Is it racist to describe a black man as ‘black?’

I was watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann on June 3rd and Keith was discussing the nomination of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and how the far right is trying to brand her as racist.  During the course of this conversation, Keith mentioned how it was a sad state of affairs that police blotters still list suspects as ‘black male’ and it made me think about that.

I’m not racist or prejudiced, but I have to wonder if such a description is as problematic as Keith seems to be suggesting that it is.  First of all, isn’t a person’s race a distinguishing characteristic for describing them?  If police were looking for me, I would certainly be described as ‘white.’  If an asian person were being sought, he or she would most certainly be described as ‘asian.’  For that matter, if I’m looking for a guy with one arm and three eyes, is it culturally insensitive of me to describe him in that way?  Why is it inappropriate to refer to a black man as ‘black male?’

Now here’s one place where you might see my logic fall flat.  If you were looking for a Japanese man, you might say ‘asian male.’  Many people, including me, can’t readily distinguish between Chinese or Korean, or Japanese, but most know what Asians look like.  So why do we say ‘black male?’  That one I don’t know.  Are all ‘black’ people from Africa?  If so, why don’t we refer to them as Africans?  Perhaps because not all Africans are dark skinned.  Aren’t South Africans white?

Bottom line is if I’m the police and I’m looking for a man of Nigerian or Kenyan descent it would be stupid of me to simply say ‘male 5′ 10″ with black hair’ when one of his most distinguishing characteristics may very well be the color of his skin.  That’s not racist.  I’m not being critical or attempting to diminish him in any way.  I’m only trying to find a guy who looks like that.  What’s wrong with it?


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