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 pub­li­ca­tions 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 sub­tly dis­tin­guished between those good African Amer­i­cans who worked with­in in the sys­tem from those bad rad­i­cals talk­ing about Black Pow­er.

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. 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 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.

Writing Opp: Race and Anti-Racism

We’re less than two weeks from the deadline for writing about “Race and Anti-Racism” for Friends Journal and I’d love to see more submissions. It was two years ago that we put out the much-talked-about issue on Experiences of Friends of Color. That felt like a really-needed issue: no triumphalism about how white Friends sometimes did the right thing as Abolitionists or posturing about how great we are, forgetting the ways we sometimes aren’t: just a collection of modern Friends talking about what they’ve experienced first-hand.

I think it’s a good time to talk now about how Friends are organizing to unlearn and subvert institutional racism. It was an important issue before November–ongoing mass incarceration, Standing Rock, and the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was all taking place before the election. But with racial backlashes, talk of a religious or nationality-based registries, and the coziness of “alt-right” white nationalists with members of the Trump campaign it all seems time to go into overdrive.

Bleak Batsto day

My wife Julie heard that the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty geog­ra­phy club was hav­ing an open hike at one of our favorite local spots, his­toric Bat­sto Vil­lage. Our kids are all geog­ra­phy nerds and we’ve been won­der­ing if our 12yo Theo in par­tic­u­lar might be inter­est­ed in a geog­ra­phy degree come col­lege so we came along. It was a grey, bleak, late win­ter day large­ly void of col­or so I leeched what tiny bits of green and red that remained to take black and white shots.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What This Cruel War Was Over

Coates lays out the sick and twist­ed her­itage of a sym­bol:

The Con­fed­er­ate flag is direct­ly tied to the Con­fed­er­ate cause, and the Con­fed­er­ate cause was white suprema­cy. This claim is not the result of revi­sion­ism. It does not require read­ing between the lines. It is the plain mean­ing of the words of those who bore the Con­fed­er­ate flag across his­to­ry. The­se words must nev­er be for­got­ten. Over the next few months the word “her­itage” will be repeat­ed­ly invoked. It would be dere­lict to not exam­ine the exact con­tents of that her­itage.

As usu­al, Coates does a great job look­ing at the chang­ing myths sur­round­ing South­ern White Suprema­cy. A rebel­lion that explic­it­ly start­ed as a defense of slav­ery shift­ed to more polite alter­na­tive myths over 150 years but it’s still real­ly about racism and human bondage. The flag needs to come down.

This mythol­o­gy of man­ners is adopt­ed in lieu of the mythol­o­gy of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great draw­back of being root­ed in a lie. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should not come down because it is offen­sive to African Amer­i­cans. The Con­fed­er­ate flag should come down because it is embar­rass­ing to all Amer­i­cans.

Can we count the ways that the McKinney video is messed up?

mckinney2When the McK­in­ney video start­ed trend­ing I wasn’t in a state to watch so I read the com­men­tary. Now that I have, the whole thing is com­plete­ly messed up but at least three parts espe­cial­ly unnerve me:

  • The com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary commando-style dive-and-roll that intro­duces Cor­po­ral Eric Case­bolt. Some reports describe it as a trip but to me it looks like he’s play­ing a Hol­ly­wood action hero stunt dou­ble. Has he just been watch­ing too many of the police videos he’s been col­lect­ing on YouTube?
  • That none of the oth­er offi­cers saw his derring-do and said “yo Eric, stand down.” Is this some­thing cops just don’t do? And if not, why not? We all know what it’s like to be hopped up on too much adren­a­line. I know peo­ple do weird stuff when their rep­til­ian brain fight-or-flight mech­a­nism cuts in. It seems that offi­cers should be on the look­out for just this sort of over­re­ac­tion and have some sort of safe word to tell one anoth­er to take a chill.
  • The video­g­ra­pher was a “invis­i­ble” white teenager. He walked near­by – and occa­sion­al­ly through – the action with­out being ques­tioned. At one point Case­bolt seems to pur­pose­ful­ly step around him to put down his dark-skinned friends. The video­g­ra­pher told news reporters that he felt his white­ness made him invis­i­ble to Case­bolt.

I nev­er quite real­ized all the race pol­i­tics behind the switch from pub­lic pools vs pri­vate pool clubs. I grew up in a Philly sub­urb with two pub­lic pools and very much remem­ber the con­stant wor­ry that Philadel­phia kids might sneak in (“Philadel­phia” was of course code for “black”). The town­ship did have a his­tor­i­cal­ly African Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood so the pools were racial­ly inte­grat­ed but I’m sure every dark-skinned town­ship res­i­dent was asked to show town ID a lot more than I was. And it’s hard to think it was entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal that both pub­lic pools were locat­ed on the oppo­site ends of the town­ship from the black neigh­bor­hood.

There are no pub­lic pools in the South Jer­sey town where I live. A satel­lite view picks out thir­teen pri­vate pools on my block alone. Thir­teen?!? There’s one pri­vate pool club across town. There’s a lot of casu­al racism around here, pri­mar­i­ly direct­ed at the mostly-Mexican farm­work­ers who dou­ble the town pop­u­la­tion every sum­mer. If there was a town pool that reflect­ed the demo­graph­ics of the local Wal­mart park­ing lot on a Fri­day night in July, we’d have mini-riots I’m sure — which is almost sure­ly why we don’t have a munic­i­pal pool and why wealthy fam­i­lies have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into back­yards.

(My fam­i­ly has joined the Elmer Swim Club, a pool locat­ed about half an hour away. While the major­i­ty of mem­bers are super nice and I haven’t heard any dodgy racial code phras­es. The pool is diverse but is most­ly white, reflect­ing the near­by pop­u­la­tion. That said, I’ve read enough Ta-Nehisi Coates to know we can rarely take white towns for grant­ed. So.)

NYTimes video remembers the 1965 Selma James Reeb attack

One of the white min­is­ters with James Reeb in the 1965 attack that helped pro­pel the Vot­ing Rights Act remem­bers the night.

He also reflects on the val­ue of white lives vs. black lives for nation­al atten­tion in the Civil Rights Move­ment. While the actu­al Sel­ma march was protest­ing the killing of black civil rights activist Jim­mie Lee Jack­son by a state troop­er, nation­al out­rage focused on the vis­it­ing white min­is­ter.

In 1967, Dr. King not­ed, “The fail­ure to men­tion Jim­my [sic] Jack­son only rein­forced the impres­sion that to white Amer­i­cans the life of a Negro is insignif­i­cant and mean­ing­less.”

Don’t miss Gail Whif­f­en Coyle’s overview of con­tem­po­rary Friends Jour­nal cov­er­age of Sel­ma on our web­site.