Editor’s note: Why we’re capitalizing ‘Black’ from now on

Jun 5, 2019 at 1:00 am
Editor’s note: Why we're capitalizing ‘Black’ from now on
Steve Neavling

We recently made the decision to update our style guide to capitalize "Black" when referring to African-Americans. This came after discussions with local writers who preferred to capitalize the word, as well as from reading the works of national writers who advocate for it.

Though this usage is common among Black publications and activist circles, it has not yet become embraced by the mainstream. The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have not adopted it in their style guides.

Lori L. Tharps, an assistant professor of journalism at Philadelphia's Temple University, gave a compelling argument in favor of it in a 2014 New York Times op-ed, "The Case for Black With a Capital B."

"When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized," Tharps writes. "Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color."

The journalist Touré makes a similar argument in his 2011 book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? and explains why he believes "white" does not need to be given the same treatment.

"I believe 'Black' constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese," he writes in an author's note. "I don't believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization."

Oddly, the matter was already settled long ago — and by no less than The New York Times. In her op-ed, Tharps notes that W. E. B. Du Bois ran a letter-writing campaign in the 1920s to get publishers to capitalize the N in Negro, which was then spelled lowercase. In 1930, the NYT finally agreed to make the change. "It is not merely a typographical change," the letter from the editor read. "It is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the 'lower case.'"

As the word "Negro" fell out of favor and the term "black" came into vogue, it once again shifted to lowercase — though the reasons for capping it remain.

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