"African-American" vs. "black" at the Olympics

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Mar 7 22:51:17 UTC 2006

>From King Kaufman's sports column on Salon:


Two weeks ago I wrote about NBC giving American speed skater Shani
Davis short shrift by calling him "the first African-American" to win
an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics when he was in fact
the first black person of any nationality to do so.

I wondered if it was a conscious decision on NBC's part, since the
practice went on for several days. NBC wouldn't answer, and host Bob
Costas' assistant said she'd pass along the question to him after he
got back. Sure, right.

So imagine my surprise Monday when Costas called me up and said he was
plowing through a stack of messages. Referring to Davis as the first
African-American, he said, was simply a mistake.

"It would appear that I along with everyone else fell into what the
common parlance is," he said. "Clearly, clearly, and I pride myself on
some precision in language, but clearly that escaped my attention."

I told him I thought the usage might have been an NBC policy because
it went on so long. Didn't anybody mention the mistake?

"Nope, nope. Maybe I should have caught it," he said. "But it never
crossed my mind or anyone else's that I'm aware of. But it was not a
consciously politically correct thing. You're just thinking about
other things, I guess.

"A lot of stuff is happening at an Olympics. There's a lot of material
coming at you from various directions, but that doesn't mean that some
bad hops aren't fielded and some errors aren't corrected. I think of
myself almost as a last line of defense. That should be the job of the
anchor, to kind of act as the goalie on this, if I can torture the
metaphor. The last line of defense. And in this particular case it got
by me."

Here's Kaufman's original column about Davis:


P.C. language cheats Shani Davis

NBC spent at least two days giving short shrift to speed skater Shani
Davis by calling him "the first African-American to win an individual
gold medal in the Winter Olympics."

He's actually the first black person to win individual gold, a larger
achievement than being the first African-American. NBC made the same
mistake about two-man bobsledder Vonetta Flowers four years ago, when
she became the first black to win a gold medal of any kind at the
Winter Olympics, and the network kept talking about how she was the
first African-American to win one.

Calling Davis the first African-American to win individual gold is
like saying Jackie Robinson was the first black man from Pasadena to
play in the major leagues, or Roger Bannister was the first medical
student to break the four-minute mile. Those statements are true, but
they don't tell the story.

On Saturday, the day of Davis' win in the 1,000 meters, I figured the
"first African-American" label was a reflexive mistake, the result of
either a habit or a policy of calling American blacks
African-Americans on the air. But when NBC commentators, including
host Bob Costas, a smart guy, were still calling Davis the "first
African-American" Sunday night, I figured it must have been a
conscious decision.

What I can't figure out is why. Messages left by phone and e-mail at
NBC were not answered, and Costas' assistant politely said he'd asked
her not to pass along any media inquiries to him in Italy.

NBC isn't alone in calling Davis the first African-American Winter
gold medalist. In his hometown, both the Chicago Tribune and the
Sun-Times used that wording, as did USA Today, the Dallas Morning News
-- which called him "the first African-American black male" -- and the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at least.

Many publications, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, referred to Davis
as the first black athlete to win individual gold in the Winter

The Sunday Times of London mentioned that Davis won gold, then
described him as "the first African-American speed skater to represent
the U.S. at the Winter Games and certainly the first to emerge from
the South Side of Chicago."

And Neil Armstrong was the first Ohioan to walk on the moon, and
certainly the first to emerge from Wapakoneta.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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