I referred them to the Associated Press Stylebook, the journalist’s bible for rules on writing, which, until about a week ago, said that black should not be capitalized as a racial identifier. On June 19, AP became the latest media organization to change its policy to capitalize “Black” when the word is used in “a racial, ethnic or cultural context.”
“Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved,” says AP’s enhanced entry on race-related coverage, “along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.” Other large outlets that recently adopted this change include the USA Today Network, NBC News and the Los Angeles Times. (The change is under consideration at The Post.)
News organizations use a stylebook — whether AP or custom guidelines — to maintain consistency on capitalization, spelling and other issues. In most newsrooms, a committee of journalists is charged with keeping the style guide up to date. This requires research of the linguistics and history surrounding proposed changes as well as careful assessment of public taste and sensibilities.
The shift in sensibilities over time is significant. In the past century, references to people of African descent have gone from “negro” to “colored” to “Afro-American” to “black” and “African American.” And those are just the more widely accepted terms. A few years ago, I came across an early 1900s newspaper article about my great-great-grandfather, who was found fatally shot on a street in rural Georgia. I was elated to find a historical record of his suspicious death, confirming family folklore, but horrified that the headline and story in the weekly Hawkinsville Dispatch and News referred to him as an “old darkey.”
Media practices reflected denigrating customs, such as that of white people, even children, calling black adults by their first names to deny them the respect conferred by the titles Mr. or Mrs. (The use of Aunt or Uncle for black elders — think Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben — was also an effort to avoid saying Mr. or Mrs.) Some media organizations used titles only for white people in news coverage as late as the 1950s.
In the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP launched a national campaign to get newspapers to capitalize the word “Negro” as a sign of respect. It wasn’t until 1930 that the New York Times adopted the change. But use of “Negro” fell out of favor in the 1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement. More recently, in the 1980s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders led a push toward the term “African American,” which they said was more dignified than “black.” But African American does not account for black people of other origins.
Sensibilities also vary among audiences. Black-focused publications such as Ebony magazine, the Afro-American Newspapers and others have long rendered “Black” with a capital “B.” But there is not uniformity among black Americans about black vs. Black. Some argue that if black is capitalized as a racial identifier, then brown must also be capitalized. The same treatment would extend to white, which, problematically, is a style often used by white supremacist groups. Others see capitalizing black as a change that legitimizes perceived racial differences at a time when the focus should be tearing down race constructs created to elevate those of European descent over those they enslaved. Still others dismiss the debate as a distraction from more important issues such as economic inequality and criminal justice reform.
My students pushed back against the lowercase “b” because they recognize the media’s power to shape society’s views — not just how we see the world around us but also how we see ourselves. Capitalization denotes importance, a subtle recognition of a larger truth.
In the country’s rush to examine its conscience over the treatment of black Americans in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, media outlets capitalizing the “B” in “Black” may seem, to some, like a small gesture. Changing one letter doesn’t cost them anything, and it isn’t going to end police brutality or racial injustice. Still, it feels to me like a win at a time when black folks could really use one. Real progress, of course, comes not just from capitalization but also from fair and respectful coverage of black communities. That involves newsrooms hiring more black journalists and being more responsive to those already on staff.