In the span of barely more than week, as news organizations responding to a wave of national protests have wrestled with how they have historically covered race, hundreds have made one small but potent change:
“When people are offended by how we describe their community, we have to listen,” said Cristina Silva, an editor at USA Today and co-chair of the newspapers’s diversity committee, in a statement.
USA Today and its affiliated network of more than 260 local papers adopted the change late last week. The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, MSNBC, BuzzFeed and the McClatchy newspaper chain have also moved to capitalize the word. On Friday, the Associated Press announced that it would also begin to capitlize. In a statement, The Washington Post said its editors are still considering whether to capitalize.
Sarah Glover, an NBC executive and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists who has championed the move, described it as “affirming the experience and existence of an entire group of people who built this country and have contributed to every sector.”
It is the latest iteration in a long history of American institutions grappling with what words to use when discussing race.
Black leaders have long pushed for changes in how their community should be described. For centuries, enslaved Africans and their descendants were referred to as “colored” in the eyes of the law as well as in common parlance. In 1900, the term “negro” appeared in Census Bureau instructions for the first time, a change the federal agency justified by the growing acceptance of the term.
In the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois led a letter-writing campaign to publications urging the use of the capitalized “Negro.” In one letter, the scholar and civil rights activist told the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that he saw “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings as a personal insult.”
The encyclopedia editor conceded the point. Newspapers like the New York Times eventually followed suit. “It is not merely a typographical change,” the Times editorial board wrote in 1930, “it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in the ‘lower case.’ ”
In the wake of the civil rights movement, “black” and “Afro-American” became more widely used. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson led a campaign to standardize “African American,” which had long been used in scholarly circles to emphasize a connection to the continent. And most newspapers soon adopted the phrase, often used alternately with “black.”
Yet many have argued in recent years that “African American” is an imprecise term when considering noncitizens or a connection among people of African descent around the world. But to use the lowercase “black” in such cases is inadequate, argued Lori Tharps, in a widely cited New York Times essay in 2014.
“Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color,” wrote Tharps, a journalism professor at Temple University. In an interview Thursday, she noted that she is making the same demand that Du Bois did nearly a century ago: “We are a community of people who deserve to be reference with the capital letter. We are not speaking of people’s skin color, we are speaking of a culture.”
Last week’s changes by mainstream news organizations come after years in which African American-focused publications, such as Essence, Ebony and the Chicago Defender have used the capital B.
The Seattle Times and the Boston Globe made the shift last year. In announcing its change on Friday, the Associated Press, whose stylebook remains the standard for many U.S. news organizations, said: “Our discussions on style and language consider many points, including the need to be inclusive and respectful in our storytelling and the evolution of language.”
From the start of the covid-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected black Americans, the National Association of Black Journalists has been inundated with inquiries on how to write “black.” NABJ, which began capitalizing “Black” in its external communications last year, released guidance on Thursday recommending that it be the industry standard.
“The support from journalists and editors of all backgrounds has been very inspiring and we look forward to continued dialogue and changes in the newsroom that better reflect diversity and inclusion,” said current president Dorothy Tucker.
A related question becomes how to refer to white people. NABJ recommends capitalizing “whenever a color is used to appropriately describe a race.” One concern is that white supremacists often capitalize “white” in their literature. Thus far, most news organizations have said they will keep white as lowercase.
“Capitalizing Black in this usage puts the word on equal footing with other capitalized descriptors of people and culture, such as Native American, Irish American and Hispanic,” Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, wrote in a memo last week. “White is not a description of culture but of a skin color, and when ethnicity is relevant to the story, we will ask the source his/her ethnicity (of Italian descent, Russian heritage, etc).”
But given the NABJ guidance about the word white, she added, “please note that we will continue to discuss this issue.”
Still, Glover argues that the debate over “white” shouldn’t slow organizations from shifting their style to “Black.” She called it the simplest way to begin establishing trust with the black community. “It doesn’t get any easier than this,” she said.
Tharps added: “With everybody claiming publicly that they respect ‘Black Lives,’ then why don’t you respect them enough to capitalize the B in ‘Black’?”
This story has been updated.