Nicholas Subtirelu, a PhD student in linguistics at Georgia State University, was thinking about his own generation’s rejection of once-acceptable racial labels when he decided to study the changing use of those labels in journalism. More specifically, how racial labels have changed in The New York Times between 1851 and 2014, which is the timespan of the Times’ online Chronicle tool that allowed Subtirelu to track the paper’s historical usage of various words. “I think the changes in racial labeling practices over time really impresses upon us that racial groups are social constructs, and not straightforward reflections of biology,” Subtirelu says. “Journalists play an important role in shaping how we categorize other people.” Below are selections from Subtirelu’s research.
Subtirelu found two radical shifts in the Times’ labelling of black men and women from 1851 to today: during the civil war and reconstruction period, and during the civil rights movement. This graph shows a dramatic change in word use from the 1950s to 1970s that suggests a new awareness among journalists. In the 1990s, the Times began to use the term African-Americans, which remains common today, along with blacks, black people, and people of color.
Labels for Latinos only began appearing in the Times in the 1960s and 1970s, and gradually increased in frequency, as Latinos gained political influence. Country-specific terms like Puerto Ricans were gradually replaced by umbrella terms, especially Hispanics and Latinos. Such terms remain dominant today, although the majority (51 percent) of Latinos say they prefer to be defined by country of origin or heritage, according to a 2011 Pew study. The Times’ shift from country-specific to umbrella terms is an example of how the media can reinforce understandings of diverse peoples as belonging to a single, broad category, Subtirelu says.