Black with a capital B

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.

Winter in America by Gil Scott-Heron

From 1974. Or today.

From the Indi­ans who wel­comed the pil­grims
And to the buf­fa­lo who once ruled the plains
Like the vul­tures cir­cling beneath the dark clouds
Look­ing for the rain
Look­ing for the rain

Just like the cities stag­gered on the coast­line
Liv­ing in a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the for­est buried beneath the high­way
Nev­er had a chance to grow
Nev­er had a chance to grow
And now it’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

Yes and all of the heal­ers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the peo­ple know, the peo­ple know
It’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

The Con­sti­tu­tion
A noble piece of paper
With free soci­ety
Strug­gled but it died in vain
And now Democ­ra­cy is rag­time on the cor­ner
Hop­ing for some rain
Looks like it’s hop­ing
Hop­ing for some rain

And I see the robins
Perched in bar­ren tree­tops
Watch­ing last-ditch racists march­ing across the floor
But just like the peace sign that van­ished in our dreams
Nev­er had a chance to grow
Nev­er had a chance to grow

And now it’s win­ter
It’s win­ter in Amer­i­ca
And all of the heal­ers have been killed
Or been betrayed
Yeah, but the peo­ple know, peo­ple know
It’s win­ter, Lord knows
It’s win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your souls
From Win­ter in Amer­i­ca
And now it’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And all of the heal­ers done been killed or sent away
Yeah, and the peo­ple know, peo­ple know
It’s win­ter
Win­ter in Amer­i­ca

And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
And ain’t nobody fight­ing
Cause nobody knows, nobody knows
And ain’t nobody fight­ing
‘Cause nobody knows what to save

Friends on Giving

The new issue of Friends Journal is available online. This month looks at Giving and Philanthropy. There's some good reflections from Friends on why they give to the causes and institutions they do. There's also a nice piece from Quaker fundraiser Henry Freeman on the "language of Quaker values." If you're trying to unpack what it means to be Quaker, this on-the-ground perspective is one way to parse out the reality of Quaker testimonies.

Jobs disappearing thread

A good piece in the NYTimes on the stagnant jobs facing blue-collar America. I wonder if they would have written this if the votes had broken a different way and we were all talking of Hillary as president elect. A quote:

For workers like Mr. Roell, 36, who started at Carrier just weeks after receiving his high school diploma and never returned to school, the problem is not a shortage of jobs in the area. Instead, it is a drought of jobs that pay anywhere near the $23.83 an hour he makes at Carrier, let alone enough to give him a toehold in the middle class

Great stories and good reporting.

The Messy Work Begins

One of the take­aways of this elec­tion this is that we’ve all siloed our­selves away in our self-selected Face­book feeds. We lis­ten to most our news and hang out pri­mar­i­ly with those who think and talk like us. One piece of any heal­ing will be open­ing up those feeds and doing the messy work of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple who have strong­ly dif­fer­ent opin­ions. That means real­ly respect­ing the world­view peo­ple are shar­ing (and that’s as hard for me as for any­one) and lis­ten­ing through to emo­tions and life expe­ri­ences that have brought peo­ple into our lives. Basic lis­ten­ing tips apply: try not to judge or accuse or name call. If some­one with less priv­i­lege tells you they’re scared, con­sid­er they might have a valid con­cern and don’t inter­rupt or tell them they’re being alarmist. 

But all this also means apol­o­giz­ing and for­giv­ing each oth­er and being okay with a high lev­el of messi­ness. It’s not easy and it won’t always work. We will not always have our opin­ion pre­vail and that’s okay. We are all in this togeth­er.

Pareto opportunities for Friends?

Nate Sil­ver recent­ly ran a piece on Mar­co Rubio’s pres­i­den­tial chances has used the previously-unknown-to-me con­cept of the “Pare­to fron­tier” to line up poten­tial can­di­dates:

In eco­nom­ics, there’s a con­cept known as Pare­to effi­cien­cy. It means that you ought to be able to elim­i­nate any choice if anoth­er one dom­i­nates it along every dimen­sion. The remain­ing choic­es sit along what’s called the Pare­to fron­tier.

Sil­ver then fol­lowed up with a real world exam­ple that speaks to my inter­est in food:

Imag­ine that in addi­tion to White Cas­tle and The French Laun­dry, there are two Ital­ian restau­rants in your neigh­bor­hood. One is the chain restau­rant Olive Gar­den. You actu­al­ly like Olive Gar­den per­fect­ly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a lit­tle bet­ter there than at Olive Gar­den (although not as good as at The French Laun­dry), and it’s a lit­tle cheap­er than Olive Gar­den (although not as cheap as White Cas­tle). So you can elim­i­nate Olive Gar­den from your reper­toire; it’s dom­i­nat­ed along both dimen­sions by Giovanni’s.

These days we choose more than our din­ner des­ti­na­tions. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty has become a mar­ket­place. While there have always been con­verts, it feels as if the pace of reli­gious lane-changing has steadi­ly quick­ened in recent times. Many peo­ple are choos­ing their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion rather than stick­ing with the faith tra­di­tions of their par­ents. For Quak­ers, this has been a net pos­i­tive, as many of our meet­ing­hous­es are full of “con­vinced” Friends who came in to our reli­gious soci­ety as adults.

Quak­ers are some­what unique in our mar­ket poten­tial. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the reli­gious “pare­to curve”:

  • The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spir­i­tu­al but not reli­gious” set that wants to dip its toe into an orga­nized reli­gion that’s nei­ther very orga­nized nor reli­gious. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have min­is­ters or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about what new seek­ers believe. It’s a per­fect fit for do-it-yourself seek­ers that are look­ing for non-judgmental spiritually-minded pro­gres­sives.
  • Our sec­ond pare­to fron­tier beach­head is more grad-school lev­el: we’re a good spot for peo­ple who have a strong reli­gious con­vic­tions but seek a com­mu­ni­ty with less restric­tions. They’ve mem­o­rized whole sec­tions of the Bible and might have the­o­log­i­cal train­ing. They’re burned out by judg­men­tal­ism and spirit-less rou­tine and are seek­ing out a more authen­tic reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty of reli­gious peers open to dis­cus­sion and growth.

It seems we often reach out to one or the oth­er type of “pare­to” seek­er. I see that as part of the dis­cus­sion around Mic­ah Bales’s recent piece on Quak­er church plant­i­ng–do we focus on new, unaf­fil­i­at­ed seek­ers or seri­ous reli­gious dis­ci­ples look­ing for a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ty. I’d be curi­ous to hear if any Quak­er out­reach pro­grams have tried to reach out to both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Is it even pos­si­ble to sucess­ful­ly mar­ket that kind of dual mes­sage?

The two-touch pare­to nature of Friends and pop spir­i­tu­al cul­ture sug­gests that meet­ings could focus their inter­nal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pare­to entrances.” New­com­ers who have walked through the door because we’re not out­ward­ly churchy could be wel­comed into Quak­erism 101 cours­es to be intro­duced to Quak­er tech­niques for spir­i­tu­al ground­ing and growth – and so they can deter­mine whether for­mal mem­ber­ship is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spir­i­tu­al ground­ing can join as well, but also be giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ties for smaller-scale reli­gious con­ver­sa­tions and prac­tice, through Bible study groups, region­al extend­ed wor­ships and trips to region­al oppor­tu­ni­ties.

If you add charts you don't understand to blog posts, people will think you're extra smart.
If you add charts to blog posts, peo­ple will think you’re super-duper smart.

A reply to The Theology of Consensus

L.A. Kauffman’s cri­tique of con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing in The The­ol­o­gy of Con­sen­sus is a rather peren­ni­al argu­ment in lefty cir­cles and this arti­cle makes a num­ber of log­i­cal leaps. Still, it does map out the half-forgotten Quak­er roots of activist con­sen­sus and she does a good job map­ping out some of the pit­falls to using it dog­mat­i­cal­ly:

Con­sen­sus decision-making’s little-known reli­gious ori­gins shed light on why this activist prac­tice has per­sist­ed so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and inef­fec­tive.

All that said, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes while read­ing this. Per­haps I just sat in on too many meet­ings in my twen­ties where the Trot­sky­ists berat­ed the paci­fists for slow process (and tried to take over meet­ings) and the black bloc anar­chists berat­ed paci­fists for not being brave enough to over­turn dump­sters. As often as not these shenani­gans tor­pe­doed any chance of real coali­tion build­ing but the most bor­ing part were the inter­minable hours-long meet­ings about styles. A lot of it was fash­ion, real­ly, when you come down to it.

This piece just feels so…. 1992 to me. Like: we’re still talk­ing about this? Real­ly? Like: real­ly? Much of evi­dence Kauff­mann cites dates back to the frig­ging Clamshell Alliance—I’ve put the Wikipedia link to the 99.9% of my read­ers who have nev­er heard of this 1970s move­ment. More recent­ly she talks about a Food Not Bombs man­u­al from the 1980s. The lan­guage and con­tin­ued cri­tique over large­ly for­got­ten move­ments from 40 years ago doesn’t quite pass the Muham­mad Ali test:

Con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing is a tool, but there’s no mag­ic to it. It can be use­ful but it can get bogged down. Some­times we get so enam­ored of the process that we for­get our urgent cause. Clever peo­ple can use it to manip­u­late oth­ers, and like any tool those who know how to use it have an advan­tage over those who don’t. It can be a trib­al mark­er, which gives it a great to pull togeth­er peo­ple but also intro­duces a whole set of dynam­ics that dis­miss­es peo­ple who don’t fit the trib­al mod­el. These are uni­ver­sal human prob­lems that any sys­tem faces.

Con­sen­sus is just one mod­el of orga­niz­ing. When a com­mit­ted group uses it for com­mon effect, it can pull togeth­er and coör­di­nate large groups of strangers more quick­ly and cre­ative­ly than any oth­er orga­niz­ing method I’ve seen.

Just about every suc­cess­ful move­ment for social change works because it builds a diver­si­ty of sup­port­ers who will use all sorts of styles toward a com­mon goal: the angry youth, the African Amer­i­can cler­gy, the paci­fist vig­ilers, the shout­ing anar­chists. But change doesn’t only hap­pen in the streets. It’s also swirling through the news­pa­per rooms, attor­neys gen­er­al offices, investor board­rooms. We can and should squab­ble over tac­tics but the last thing we need is an enforce­ment of some kind of move­ment puri­ty that “calls for the demise” of a par­tic­u­lar brand of activist cul­ture. Please let’s leave the lefty puri­ty wars in the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Listening in on our Quaker conversations

On Twit­ter ear­li­er today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or some­one once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & oth­er soc. media? Can’t find it on Qran­ter or via Google. Thx!” Jay sub­se­quent­ly found a great piece from Robin Mohr cir­ca 2008 but I kept remem­ber­ing an descrip­tion of blog­ging I had writ­ten in the ear­li­est days of the blo­gos­phere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the won­der­ful Inter­net Archive​.org Way­back Machine. The orig­i­nal two para­graph descrip­tion of Quak­erQuak­er is not eas­i­ly acces­si­ble out­side of Archive​.org but it’s nice to uncov­er it again and give it a lit­tle sun­light:

Quak­erism is an expe­ri­en­tial reli­gion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doc­tri­nal state­ments. The best way to learn what Quak­ers believe is through lis­ten­ing in on our con­ver­sa­tions.

In the last few years, dozens of Quak­ers have begun shar­ing sto­ries, frus­tra­tions, hopes and dreams for our reli­gious soci­ety through blogs. The con­ver­sa­tions have been amaz­ing. There’s a pal­pa­ble sense of renew­al and excite­ment. Quak­erQuak­er is a dai­ly index to that con­ver­sa­tion.

I still like it as a dis­tinct­ly Quak­er phi­los­o­phy of out­reach.