, okra, sorghum, grits, watermelon, indigo dyes, and cotton, can be traced to African and African American influences. Notable examples include George Washington Carver, who created 300 products from peanuts, 118 products from sweet potatoes, and 75 from pecans; and George Crum, who invented the potato chip in 1853.[119]

African American music is one of the most pervasive African American cultural influences in the United States today and is among the most dominant in mainstream popular music. Hip hop, R&B, funk, rock and roll, soul, blues, and other contemporary American musical forms originated in black communities and evolved from other black forms of music, including blues, doo-wop, barbershop, ragtime, bluegrass, jazz, and gospel music.

African American-derived musical forms have also influenced and been incorporated into virtually every other popular musical genre in the world, including country and techno. African American genres are the most important ethnic vernacular tradition in America, as they have developed independent of African traditions from which they arise more so than any other immigrant groups, including Europeans; make up the broadest and longest lasting range of styles in America; and have, historically, been more influential, interculturally, geographically, and economically, than other American vernacular traditions.[120]

African Americans have also had an important role in American dance. Bill T. Jones, a prominent modern choreographer and dancer, has included historical African American themes in his work, particularly in the piece "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land". Likewise, Alvin Ailey's artistic work, including his "Revelations" based on his experience growing up as an African American in the South during the 1930s, has had a significant influence on modern dance. Another form of dance, Stepping, is an African American tradition whose performance and competition has been formalized through the traditionally black fraternities and sororities at universities.[citation needed]

Many African American authors have written stories, poems, and essays influenced by their experiences as African Americans. African-American literature is a major genre in American literature. Famous examples include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.

African American inventors have created many widely used devices in the world and have contributed to international innovation. Norbert Rillieux created the technique for converting sugar cane juice into white sugar crystals. Moreover, Rillieux left Louisiana in 1854 and went to France, where he spent ten years working with the Champollions deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta Stone. Most slave inventors were nameless, such as the slave owned by the Confederate President Jefferson Davis who designed the ship propeller used by the Confederate navy.

Chuck Berry in Örebro, Berry is considered a pioneer of American Rock and roll
B.B. King is a blues guitarist and songwriter acclaimed for his expressive singing and guitar playing.

Following the Civil War, the growth of industry in the United States was tremendous, and much of this was made possible with inventions by ethnic minorities. By 1913 over 1,000 inventions were patented by black Americans. Among the most notable inventors were Jan Matzeliger, who developed the first machine to mass-produce shoes, and Elijah McCoy, who invented automatic lubrication devices for steam engines. Granville Woods had 35 patents to improve electric railway systems, including the first system to allow moving trains to communicate. He even sued Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison for stealing his patents and won both cases. Garrett A. Morgan developed the first automatic traffic signal and gas mask.[121]

Lewis Howard Latimer created an inexpensive cotton-thread filament, which made electric light bulbs practical because Edison's original light bulb only burned for a few minutes. More recent inventors include McKinley Jones, who invented the movable refrigeration unit for food transport in trucks and trains. Lloyd Quarterman worked with six other black scientists on the creation of the atomic bomb (code named the Manhattan Project.) Quarterman also helped develop the first nuclear reactor, which was used in the atomically powered submarine called the Nautilus.[121]

A few other notable examples include the first successful open heart surgery, performed by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the air conditioner, patented by Frederick McKinley Jones. Vivian Thomas was another pioneer in surgery, the first to perform the misnamed Blalock-Taussig shunt on a dying baby girl. Dr. Mark Dean holds three of the original nine patents on the computer on which all PCs are based. More current contributors include Otis Boykin, whose inventions included several novel methods for manufacturing electrical components that found use in applications such as guided missile systems and computers, and Colonel Frederick Gregory, who was not only the first black astronaut pilot but the person who redesigned the cockpits for the last three space shuttles. Gregory was also on the team that pioneered the microwave instrumentation landing system. In 2000, Bendix Aircraft Company began a worldwide promotion of this microwave instrumentation landing system.[121]

Political legacy

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains the most prominent political leader in the American civil rights movement and perhaps the most influential African American political figure in general.

African Americans have fought in every war in the history of the United States.[122]

The gains made by African Americans in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements 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. They would often be the victims of extreme cruelty and violence, sometimes resulting in deaths: by the post WWII era, something had to give. 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 ..."[123]

The Civil Rights Movement marked a sea-change in American social, political, economic and civic life. It brought with it boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, court battles, bombings and other violence; prompted worldwide media coverage and intense public debate; forged enduring civic, economic and religious alliances; 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, women, Native Americans, and migrant workers.

The term "African American"

Political overtones

Michelle Robinson Obama is the First Lady of the United States, the first African American to hold the position

The term African American carries important political overtones. Earlier terms used to identify Americans of African ancestry were conferred upon the group by colonists and Americans of European ancestry. The terms were included in the wording of various laws and legal decisions which some thought were being used as tools of white supremacy and oppression.[124] There developed among blacks in America a growing desire for a term of self-identification of their own choosing.

With the political consciousness that emerged from the political and social ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, blacks no longer approved of the term Negro. They believed it had suggestions of a moderate, accommodationist, even "Uncle Tom" connotation. In this period, a growing number of blacks in the United States, particularly African American youth, celebrated their blackness and their historical and cultural ties with the African continent. The Black Power movement defiantly embraced Black as a group identifier. It was a term social leaders themselves had repudiated only two decades earlier, but they proclaimed, "Black is beautiful".

In this same period, a smaller number of people favored Afro-American. In the 1980s the term African American was advanced on the model of, for example, German-American or Irish-American to give descendents of American slaves and other American blacks who lived through the slavery-era a heritage and a cultural base.[124] The term was popularized in black communities around the country via word of mouth and ultimately received mainstream use after Jesse Jackson publicly used the term in front of a national audience, subsequently major media outlets adopted its use.[124]

Many blacks in America expressed a preference for the term, as it was formed in the same way as names for others of the many ethnic groups in the nation. Some argued further that, because of the historical circumstances surrounding the capture, enslavement and systematic attempts to de-Africanize blacks in the United States under chattel slavery, most African Americans are unable to trace their ancestry to a specific African nation; hence, the entire continent serves as a geographic marker.

For many, African American is more than a name expressive of cultural and historical roots. The term expresses pride in Africa and a sense of kinship and solidarity with others of the African diaspora—an embrace of pan-Africanism as earlier enunciated by prominent African thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois and George Padmore.

Who is African American?

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Since 1977, in an attempt to keep up with changing social opinion, the United States government officially classified black people (revised to black or African American in 1997) as A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.[2] Other Federal offices, such as the United States Census Bureau, adheres to the OMB standards on race in its data collection and tabulations efforts.[125] 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[126]

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.[127] 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 U.S. as though they are all African Americans with a single ethnic and geographical background. The U.S. 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, U.S. Department of Commerce, derived from the 1977 OMB classification.[128]

On census forms, the government depends on individuals' self-identification. Due in part to a centuries-old history within the United States, historical experiences pre- and post-slavery, and migrations throughout North America, contemporary African Americans possess varying degrees of admixture with European ancestry. A lesser percentage also have Native American ancestry.[129][130]

With the help of geneticists, the historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put African American ancestry in these terms:

  • 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent);
  • 19.6 percent of African Americans have at least 25 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one grandparent);
  • 1 percent of African Americans have at least 50 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one parent); and
  • 5 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent).[131]

However, studies by historians and geneticists show that African Americans have significant Native American heritage due to many different circumstances in different families.[132] African Americans with Native American ancestry have either been accused of not having Native American ancestry or having little native ancestry. One reason being, the genetic tests done to test for how much Indian Blood a person has does not present a complete picture, as argued by geneticists, because tests trace only one bloodline and thus exclude most ancestors.[133][134]

The short series African American Lives which was hosted by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was greatly criticized because the program did not acknowledge nor inform those that were tested that not all ancestry may show up in the tests, especially for those who claimed having Native American heritage.[133][134][135]

The most numerous families of free African Americans in the Upper South by the end of the 18th century were descended from white women, free or servant, and African men, slaves, free or indentured servants, who worked and lived closely together during the colonial period in Virginia. Their free descendants migrated to the frontier of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were also similar free families in Delaware and Maryland, as documented by Paul Heinegg.[136]

In their attempt to ensure white supremacy, in the early 20th century some southern states created laws defining a person as black if the person had any known African ancestry. This was a stricter interpretation than what had prevailed earlier and went against commonly accepted social rules of judging a person by appearance. It became known as the one-drop rule, meaning that a single drop of "black blood" made a person "black". Some courts called it the traceable amount rule. Anthropologists called it the hypodescent rule, meaning that racially mixed persons were assigned the status of the subordinate group.

Prior to the one-drop rule, different states had different laws regarding color. More importantly, social acceptance often played a bigger role in how a person was perceived and how identity was construed than any law. In frontier areas there were fewer questions about origins, and the community looked at how people performed, whether they served in the militia and voted. When questions about racial identity arose because of inheritance issues, for instance, litigation outcomes often were based on how people were accepted by neighbors.[137]

In Virginia prior to 1920, for example, a person was legally black if he or she had at least one-eighth black ancestry. The one-drop rule originated in some Southern United States in the late 19th century, likely in response to whites' attempt to limit black political power following the Democrats' regaining control of state legislatures in the late 1870s.[138][139] The first year in which the U.S. Census did not count mulattoes separately was 1920, evidencing a shift in the American conception of what an African American is.[139]

For African Americans, the one-drop system of pigmentocracy became a significant factor in ethnic solidarity. The binary division of society by race forced African Americans to share more of a common lot in society than they might have after the Civil War, given widely varying ancestry, educational and economic levels. The binary division altered the separate status of the traditionally free people of color in Louisiana, for instance, although they maintained a strong Louisiana Créole culture related to French culture and language, and practice of Catholicism. African Americans began to create common cause—regardless of their multiracial admixture or social and economic stratification. In further changes, during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the African American community increased its own pressure for people of any portion of African descent to be claimed solely by the black community.

By the 1980s, parents of mixed-race children (and adults of mixed-race ancestry) began to organize and lobby for the ability to show more than one ethnic category on Census and other legal forms. They refused to be put into just one category. When the U.S. government proposed the addition of the category of "bi-racial" or "multiracial" in 1988, the response from the general public was mostly negative. Some African American organizations and political leaders, such as Senator Diane Watson and Representative Augustus Hawkins, were particularly vocal in their rejection of the category. They feared a loss in political and economic power if African Americans abandoned their one category.

This reaction is characterized as "historical irony" by Daniel (2002). The African American self-designation had been a response to the one-drop rule, but then people resisted the chance to claim their multiple heritages. At the bottom was a desire not to lose political power of the larger group. Whereas before people resisted being characterized as one group regardless of ranges of ancestry, now some of their own were trying to keep them in the same group.[140]

In recent decades, the multicultural aspect of the United States has continued to expand, in part due to new waves of immigration from Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. Although the terms mixed-race, biracial, and multiracial are increasingly used, it remains common for those who possess visible traits of black heritage to identify or be identified as blacks or African Americans. Socially, some blacks may self-identify by cultural ancestry.

For example, 55% of European Americans classify President Barack Obama as biracial when they are told that he has a white mother, while 66% of African Americans consider him black.[141] Obama describes himself as black[142] and African American, using both terms interchangeably.[143] Because of that and general conventions, he is generally considered to be African American.[144] Obviously he is in fact both African American and bi-racial; these are not exclusive categories.

People who are considered African American can also claim Native heritage. Relationships between Native Americans and African slaves first occurred in 1502, and continued throughout the centuries.[145] Tracing the genealogy of African Americans and Native Americans is a difficult process, because records were not kept for most African slaves and many Native Americans did not speak English.[146] Another difficulty is that elder family members sometimes withhold pertinent genealogical information.[146] Knowing a family's geographic origins in different periods is a key factor in helping trace Native American ancestry related to specific tribes.[146]

Native Americans, during the transitional period of Africans becoming the primary race enslaved, were enslaved at the same time and shared a common experience of enslavement. They worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, shared herbal remedies, myths and legends, and in the end they intermarried."[147] In the eighteenth century, many Native American women did marry freed or runaway African men due to a large decrease in the population of men in Native American villages.[148] In addition, records also show that Native American women actually bought African men, but unknown to European sellers the women freed and married the men into their tribe.[148] It was also beneficial for African men to marry or have children by Native American woman because children born to a mother who was not a slave were free.[148]

In changes of their own, since the 1980s some Native American nations have changed their rules for membership to construe them more narrowly. They have excluded members who also have African American ancestry, or who are descendants of slaves held by the tribe, but without a blood ancestor member of the tribe at certain time periods. After the Civil War, all tribes were supposed to make freed slaves citizens of their tribes, in a pattern similar to freeing slaves held by people in the Confederate states. There has been considerable controversy, for example, over the case of descendants of Cherokee Freedmen, who have recently been expelled from the tribal nation.[149]

Terms no longer in common use

The terms mulatto and colored were widely used until the second quarter of the 20th century, when they were considered outmoded and generally gave way to the use of negro. By the 1940s, the term commonly was capitalized, but by the mid 1960s, it had acquired negative connotations, though the term mulatto is still in use in many parts of Latin America and is not considered offensive there. Today, in the culture of the United States, the term is considered inappropriate and is now rarely used and perceived as a pejorative.[150][151]

While the term "Black American" is still considered politically correct, it has started to fall out of favor in recent years because it differentiates from other Americans based on skin color rather than cultural heritage. Colored and Negro, now largely defunct, survive in certain historical organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Negroid was a term used by anthropologists first in the 18th century to describe some indigenous Africans and their descendants throughout the African diaspora. As with most descriptors of race based on inconsistent, unscientific phenotypical standards,[citation needed] the term is controversial and imprecise.[citation needed] Growing numbers of blacks have substituted the term Africoid, which, unlike Negroid, encompasses the phenotypes of all indigenous peoples of Africa.[152]

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  • Brandon S. Centerwall, "Race, Socioeconomic Status and Domestic Homicide, Atlanta, 1971-72", 74 AM. J. PUB. HLTH. 813, 815 (1984).
  • Darnell F. Hawkins, "Inequality, Culture, and Interpersonal Violence", 12 HEALTH AFFAIRS 80 (1993).
  • Jerome A. Neapolitan, "Cross-National Variation in Homicide; Is Race A Factor?" 36 CRIMINOLOGY 139 (1998).
  • Bohlen, C. "Does She Say the Same Things in her Native Tongue?" New York Times, May 18, 1986.
  • Felder, J. (1992) From the Statue of Liberty to the Statue of Bigotry. New York: Jack Felder.
  • Felder, J. "Black Origins and Lady Liberty". Daily Challenge. July 16, 1990.
  • Sinclair, T. Was Original Statue a Tribute to Blacks? New York Voice, July 5, 1986.
  • The New York Post, "Statue of Liberty" June 17, 1986.
  • Altman, Susan "The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage".
  • The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition, (1997). ISBN 0-393-97141-4.
  • Stewart, Earl L. (1998). African American Music: An Introduction. ISBN 0-02-860294-3.

Further reading

  • Jack Salzman, ed., Encyclopedia of Afro-American culture and history, New York, New York : Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996.
  • African American Lives, edited by Henry L. Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004 – more than 600 biographies.
  • From Slavery to Freedom. A History of African Americans, by John Hope Franklin, Alfred Moss, McGraw-Hill Education 2001, standard work, first edition in 1947.
  • Black Women in America - An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine (Editor), Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Editor), Elsa Barkley Brown (Editor), Paperback Edition, Indiana University Press 2005.
  • van Sertima, Ivan, "They Came Before Columbus".
  • "The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self Reference Among American Slave Descendants", American Speech, v 66, no.2, Summer 1991, pp. 133–46.

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



African Americans

  1. Plural form of African American.

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