It’s been a long-running debate in editorial circles: whether to capitalize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print publications when referring to groups of people. I remember discussions about it in the early 1990s when I worked as a graphic designer at a (largely White) progressive publishing house. My official, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been consistent in every publication I’ve worked for since then: lowercase. But I remain unsatisfied.
Capitalization has lots of built-in quirks. In general, we capitalize only when names come from proper nouns and don’t concern ourselves about mismatches. We can write about “frogs and salamanders and Fowler’s toads” or “diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.” Religious terms are even trickier: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quaker work, it’s surprising how often I have to go into a exegesis of intent over whether the writer is talking about a capital-L divine Light or a more generic lower-case lightness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clearly lowercased when they refer to colors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.
But seriously? We’re talking about more than color when we use it as a racial designation. This is also identity. Does it really make sense to write about South Central L.A. and talk about its “Koreans, Latinos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if capitalize Black, what then with White. Consistency is good and they should presumably match, except for the reality check: Whiteness in America has historically been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Different groups are considered white in different circumstances; many of the most-proudly White ethnicities now were colored a century ago. Much of the swampier side of American politics has been reinforcing racial identity so that out-of-work Whites (codename: “working class”) will vote for the interests of White billionaires rather than out-of-work people of color (codename: “poor”) who share everything but their melatonin level. All identities are incomplete and surprisingly fluid when applied at the individual level, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial designation.
Back in the 1990s we could dodge the question a bit. The style guide for my current publication notes “lc, but substitute ‘African American’ in most contexts.” Many progressive style sheets back in the day gave similar advice. In the ebb and flow of preferred identity nomenclature, African American was trending as the more politically correct designation, helped along by a strong endorsement from Jesse Jackson. Black wasn’t quite following the way of Negro into obsolescence, but the availability of an clearly capitalized alternative gave white progressives an easy dodge. The terms also perhaps subtly distinguished between those good African Americans who worked within in the system from those dangerous radicals talking about Black Power and reparations.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought Black back as the politically bolder word. Today it feels sharper and less coy than African American. It’s the better punch line for a thousand voices shouting rising up outside the governor’s mansion. We’ve arrived at the point where African American feels kind of stilted. It’s as if we’ve been trying a bit too hard to normalize centuries of slavery. We’ve got our Irish Americans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Italian Americans with their pasta and the African Americans with their music and… oh yes, that unfortunate slavery thing, “oh wasn’t that terrible but you know there were Irish slaves too”). All of these identities scan the same in the big old melting pot of America. It’s fine for the broad sweep of history of a museum’s name but feels coldly inadequate when we’re watching a hashtag trend for yet another Black person shot on the street. When the megaphone crackles out “Whose lives matter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Matter!” and you know everyone in the crowd is shouting the first word with a capital B.
Turning to Google: The Columbia Journalism Review has a nice piece on the nuances involved in capitalization, “Black and white: why capitalization matters.” This 2000 lecture abstract by Robert S. Wachal flat-out states that “the failure to capitalize Black when it is synonymous with African American is a matter of unintended racism,” deliciously adding “to put the best possible face on it.” In 2014, The NYTimes published Temple University prof Lori L. Tharps ’s convincing argument, “The Case for Black With a Capital B.” If you want to go historical, this thread on shifting terms by Ken Greeenwald on a 2004 Wordwizard forum is pure gold.
And with that I’ll open up the comment thread.