Army reverses course on racial regulation

The U.S. Army is about 21 percent black, but some were left wondering what decade they're living in when it was revealed that a little-known Pentagon regulation permitted "Black or African-American" soldiers to be identified as "Negro."

The language came from a government-wide policy written in 1997. But Secretary of the Army John McHugh was surprised and outraged and directed that the word be removed immediately.

"The military has updated the policy as of today and that language that's in question is no longer being used," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "Obviously, we believe that's an appropriate step."

It was a common term in the 1960s when even Dr. Martin Luther King frequently referred to blacks as Negroes in speeches. But by the 1970s it had fallen out of favor and today is considered by many to be offensive.

The census bureau added the language in the 1950 census, arguing that some older blacks prefer that term. In fact, as recently as the 2000 census, more than 56,000 blacks did choose to identify themselves as Negro. The bureau stopped using the term this year.

An administration official said Thursday it is looking into the issue and added, "The outdated term 'negro'... may need to be updated to address growing diversity of the population."

Although the Pentagon and the Census Bureau have now stopped using the word, for the rest of the federal government, it is still officially on the books -- as it has been for years.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.