What's in a name? To cap? Or not cap “black”? Oh no! Oh really? Oh what? I pass Pop your mind

To cap? Or not cap “black”?

That’s a subjective call. Case style standards for the identifier should be flexible.

(This article was posted August 8, 2021 and has been occasionally updated.)

On June 19, 2020, as protests ignited by George Floyd’s murder surged across the nation, the Associated Press recommended that black be capitalized when identifying people. By July 29, when the Washington Post announced its shift to upper case black, the style change was complete in U.S. news organizations and other public media.

But in this discussion, outstanding black scholars and professional black writers explain why they continue to use lowercase black style for specific good reasons. Overall, the generic functioning of the lowercase, color-based black, brown and white identifiers designates groups of people without racializing them.

article image Masai on the beach. Generic, lowercase black style recognizes the extensively varying aspects of the identities of African and African descended peoples, as well as the shared aspects. (needpix.com)

Black is not an ethnicity and the notion of black, brown and white "races" is part of the conceptual machinery that subjugated black and brown peoples in the first place.

And now with the established standard of capping black, we get misleading sentences like this in the Summer 2021 Scientific American article, “How to Unlearn Racism”:

“After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which had united white and Black indentured servants, Virginia lawmakers began to make legal distinctions between ‘white’ and ‘Black’ people." (Bold typeface added.)

The Virginia lawmakers did not use the case styles for black and white in the bolded part of the quote. I used single quotation marks within double quotation marks in properly quoting from the article. The sentence in the actual article had double quotation marks around the racial IDs as shown here: Virginia lawmakers began to make legal distinctions between "white" and "Black" people.

The contemporary standard was imposed upon this historical reference in a way that signfies that the racist lawmakers capitalized black and lowercased white! Journalists, scholars and editors should recognize both the need for the standard to be more flexible and the nuanced nature of black identity. Other examples of misleading, perfunctory capping are cited below.

When black people were transitioning from "Negro" in the late 1960s, the popular black press capitalized black as an equivalent identifier. It seemed proper, socially just and psychologically healing to elevate long denigrated black identity by capping the ID. However even then, many black writers preferred lowercase black because the style designated people as African descended, which they proudly affirmed, without reinforcing group designation based on physical character. Many were even "black liberation" and "black arts movement" proponents. In their view, "black" was a powerful vernacular name that undermined the stigma associated with it but the official mass identity of the U.S. African-descended population should be based on origins, not on physical categorization imposed by people who called themselves "white" in contradistinction.

article image Yellowed copy of December 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. As commercial black press transitioned to uppercase black style, influential, non-commercial black press adopted lowercase black style, including The Black Scholar, founded in 1969 by activist scholars Robert Chrisman (Ph.D., English) and Nathan Hare (Ph.D., clinical psychology). Other black press using lowercase black style include SAGE, "the only (academic) journal ...devoted exclusively to the experience of black women" (published 1984-1995); the International Review of African American Art, after it was transferred to the Hampton University Museum; and Transition, a “forum...about the black world,” published by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. (The Black Scholar now has a different publisher.) The lowercase black ID denotes a non-racialized group category and has other flexible functions that are conducive to exacting analysis.

In the November 1, 2021 article on "The Debate Over Language on the Left,” New York Times national correspondent Amy Harmon makes a baffling conjecture about capping black.

Harmon says that the African American ID “is now being superseded by ‘Black,’ with a capital ‘B,’ to underline a shared political identity among disparate groups.”

If Harmon means “political identity” in the sense of political ideology, her explanation would mean that non-Black people would range from Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson to Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey (who has supported Democratic candidates but has personally identified as a political independent).

If Harmon means “political identity” in the sense of “the body politic,” or a group of persons politically organized under a single governmental authority, that reasoning for capping black obviously misses the mark.

“Shared political identity” does not “a people” make. The world is populated by black people of many political identities. Capping black is a more than 50-year convention. It’s time to fully delve into the question, who are we?

Black, white and brown cases = a stylistic can of worms

The many questions regarding black, brown and white case styles comprise a public issue which educators should address and news organizations should cover through reporting and analysis. For example, what are the implications of influential news organizations like The Washington Post, CNN, the CBS news and Fox news platforms and the National Association of Black Journalists capping white when the Associated Press recommends that white not be capped?

The AP recommends that brown not be capped because that ID represents people from diverse origins. But how do brown people, unfamiliar with this reasoning, feel when they see black capped and brown left low?

The standards editors’ rationale for uppercasing black is based on the proposition that black people share history and culture plus capping shows respect for black people.

A counter rationale can be made that black peoples’ (plural) histories and cultures are just as variegated as those of white peoples (plural). Slavery and colonialism have had parallel effects on black people and white people. Not the same effects of course, but white and black peoples’ experiences have synergistically (d)evolved during the era that began with the transatlantic trade of Africans.

To imply that black peoples’ history and lives are more undifferentiated than those of white peoples undermines the complexity of black ontology. Black peoples have responded in powerfully creative, resourceful and varying ways to the disruptions of their traditional societies.

The “respect” rationale for capping black also has a counter one because most people in Africa and the African diaspora formally identify by ethnicity and/or nationality, not as uppercase Black.

It’s complicated!

article image

The “Should be black be capitalized?” question is complex and the pervasive uppercase shift occurred without a full consideration of this complexity, so an adequate answer to the question must be extensive. Some readers just may want the gist and can find it here: a condensed version of this article published by Poynter, and in the bullet points below.
A paradoxical warning to the rest: we’ll be plunging into the weeds of casestyle usage in search of light.

The strong, pervasive authority of U.S. print and digital media also appears to confer an official imprimatur to the notion that black is an ethnicity and/or race.

On July 7, 2020, in announcing Virginia Publications Media’s rationale for capping black, editor-in-chief Kris Worrell said “We are making this change because ‘Black,’ in this case, means an ethnic identity. Virginia recognizes and respects that.”

But there’s no black “ethnicity.”

With regard to black and white case styles vis-a-vis the conception of race, psychologists and anthropologists have different views. This difference is just one of many indications why the b/Black question is so vexed.

In explaining sensitivity about labelling people and reducing bias in its style guide, the American Psychological Society makes a case for normalizing the concept of race because of its social inferences: “Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant.” The guide says that racial groups are designated by proper nouns that should be uppercased: “(t)herefore, use ‘Black’ and ‘White’ instead of ‘black’ and ‘white’… .”

However physical anthropologists say that the social significance of physical differences is based in oppression.

The concept of race has had devastatingly real consequences. Understanding the difference between racism and racialism, and how racialism has become normalized, is key to addressing those consequences.

article image We are the world. (UNESCO Media Bank)


If the black peoples of the United States are not a race or a single ethnicity, are we a multi-ethnicity comparable to Hispanic?

No, black Americans include Hispanic people of African descent. “Hispanic” refers to people of places in the Americas colonized by the Spanish. “Black” refers to people in Africa and throughout the African diaspora and these people do not have a shared colonial history, and therefore are not identified by a shared mother tongue. We are multiethnic like white Americans.

Are we a culture?

We have syncretic cultural patterns (mostly African-European) and some are very distinctive. But we do not have a singularly originating culture.

What does that make us?

A national (USA) group of people of African descent with various ethnicities.

What does that mean for how we should be officially identified?

That question remains open.

Proudly referring to ourselves as b/Black is a forceful repudiation of the denigration of that identity and an embrace of African heritage.

Right! But according to this rationale, most people of Africa and the African Diaspora can be considered black. That’s why black should be our generic identifier, not the official name of black people in the U.S. Here are some ideas for thinking about who we are and what our official name(s) could be. You might have even better suggestions about who we be. Collectively determining our identity would be a huge effort but very exciting and interesting!

Sociologist Vilna Bashi Treitler says the shift to uppercase black “represents a failure of imagination about racial naming.”

Her blunt expression stems from strong concerns about black people. Her parents are African descendants from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. We first spoke in July 2020 when the “uprisings,” as she called them, were peaking.

article image Vilna Bashi Treitler (UCSB faculty photo)

“Black people think we produce our own ethnic identity through naming and revising those names but we don’t,” Treitler said. “We are not affirming ethnicities that we have chosen but making variations in ones that have been imposed on us. And in that bloated old categorical body, racial and social classifications are joined at the hip.”

Prefiguring Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Treitler’s The Ethnic Project:Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, analyzes race and ethnicity within the context of social hierarchy.

The Ethnic Project extensively details how immigrants in the U.S., perceived as nonwhite, gained acceptance as white in the majority culture by using naming and other strategies (i.e., “ethnic projects”) to rise up in a structure that also affords mobility to some black people through their own ethnic projects while other black people remain mired at the bottom.

“Ethnic groups perpetuate racial myths about themselves and others in an endless ‘king of the hill’ game,” she explained. “In their upward struggle, they learn to denigrate ethnic others.”

article image “Denigrate” entry in Merriam-Webster dictionary

In the years since The Ethnic Project was published (2013), there’s been an emphasis on civility with regard to ethnic “others” in the mainstream public sphere. But consider how the Mexican Tejano population in South Texas voted for Donald Trump even though he vilified Mexicans. They seem to be voting against their best interests. Treitler’s research shows how their ethnic project would align them with conservative white Republicans.

Treitler viewed the push to capitalize black as continuing the historical debate about naming the country’s most denigrated group. It’s a makeshift ethnic project, she said, “a way of re-imagining our place in the hierarchy but it doesn’t change how racism impacts us.”

In the book, she wrote:

Ethnic projects are not merely about the creation of an ethnic identity, for many of these groups are not actually embracing the ethnicity they have chosen but rather one that was imposed on them. Think of the ways we create amalgamations of many so-called American Indian nations, or of West Indian/black Caribbean persons from islands so multitudinous and varied that they speak different languages and emerged from different colonial histories. Persons in dominant races who never cared what those people called themselves long ago snatched from them their original names and applied names that fit the dominant way of thinking.

During our conversation, she said, “race depends on where you are, what time you live in, and who’s looking at you and deciding what you are.”

About the newsroom deliberations being held then to determine whether black should be capped, she said: “I’m glad we’re giving attention to racial inequalities as we debate this name change. But what’s still needed is an understanding of the root of the term, black, and why black is synonymous with the bottom of the socioeconomic strata.” Such a structure cannot hold without a foundation, a bottom.

Treitler noted Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility but overall was not encouraged by all of the (how to be) anti-racist books literally and digitally flying off the shelves. Racialized thinking is deeply entrenched across the political and racial spectrum. That’s the pervasive, insidious effect of living in a racialized, hierarchical society. “The hierarchy itself must be dismantled,” she said. She continued:

And what I am suggesting is that even something as radical as the public embrace of our common humanity apparently is a tool far too weak to dismantle the racial order. At least that’s what the test of history has found.

There seems to be no way out of this conundrum. One may become a racializer, even a racist, and be rewarded for it. But a group that both embraces human difference and equally values all human beings will likely be punished for such progressive and enlightened thinking — particularly if they broadcast these ideas while holding a position at the racial nadir.

What’s so threatening about black folks at the bottom broadcasting a position that both affirms difference in people and equally values people? In other words, when enlightened ideas are not proclaimed at the grassroots level, who benefits?

Vilna Treitler did feel hopeful about trends affirming non-binary gender identification and fluid sexual orientation as being harbingers for breaking down bounded thinking about race. And she saw glimmers of possibility in the BIPOC + white affiliations of the 2020 uprisings for also doing that.

Vilna Bashi Treitler is the 2020 winner of the American Sociological Association’s award for scholarship in service to social justice. When we talked, she was a full professor at UC Santa Barbara. She is now Osborn Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University.

Style and meaning

Opinion on black case style arises from the writer’s own personal and professional experiences. We have varying experiences so our opinions about case style invariably diverge

“… in the same way there is not one black identity, there need not be one (and only one) new official style.”

article image Ali Jackson-Jolley (personal photo)

Ali Jackson-Jolley, assistant managing editor at Forbes, spoke to me in July 2020, prior to joining Forbes. She understands the rationales for capping black and feels that her view also is reasonable: the new standard should be flexible.

Here’s Jackson-Jolley’s statement.

When I saw the capital Bs shooting up in print media in late June and early July 2020, my reaction was that codifying one new official style for how we (black writers) are allowed to denote ourselves in the realm of journalism, overly constricts our ability to express our own identity. More simply put, in the same way there is not one black identity, there need not be one (and only one) new official style. After all, why should a powerful, elite and relatively small group of journalists decide how to identify people?

It seems to me that it should be the author’s decision whether their identity is a race, an ethnicity or a culture.

In the spirit of “devil’s advocate” to my own position, I would protest: “But we need hard and fast rules in formal writing!” And as a journalist with a fervent belief in the power of words, the sanctity of giving voice to one’s opinions through written word, I agree. Rules are what govern the English language, and what give it meaning.

But the art of writing is more elusive, more sacred, than the grammarian’s science. It comes from the passion, the emotion, and the lived experiences of being human.

For my part, I look forward to exploring the relationships between voice and identity as we develop a new generation of black and minority writers and journalists. And I’m excited about using this moment as a catalyst for change and journalistic integrity.

The elasticity of black identity is considered by Yale University’s Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry Claudia Rankine who writes creatively across genres. She used part of her MacArthur Foundation prize to fund a project on the racial imaginary.

article image Claudia Rankine (Yale University faculty page photo)

Published in September 2020, Rankine’s “Just Us: An American Conversation,” was named a best book of the year by The New York Times and other major media. In it, Rankine explains her reaction to a white man taking offense at her being in a privileged space and quotes West Indian writer Édouard Glissant: "I was not overwhelmed by our encounter because my blackness is consent 'not to be a single being’.”

The way in which Rankine uses “blackness” indicates the expansiveness of the lowercase word and her own self-conception.

Rankine uses lowercase black and white IDs throughout the book. Responding to a query for this article, Rankine explained her case style preference within the context of the “imaginary,” a set or system of concepts that materialize in society:

“I do prefer the equal status of the created terms black and white as they relate to my process of interrogating both as racial imaginaries and as such created distinctions that gained real power in the world.”

Like Rankine, other black non-cappers ask, “Why capitalize terms co-created to differentiate by color and to signify the relative supremacy and oppression attached to that difference?”

But in recognizing that co-creation, some black writers propose capping both IDs to show the responsibility of white people in constructing and maintaining the racial order. They are in effect asking, “Why should white people get to hide their complicity behind the meek, innocent-looking, lowercase white identifier?”

The politically progressive Center for the Study of Social Policy shares this view about capitalizing white to show how racism functions. The center’s earnest conviction has an authoritarian edge: “Establishing a rule, instead of leaving capitalization to the writer as a choice, emphasizes the critical importance and political permanence of these words as real, existing racial identities.”

The Washington Post, Fox News, CBS News and the National Association of Black Journalists are among the organizations that advocate capping white as well as black for various other reasons.

article image The color of water (untitled photo, National Archives)

When uppercase Black and uppercase White appear in the same article, the stark, heightened contrast between these people is reminiscent of Jim Crow-era signs over water fountains. Whether that’s good (giving visibility to the invisible machinations of racism) or bad (racializing) is a subjective call.

article image Richard J. Powell (Duke University faculty page photo)

Richard J. Powell uses lowercase black style in the third edition of Black Art: A Cultural History which was published in October 2021. In the introductory chapter he discusses the “alchemy” — the “deep, unstable, and often contradictory meanings” — of the word black. The Jamaican-born British sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall expressed a similar idea when he described race as "a floating signifier."

“… the intensity, irreducibility, and emphatic nature of the word ‘black’ obviously contradicts … (a) complex history and hybrid nature.”

In the “Alchemy of Black” chapter, Powell refers to a drum made in this country by an enslaved person of probable Akan or Fon heritage to show how this American-in-origin, African-in-design object cannot be adequately identified as black: the “intensity, irreducibility, and emphatic nature of the word ‘black’ obviously contradicts this drum’s complex history and hybrid nature.”

Powell notes how various early IDs for enslaved Africans in the U.S. — Angolan, Calabar, Nago Koromantin — were obliterated “by the short and stinging ‘black: a term that, in its brusque utterance, contained a white supremacist sense of racial difference, personal contempt, and, oddly enough, complexity that came to define these new African peoples.”

He concludes with a paradox. Despite the devastating history and huge essentializing function of the black ID, Powell says that a case can be made for black finally being a fitting term for African diasporic people because because of the “problematic” nature of the modern and postmodern societies in which black people have come to embrace the term as our own. (This also applies to how the epithet, nigger, has morphed into the term of endearment, “nigga.”)

Powell’s analysis must proceed from the more nuanced usage of the lowercase form of the word, black.

I contacted Powell to make sure he agrees with this assessment about lowercase style in his book. He does and explains:

I both problematize black and I argue for its modern and contemporary usage when needing a shorthand to group peoples of African descent the world over. As you might imagine, when referencing culturally and/or historically specific subsets of many of those people, some of the terms I use are African American, Haitian, Cuban, Jamaican, Nigerian, etc. But, as you've noted, I also use terms like black people, black culture, black art, black bodies, black British, etc. I would hope folks don’t feel diminished by these terms, but I can also appreciate the “sense of pride and solidarity that capping ‘Black’ confers” (quote from my query) for some people.

The John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University also says he is “agnostic” about case style in general (i.e., “no major opinion either way”). He uses lowercase black throughout his more recent book, “Going There,” published in Fall 2020, and says that he defers to his editors in this regard.

The use of lowercase black style by black scholars and creative writers is based on considerations that are different from those of journalists. For some, lowercase style is integral to their expression and copy editing to uppercase their style would disrupt this integrity.

In Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture, published April 12, 2021, Badia Ahad-Legardy discusses how reimagining the black past can be “regenerative nostalgia,” a transgressive, restorative act. Some black writers and scholars have viewed “Jim Crow nostalgia” as part of a black conservative project that is politically regressive and the “memorial province of the black elite.” However Ahad-Legardy shows how Afro-nostalgia in contemporary black American arts, cuisine and popular culture reconciles our history “in ways that promote psychological and emotional well-being.” As an alternative to dominant narratives about the black past that focus on misery, Afro-nostalgia provides emotional “reparations.”

Badia Ahad-Legardy is associate professor of English, vice provost for faculty affairs, Loyola University Chicago.

article image Badia Ahad-Legardy (Loyola University Chicago faculty page photo)

“I prefer the lower-case because it allows for the kinds of movements, flows, complexities, and inconsistencies that constitute black emotional life… . “

Ahad-Legardy uses lower case black style in Afro-Nostalgia and explains why:

As someone interested and invested in exploring the range of black interiority, I prefer the lower-case because it allows for the kinds of movements, flows, complexities, and inconsistencies that constitute black emotional life (feelings, moods, desires, attitudes). Because black affect exists on a rich and shifting plane, the lower-case choice signals a verb rather than a noun. This distinction is essential to the arguments I make about the capaciousness of black interiority.

article image Reuben Jonathan Miller (University of Chicago faculty page photo)

Reuben Jonathan Miller, assistant professor, University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, sees both sides of the capping black issue. Miller’s Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration was published on February 2, 2021. It shows how punitive conditions after prison impedes the former inmates’ rehabilitation and have negative repercussions throughout their lives, their families and their communities.

“...we have to do something, even small things, to challenge the narrative of racial difference… .”

Of the lower case style in his book and his ambivalence, Miller said:

I don’t think racial group names should be capitalized (I think we have to do something, even small things, to challenge the narrative of racial difference) but I don’t strongly disagree with capitalizing them, especially Black, given Black people’s ongoing struggles, as a people to be treated like they (we) are people. In some ways, a capital letter acknowledges this long history.

The roots of race making in the New World go deep into the Old World. They’re revealed by Ayanna Thompson in Blackface published on April 8, 2021. In doing so, she deliberately used lowercase black and white IDs.

Most people associate blackface with 19th and early 20th century minstrelsy and black caricatures in the United States. Thompson expands that view to encompass a 400-year old tradition that began in Europe. The tradition includes displaying black people as curiosities and ornamentation as well as blackface performance. She also discusses “white face” impersonation by black actors including a fascinating account of white-painted, black prisoners performing Shakespearean plays.

Ayanna Thompson is a Regents Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University.

“I choose to use the lowercase “black” to emphasize that the term is a social construct whose meaning has changed and will continue to change in the future.”

In explaining her use of lowercase black style, Thompson said:

While I experience immense pride as well as a sense of solidarity with other blacks, as a premodern critical race scholar, I am sensitive to the fact that anti-black racism has always been opportunistic—different groups and peoples have been coded as black at different times. Systemic racism persists in part because its full and long history is frequently concealed and suppressed. I choose to use the lowercase “black” to emphasize that the term is a social construct whose meaning has changed and will continue to change in the future.

article image Ayanna Thompson (University of Arizona, Tempe faculty page photo)

I asked Thompson about my impression that racialized black and white IDs were not in general English language use until enslavers used these terms to denigrate Africans and Enlightenment-era scientists developed racial categories.

“While it is true that terms like African, Moor, and Ethiope were used,” Thompson explained, “the early modern English also used ‘white’ and ‘black’ in clearly racialized ways. One need only look to Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus (1594), for clear examples. So I would not say that the premodern period was a pre-racialized period.”

Thompson was referring to the characterization of Aaron the Moor in “Titus Andronicus.”

article image “Mr. Ira Aldridge as Aaron.” Detail of frontispiece with page decorations and this legend: “He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point/That touches this my first-born son and heir!" TITUS ANDRONICUS, Act 4, Sc 2. (The London Printing and Publishing Company)

In “The Blackness Within: Early Modern Color-Concept, Physiology and Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare's ‘Titus Andronicus’ ” (Mediterranean Studies, vol. 19, 2010), Margaux Deroux says that Aaron represents a black identity with numerous negative associations including bile, sexual rapacity, the raven, the foreboding aspects of the forest, and death.

Deroux cites numerous objects and manuscripts produced in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries with imagery of black people symbolizing evil and death; an early example is an embroidered band circa 1315 depicting Christ’s tormentors as black.

article image Valerie Sweeney Prince (personal photo)

Valerie Sweeney Prince plays the field. She feels strongly about capitalizing black in some contexts but she leans towards non-capping for generic references. With a doctorate in English, she knows all about case style and her varied usage demonstrates why black ID style should be flexible. Prince is associate professor of African American studies, Wayne State University. She explains:

My ambiguity regarding capitalization is reflected in drafts of my own work. For instance, I have co-authored a manuscript which is a satirical approach to Black history wherein Black is capitalized. While in another manuscript, which is about work traditionally performed by women, I lowercase black because the context does not directly concern the particular history of African Americans. Generally, when the context is broad, I lowercase; when I intend to convey a political message about the specific history and culture of African Americans I capitalize.

Black scholars interviewed on the b/B issue for this project also include members of a writers collective. Their commentary is here.

article image Isabel Wilkerson at Texas Book Festival, Austin. (Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0)

On Aug. 4, 2020, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former New York Times Chicago bureau chief Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, was published using lowercase black (and white) in the wake of the AP’s decisions about capping black and not capping white. The book was in production before the shift but Wilkerson knew that major book publishers allow authors to determine case style for black — Ibrahim Kendi X, author of best-selling books on race, caps both black and white, for example.

Caste is a “textbook case” showing why some black writers deliberately use lowercase black. Neutral, lowercase style for black and white was required throughout Wilkerson’s discussion of correlations of race and caste in perpetuating human hierarchies.

In one account, Wilkerson recalls an exchange between a Nigerian woman and herself in London. The woman told her that there are no black people in Africa. They view themselves in terms of ethnicities and don’t become black until they migrate to Europe or the U.K.

“None of us are ourselves”

In describing how these people and the rest of humanity became raced, Wilkerson writes: “It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown. It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart on the basis of what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another, and ranked to form a caste system based on a new concept called race (the ranking mechanism of dominion and oppression)... . None of us are ourselves.”

Wilkerson demonstrates the arbitrary nature of race-making in a thought experiment that many of us have imagined. In hers, height was the hypothetical dividing line. By dividing humanity on the basis of that physical attribute, and capitalizing their group names, she created the races of Tall and Short.

In African Europeans: An Untold History (U.S. publisher Basic Books, May 4, 2021; British publisher Hurst, 2020), black British historian Olivette Otele builds on the research of historians who have documented the obliteration of African identities in the invention of race. In so doing, she says that naming was integral to the process and cites Cedric J. Robinson’s explanation in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition: “The construct of the Negro, unlike the terms ‘African,’ ‘Moor,” or Eithiope’ suggested no situationess in time, that is history or space, that is ethno- or politico-geography. The Negro had no civilizations, no cultures, no religions, no place, and finally no humanity that might command consideration.”

article image Olivette Otele (University of Bristol faculty photo)

Throughout her account of black Europeans from antiquity to the present day, Otele uses lowercase black as a generic identifier for black people. To have capitalized black would have distorted her analysis. She denotes specific IDs by nationality — Afro-Swedes, Afro-Dutch, Afro-Italian etc.

article image Peter Paul Reubens (1577-1640), Four Studies of a Head of a Moor, oil on canvas, 20 x 25.9” Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium (Wikimedia Commons)

But instead of referring to African descendants in the UK as Afro-British, she refers to them as lowercase black Britons. And she echoes what the Nigerian woman told Isabel Wilkerson in London:

“In Britain one is black, Asian, white, and so on, British,” Otele says. “Ethnicity rather than country of origin is foregrounded. It means that people of African descent are grouped under the racialised term ’black’. … Challenging this terminology and reimagining ways of telling the history of black Britons necessitates an understanding of the history of black presence on the island.”

Despite Otele’s numerous lowercase references to “black Britons,” “black British,” the “black community” and black people in general in Britain, in referring to a USA-born, black British resident, Otele says, one “can feel both African American and Black British.” In this instance, she, or a copy editor, apparently capped black for consistency with African American.

The U.S. publisher of African Europeans capitalizes black in referring to Olivette Otele as “the first Black woman to be appointed to a professorial chair” in U.K. history. However in the U.K. publisher’s edition, the black ID does not appear at all in the bio which reads: “Olivette Otele is Professor of the History of Slavery at the University of Bristol and Vice-President of the Royal Historical Society. She is an expert on the history of people of African descent and the links between memory, geopolitics and legacies of French and British colonialism.”

That black should be capped is predominantly a U.S. rationale; it does not travel well. Most international English-language media do not capitalize black, even those such as the BBC with extensive coverage of black people at home and abroad.

The situation in South Africa shows how vexed the capping issue can be.

Commenting for this report, Enock Sithole, a journalism lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, described how the black majority has wrested control of South African media:

The subject (of black case style) has been debated for years in South African newsrooms, culminating in each newsroom adopting their own style. My position is that the word should be written with lowercase. I believe that grammar, which is what regulates the usage of lower and upper cases, does not make provision for some of the considerations that people tend to give to certain words. The debate in South Africa has been rather fallacious because 'white,' for white people, is written with lowercase with no questions being asked. When it comes to 'black,' it seems people want to compensate for the usual disrespect that is afforded to black people by writing the word with capital B. It doesn’t work for me.

Some black American writers agree with Enock Sithole that capping black to compensate for denigration is a symbolic gesture. While they empathize with black folks who make this gesture, they also believe that capping is literally that: screwing a tight lid on richly complex African and African descended identities.

Forces were in play to make the shift to cap black inexorable in the United States — the dynamics that are the engine of an open society.

And now the shift is a prompt for black Americans to consider the next step in our long naming and renaming journey. “What’s in a Name?” explores that next step.

Creeping authoritarianism

Imagine the dilemma of a journalist writing about an author who is intensely interested in the history and contemporary use of racial IDs and deliberately uses lowercase black style. But the journalist has to follow AP style so she must change this author’s lowercase black style to uppercase in quoting the author in her article.

That’s exactly what happens with feature articles about Emmanuel Acho and reviews of his books.

article image Emanuel Acho (Acho website photo)

With the exception of capping black in the titles of his two “Uncomfortable” books (published Nov. 2020 and May 2021), Emmanuel Acho does not let up on keeping black low. In both books, Acho discusses the etymology of the “black” and “white” racial identifiers. Lowercase black style is used in his books, his website, and in his written responses to reviewers. Even on April 6, 2021 when Acho launched his video of Barack Obama replying to his query about racism, lowercase black appeared in the superimposed text of Obama’s quote.

But in writing about Acho and his best-selling books, journalists who have obviously seen one or both of the books use uppercase black in quoting remarks that he makes during interviews and in quoting or paraphrasing text from his books.

The most egregious aspect of this journalistic practice is to uppercase black in directly quoting the writing of black people who intentionally use lowercase black.

If this heavy-handed, mandatory practice is not questioned, the Fourth Estate could become the authoritarian estate.

Examples of the misleading practice of capitalizing black in a historical context to meet the contemporary standard include this Immanuel Kant quotation from Tyler Stovall’s book, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (February 2021):

Mr. (David) Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of Blacks who are transported from their countries (none have shown praiseworthy qualities).

Stovall cites Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze’s Race and the Enlightenment as the source of the quote but “blacks” is not capped in Eze’s book or in other sources.

Among the book’s other examples of perfunctory capitalizing of black when black was not originally capped is in a quote from Bronte's Wuthering Heights and in this quote from then Senator Joseph Biden’s statement opposing bussing: “What it says is, 'in order for your child with curly Black hair, brown eyes, dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son'.”

More examples of retroactive capping are cited in the Addenda to this article.

Will journalists and scholars resist, and speak out about, the potential of the rigid black case style standard to undermine the integrity of literature and the accuracy of historiography and reporting?

The NMAAHC’s protracted use of lowercase black style

article image National Museum of African American History and Culture (Juliette Harris)

During the summer 2020 massive shift to uppercase black, officials at the leading public, institutional authority on the African American experience did not follow suit. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) intentionally continued to use a style guide recommending lowercase black usage for several months.

The Museum’s protracted consideration of the capping question indicates its weighty aspects.

I learned about the Museum's case style for black in March 2021 when I noticed that the Smithsonian magazine did not capitalize black and queried its editor Debra Rosenberg about this usage. In a March 25, 2021 email, Rosenberg explained that the magazine and its website generally follow the New York Times style (which caps black) but on “this issue, however, we are following guidance from the National Museum of African American History and Culture” (which at that time did not cap black).

In a particularly noteworthy example, lowercase black style was used in the Smithsonian magazine’s centenary observance of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The first of the magazine’s two April 2021 cover stories examines the massacre’s epic background, beginning with the Trail of Tears exodus of black and indigenous people from the South. The second article is a detailed chronicle of the devastating May 31-June 1, 1920 event and its consequences.

In her email, Debra Rosenberg quoted a NMAAHC specialist’s explanation for the Museum’s lowercase black style in its guidelines for language usage and communications. And in a later message, she provided the specialist’s differently worded, but similar, explanation for the Museum’s lowercase black case style, for publication in this essay.

I contacted the NMAAHC's communications office for permission to publish the specialist's explanations but after several exchanges of emails, did not receive permission. So the specialist's explanations are summarized, not directly quoted, here.

The specialist’s explanations for the recommendation of lower case black usage in the NMAAHC style guidelines were based on well-established principles about the social construction of race, a construct that recognizes human differences on the basis of physical traits and not on the basis of cultural distinctions, and reinforces social hierarchies.

The email exchanges continued. On April 5, Rosenberg notified me that the NMAAHC was changing its style and would be uppercasing black. Two days later, she said that the Smithsonian magazine and website would be changing its style to match that of the NMAAHC.

Queried about the NMAAHC’s rationale for shifting to uppercase black, a Museum media contact said that she would get back to me with details but never did. Uppercase black style is now used in the Museum’s public communications.

NMAAHC officials may have wanted to confine their thinking on the b/Black style question to internal discussions because of the sensitive nature of the issue. The issue is sensitive because it’s not well understood by the general public.

Here’s the full scoop
article image Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah’s British-Ghanaian (and more generally, West African) heritage is evident in the furnishings of the room. (David Shankbone - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

As the momentum for uppercasing black was mounting in June 2020, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah put his ideas about capping racial IDs into broad historical and semantic contexts in “The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black” article in The Atlantic.

Appiah justified capping black when it refers to an identity people give themselves and not to physical traits associated with race: “Giving black a big B could signal that it’s not a generic term for some feature of humanity but a name for a particular human-made entity.”

However, from another perspective, lowercase black has the useful generic function of generally designating African and African-descended peoples of innumerable, specific ethnicities and nationalities.

Black people themselves have repeatedly pointed out that “black people are not a monolith.” So the world’s black peoples (plural) should not be identified by the single, reductive, formal name of (capped) Black.

Appiah concluded his case for capping with a caution: that “language is a set of conventions, to be determined by the consensus of language users… . There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of whether to capitalize black and white in advance of such a consensus."

A review of public commentary by average black adults who are interested in discussing social and political issues reveals no consensus that black should be capped. For example lowercase black usage is prevalent among commentators on Youtube black public affairs channels such as The Breakfast Club, For Harriet, Roland Martin Unfiltered, Dr. Shonna Etienne, Chrissie (colorism specialist), and the Pink Pill. Of course this quick, cursory review is not conclusive. The point is that the b/Black question is unsettled.

During summer 2020, when the AP set off the sweeping shift, black people were not demanding respect through the symbolic gesture of capping black. And in the past they hadn’t protested in front of news organizations, on talk shows and in social media, and threatened to cancel subscriptions and boycott advertisers if black was not capped.

The rationale for capping black because we don’t know our African ancestors begs the question, Why don’t we find out?

Just because the proposition for capping black is subjective, does not mean that black should not be capped by black people who identify that way. It just means that for both black people who cap and for black people who don't, with a twist and shout out to the Isley Brothers, “It’s your thing.”

There are exceptions, however, to “your thing” laissez faire. Like non-black writers, black writers who identify as capped Black, should not capitalize black when they are quoting from texts in which black is not capped or referring to people who do not identify as capped black.

Journalists, other professional writers, scholars and the public at large should develop a common understanding about what constitutes proper style for the color-based identifiers, white, brown and black, in formal, published writing.

The identification of one's own self is profoundly personal and group identity is a public issue.

In being generic, lowercase black allows for nuance and subtlety

Formal uppercase black is more heavy-handed.

Generic IDs are more open and pliable, allowing a broader range of meaning and applicability than formal IDs. The generic function of lowercase black denotes a broad swath of humanity without being overbearing.

Generic lowercase black is better than formal uppercase black in representing people ranging from almost white to full sub-Saharan African.

Capping black to denote national group identity

In “national group” identity logic, black and white should be proper nouns because the generic terms “black” and “white” combine with American nationality to make full IDs which refer to national groups — not races or ethnicities.

But in that case, another group would be people who identify as people of color, not as black or white or as a single ethnicity — people like Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Samira Nasr.

Washington Post critic Robin Givhan says that Samira Nasr carefully chose to identify in the middle, as a person of color, because she didn’t want to “offend someone by shunning a description or offend someone else by claiming a particular biography that wasn’t hers.”

article image Samira Nasr, editor-in-chief, Harper’s Bazaar. (Hearst Media publicity photo)

So according to national group identity logic, these formal group names should be capitalized because they represent people who are not identified by an ethnicity and the color-based aspect of the ID is not considered to be a “race”:

Black American
White American
People of Color American

National group identity logic does not directly stem from considering these IDs to be based on race but they do directly stem from racialization.

Racism: we all know what that means.

Racialization: we can racialize without being racists. Most people (black, brown, white and in-between) are conditioned to do it with the end result being, for black Americans, less education, lower incomes and more unstable home environments for children which in turn lead to racialized mass incarceration and other self-perpetuating dysfunctions.

Lower case black distinguishes African and African descended peoples (plural) from the rest of humanity while its neutral nature indicates that these peoples have their own formally-named ethnicities and national group names.

The sweeping shift to uppercase black in U.S. journalism was triggered as the AP Stylebook team watched a rising tide of protests in the street, and reconsidered recommendations and petitions of black journalists that had been ongoing for some time.

article image

The AP’s June 19, 2020 announcement states:

AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.

The “who identify” wording in the AP statement is questionable because most of the world’s African and African descended people do not identify as black. They identify by ethnicity (Akan, Dinka, Masai, Woluf etc.) or nationality (Solomon Islanders) or place of origin (the Bahians of Brazil).

Taking a broad, objective view of the b/Black capping question, it can seem audacious for the AP to decide that all the black peoples of the world should be formally designated by capped black. Why should Americans presume to make that determination for these richly diversified and self-determining peoples?

article image Dinka child and girl or young woman of Darfur. Colonial British policy emphasized development in northern Sudan and neglected the south. After the south gained independence, the northern Republic of Sudan continued to suppress Darfur because of religious and ethnic differences. Capitalizing black does not address such divisions because it reifies race. (Needpix.com)

Also, the AP explanation that “lower case black is a color, not a person” is arbitrarily limited. In addition to being a color on the Pantone chart, lowercase black is a generic term referring to African and African descended people who, because they specifically and primarily identify by ethnicity or national origin, should not be identified as uppercased black.

article image School children on Solomon Islands (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

It is less hardline and coercive to use lowercase black to identify wide-ranging, ethnically divergent, Africans and African descendents like, to name just three, tennis player Naomi Osaka, Archie Harrison (son of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry), and the Nigeria drummers shown below.

article image 2020 holiday greeting card distributed by the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) based on photograph taken by the Duchess’s mother and originally posted on social media by one of the recipients.

Lowercase black is the “one fits all” black ID that also signifies the extraordinary multiplicity of these people.

The New York Times shift announcement states:

(We) decided to adopt the (AP) change and start using uppercase ‘Black’ to describe people and cultures of African origin, both in the United States and elsewhere. We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.

The “respect” intent is much appreciated but the shared ‘history and identity’ rationale for capping black is no more reasonable than saying:

“We will start using uppercase ‘White’ to describe people and cultures of European, Middle Eastern and North African origin, both in the United States and elsewhere. We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity… .”

The U.S. census form defines white as a “person having origins in any of the original peoples (italics mine) of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”


Archeological evidence shows that the original peoples of North Africa were from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. And many North Africans today are black and peoples of color.

There are innumerable ethnic identities in Africa, the second largest continent, and in the African diaspora that reaches into all parts of the world including the islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle Eastern Gulf region as well as Europe and most of the Americas.

article image Drummers celebrating the arrival of running water to their village, Ijomu Oro, Kwara State, Nigeria, April 2004. (Melvin “Buddy” Baker, Wikimedia Commons)

How much sense of history, identity and community are shared by black Saudi Arabians, the Magreb of Morocco, the Melanesian (meaning “black”) people of the South Pacific who migrated on their own (i.e., not enslaved) out of Africa, African descendants of Dominica (who mingled with the Kalinago indigenous people and the French and Britain settlers), black Nova Scotians, and the Bahians of Brazil?

article image

The ‘shared history and culture’ rationale for capping black and, conversely, not capping white, is dubious because white majority cultures mostly occupy the global north while bi-racial with black components cultures and black cultures span many parts of the world.

article image Bilal ibn Riba (pictured atop the Kaaba in Mecca, ca. 630), a formerly enslaved Ethiopian, was the first muezzin, the person who leads and recites the call to prayer. The men’s light, medium and dark skin tones indicate how African and Middle Eastern bloodlines have been mixing for centuries. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The ‘shared history and culture’ rationale for capping also over reaches because black people of the African diaspora are like chameleons, assuming some of the cultural traits of the majority culture—the black hockey players of Nova Scotia, for example—while developing distinctive customs within their own communities of color.

article image Lamaholot people, Flores island, Indonesia. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, C.C. F. M., Wikimedia Commons)

People officially (and reductively) labeled “Black” by uppercasing are arguably the most diverse people on the planet.

Of course black people around the world do share some strong and cherished cultural patterns—as do white people.

Black authors can dance just as well as they write. Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou demonstrated the broad black proclivity to get down on Houston Conwill’s “I’ve Known Rivers” cosmogram at the Schomburg Center here, and James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry felt like bustin’ loose here.

Lowercase black stretches from representing one people under a groove to encompass the infinite variability of African descended peoples.

article image Magreb women (Source unknown via Wikimedia Commons)

So from a non-capping perspective, uppercase black looks needlessly propped up like a special needs case while lowercase white retains the power of being sufficient just as it is.

Bottom line: case style logic be damned.

In a democracy, large groups of people have the right to determine how to identify themselves regardless of logic and public institutions should accept their decisions.

Some black journalists have made a strong case for capping black. Lori Tharps has been an eloquent champion. Ditto: Sharon Glover and Alexandria Neason who are cited in this article.

So who is right? Black writers who cap or those who do not? Some of our views and motives overlap. We’re all motivated to use language for the advancement of colored people. And we all love how that cursed word, black, has become a blessed word.

article image Halifax Eurekas of the Coloured Hockey League, Nova Scotia, 1906 (Source unknown via Wikimedia Commons)

Our views should not be pitted against each other to be evaluated. The views are valid from their respective perspectives.

Divergent perspectives keep society open and evolving: thesis, alternate thesis, synthesis.

Behind the scenes at the Washington Post

The complexity of the b/Black issue implies why The Washington Post took 40 days to respond to the Associated Press decision with its own decision.

“there were a lot of black people who said, ‘look, I don't feel comfortable with B, with a capital B… .”

At the Post, “there were a lot of black people who said, ‘look, I don't feel comfortable with B, with a capital B,’ for really interesting reasons,” said Martine Powers in a transcript of a Washington Post webcast about the staff deliberations.

A staff member reflecting on the deliberations said: “I can’t kind of shake this feeling that we’re going in the wrong direction. I mean, I feel like we should be adding more definition to people, not less.”

During his participation in the webcast (as noted in a previous section of this article), the Post’s chief copy editor Jesse Lewis said he identifies as uppercase black because he has no knowledge of his African antecedents. But he concluded that the debate about racial IDs will continue. Despite the challenges of the Post’s process, it was more transparent than those of other news organizations.

Jesse Lewis’ conclusion was supported by noted author and journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates' use of lowercase black in his commentary for a special section of Vanity Fair’s September 2020 issue that he guest edited. By this time, Vanity Fair had adopted uppercase black style and that style was used in other parts of that issue.

In his August 24, 2020 intro to A Great Fire, Ta-Nehesi Coates refers to black people in this way:

The thoughts of trains carrying black people north are conjured up. The doom of a black boy is told to the rhythm of a jump rope… I have not yet watched George Floyd’s murder in its entirety, but I have seen enough of the genre to know the belief in black people as disaster, as calamity, as a Great Fire upon the city (alludes to Chicago’s 1919 Red Summer), has not yet waned.

Coates’ lowercase style does not diminish his respect for his people or the power of his words. The style continues in the single reference to black in his piece on Breonna Taylor and her mother.

“Writers can say, ‘this is how I want it to read’ ”

Harper’s magazine is a good example of how writers' preference can function. Harper’s retains lower case black style but its “style is not 100% consistent,” editor Christopher Beha said during a phone call in July 2020. “Writers can say, ‘this is how I want it to read’.”

article image Article from September 2020 issue of Harper's magazine. Illustration by Diana Ejaita

Beha did not feel impelled to rush to make a style change as part of the journalism profession’s response to a racially charged moment. “There is time for deliberations,” he said:

When the AP made the decision about uppercase for black, it left open the question about uppercase for white. To do so would treat white as an ethnicity. We would not make a style change for black without knowing how it affects what we’re doing with white. We’d like to have that figured out first. (After the AP nixed capping white, Harper’s retained its lowercase black style.)

Beha also noted that there are good arguments on both sides of the b/Black style issue. He said this “argues for maintaining the status quo” and added: “I don’t think lowercase is offensive. Neither do our readers.”

Since June 2020, Harper’s has published long feature articles on how collective farming gives power to poor black people in the south, the startling challenges that black women experience during pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S., life inside a cop-free zone in Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and other items and fiction referring to black peolpe — all in lowercase style.

Unlike news media and magazines that follow AP style, a primary guide for academic and other forms of publications and books is the Chicago Manual of Style. Prior to June 2020, Chicago recommended lowercase for black and white but provided latitude for writers to use preferred case style.

On June 22, following the AP shift, Chicago announced that it had reversed that recommendation. It now prefers uppercase black, and allows for white to be capped “for editorial consistency,” but recognizes that “individual preferences will vary.” So Chicago still supports writer’s preference for black case style but in a very watered-down way.

After Chicago’s pronounced lean towards capping, I queried Simon & Schuster about its policy regarding writers using their preferred case styles for the black and white IDs.

On July 13, 2020, Adam Rothberg, Simon & Schuster’s senior vice president of corporate communications, replied:

“We checked with our copyediting department, and our policy is right in line with your proposal. While we have general guidelines, if the author has a desired style, that takes precedence.”

article image Screenshot taken August 1, 2021 of the Transition magazine homepage. With eclectic content (scholarly articles, feature articles, short fiction and poetry), the magazine has a flexible black case style policy. In issue 130, 2021, the use of lowercase black style is prevalent but one contributor uses uppercase black style. Henry Louis Gates Jr. assumed management of the magazine in 1991. It is now published by the Hutchins Center at Harvard University and distributed through the Indiana University Press.

Easing the standard

Standards editors at outlets that follow AP style could consider amending the decision on black case style to recommend more latitude for reasons that include the following:

(1) Identity is deeply personal and black ID case style can assail a writer’s essential sense of self as well as affirm it.
(2) There is no consensus that black should be capped among black scholars.
(3) There is no consensus among black people at large that black should be capped. Even though they may appreciate the formal use of uppercase black in journalism, many black people continue to use lowercase black in their informal communications and would understand a flexible case style policy in journalism, if explained to them as I’m doing here. Flexible black case style benefits all black people. Rigid standardization of uppercase black does not.
(4) There is no consensus among journalists in the world at large that black should be capped. Most international, English-language publications use lowercase black style.
(5) With major book publishers having a writers’ preference policy for case style, if journalism maintains a hardline standard, increasing black case style discrepancies in this country’s public discourse will be confusing to students and others who pay close attention to the written word.

A flexible, news organization policy for black case style usage could be:

When contributing writers have good reason for using lowercase black, that style should be retained in their published copy.

When black staff writers of feature articles have good reason for using lowercase black, that style should be retained in their published copy.

When interviewing black persons who figure prominently in a story and who are being identified by race or ethnicity, journalists should inquire about their preferred ID.
The Washington Post internal style allows for such inquiry but does not include case style (e.g., lowercase black) among the acceptable ID options.

When quoting from the works of writers who use lower case black, that case style should be retained.

With black uppercase style firmly established in U.S. journalism, writers using their preferred black case style would not be disruptive.

A precedent already exists for variant case style for racial IDs in journalism. The Washington Post, Fox News and CBS are among the media outlets that cap white as well as black; other major news organizations just cap black. The Chicago Sun-Times caps brown while most keep brown lowercase.

It would be a big f@&#ing mess!

For journalists, the even-handed policy of writers' preference may sound alarming: “That’s all well and good for book publishers but journalism is different! We require consistency and objectivity. Different case styles will look like sloppy copy editing! It would be a big f@&#ing mess! What about black readers who see lower case black and think we’re reneging!” The quote’s hypothetical but gets to the point: news editors understand that case style can vary in book publishing but they believe that usage should be uniform within individual news organizations.

But uniformity should not be the enemy of “journalistic justice,” to coin a phrase evoked by the shift. News organizations should not impose capped black on all black people without the people so labelled having some means of recourse. The way out of this bind is to acknowledge it and discuss it with readers.

Although it’s a book publisher, Columbia University Press’s acknowledgement of case style discrepancy within a single title could be instructive to journalists. In explaining how, Marielle T. Poss, director of editing, design, and production at CUP, began by referring to a remark I made in reaching out to her. “As you have pointed out, the (b/Black) question is a complex one that many authors have strong feelings about one way or the other, and there are valid arguments on both sides,” she said. “In fact, in edited collections, we often allow for inconsistency among chapters for this very reason.”

Poss cited The Dream Revisited: Contemporary Debates About Housing, Segregation, and Opportunity (2019), edited by Ingrid Gould Ellen and Justin Peter Steil, as an example.

In the introduction, the editors direct the readers’ attention to the inconsistency of black and white case style among the contributors and explain the background of thought on black and white case style at length. They note that in being a social construction, race becomes a “construction of language as well. ” They compare the ardent capping advocacy of Lori Tharp (cited above in this article) with W.E.B. DuBois’s campaign to get negro uppercased. And they discuss various opinions about whether both black and white should be capped or just black with white left low. The introduction can be accessed here. Just click on “excerpt” in the central menu. (See Addenda for further detail about CUP’s case style policy.)

News organizations could make similar explanations to readers to explain why latitude should be afforded to, say, non-staff contributors of opinion pieces, to use their preferred case style for black. They also could explain to readers why a writers’ preference policy extends to staff writers beyond the news desk.

Because racialized identity is a public issue underscored by strong personal sensibilities about the projection of those identities, news organizations should regard discussions about black, brown and white case style usage as newsworthy and of great interest to their readers.

Then, now, next

We were taught to make divisions between dark and light, subject and object, here and there, time and space.

Now the limitations of binary thinking are becoming common knowledge — the understanding that opposites are also complementary and every single thing is interdependent within the larger whole.

Objectivity stems from being able to hold multiple, varying views at once. A balanced view of the b/Black issue includes this core conviction on the lowercase side:

Keeping black and white low is a way of being in a racialized world but not of it. A way of affirming human difference and seeing beyond it.

A way we can call “anding” in perceiving human beings as different and equal. Many and one.


Some of the shift’s discrepancies and deviations

This listing is far from being comprehensive and complete. I came across most of the examples during routine perusal of the news.

In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris used lowercase black in the book as did many outstanding black authors. But she probably knew that major book publishers provide latitude for black case usage. Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West are among the well-known black authors who have long used uppercase black style in their books.

article image

Harris’ lowercase style was was particularly salient when she wrote: "My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women."

The quote makes a big statement about personal identity and any alteration of the quote interferes with its meaning. However in quoting this remark from the book, black was capped in this NYT opinion piece without a parenthetical note such as (“uppercasing added”): My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women.

The W.E.B. Du Bois quote in the article also was retroactively capped. Kamala Harris is a savvy politician whose means for obtaining successful outcomes would differ in some ways from those of a scholar. So it’s possible that if she were writing today, she would shift to uppercase black style, particularly if she felt that the style was more politically correct.

“… retroactive capping under any circumstance is misleading and doctrinaire.”

Nevertheless, retroactive capping under any circumstance is misleading and doctrinaire. If this heavy-handed, mandatory practice is not questioned, the Fourth Estate could become the authoritarian estate.

In Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy (published May 2021), Emmanuel Acho closely focuses on racial terminology and intentionally uses lowercase black style in the book. Within two weeks of publication, the book shot to the top of the New York Times non-fiction best seller list.

In “The Birth of Whiteness” chapter, Acho explains the creation of black and white IDs by white landowners as part of a divide and conquer strategy. (The designations were intended to subvert rebellion among allied enslaved Africans and white indentures.) In a chapter subtitled, “Black or African American?,” Acho continues a discussion from his Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man book (published Nov. 2020) and explains his preference of the term lowercase "black" over "African American." (He was born in this country of Nigerian parents.)

Writing about Acho on May 6, 2021, a CBS reporter undoubtedly was aware of Acho’s lowercase style preference for black but capped the ID in quoting from her interview with him and in quoting from the book.

Capping Acho’s remarks distorts his intent to keep black low. He does not capitalize black and white because he is keenly aware of their racist origins. In the examples below, I’ve highlighted the IDs so the reader can clearly discern the case style discrepancies: Acho actually wrote that he was told: “You’re like an Oreo: black on the outside, white on the inside."

Here’s how the reporter quoted Acho from her interview with him: As a 12-year-old, Acho says he was called an "Oreo" by other kids — "Black on the outside, White on the inside." Acho actually wrote that he was told: “You don’t even talk like you’re black,” or “You don’t sound black,” or “You don’t even dress like you’re black.”

The reporter quoted his recollections in the interview this way: "I thought I was Black. … But all my White counterparts, the majority of them, were telling me I'm Black, but I'm not Black Black. (The quote continued in the same vein with more uppercased black usage.)

Here’s another example of case style disconnect. The case style of journalists and copy editors should be consistent with that of authors who intentionally use the lowercase black and white IDs in their writing and with reference to themselves.

A reviewer did just that in this article — retained Acho’s lowercase black style in quoting him but used uppercase black style when speaking for herself. Likewise when quoting directly from a book, journalists should retain the case style used in the book.

Other forms of case style discrepancy include:
International media not capitalizing black. The BBC does not cap black although it routinely covers black Americans in the news such as this piece on Andrew Brown, the North Carolina man killed by law enforcement officers, and this piece on Stacy Abrams by an Atlanta correspondent. The Daily Mail uses lowercase black style; here’s an example. GQ caps black; British GQ does not. The Economist does not cap black although it has U.S. bureaus. (Note: this cursory survey was done between late fall 2020 and spring 2021 and has not been updated.)
Deviation from the standard that black not be capped when referring to skin color: “We … were every shade of brown and Black” in this NYT piece.

Deviation from the standard that black not be used as a noun because it reduces people to things or qualities. Just as journalists don't call people "yellows," "reds" and "browns," we should not call people "blacks/Blacks" and "whites/Whites," as was done in this NYT artipcle: “....she learned that 11 Anglolans were the first Blacks brought to New Amsterdam in this ).

Variant case usage in the same article: uppercase black used in Kerry James Marshall caption and lowercase black referring to Marshall in the body of this article).

Baffling discrepancies (the Washington Post, in shifting to uppercase black and uppercase white, stipulates use of lowercase black, white and brown as race descriptions in crime stories “where cultural and historical identity aren’t key to a suspect’s actions” and allows Jacob Blake, the man shot while being arrested in Kenosha WI, to be identified as lowercase black in this article and uppercase black in other coverage.

Odd lapses from the uppercasing standard: “historically black colleges” in this NYT piece)

Uppercase black spawns dicey uppercase white usage (e.g., the Post’s internal style stipulates lowercasing of white when referring to white supremacists yet this Post piece describes the white men involved in the shooting of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia as uppercase White and referred to the mob storming the Capitol on January 6, 2020 as displaying uppercase “White anger and violence.”)

In “This Is the Fire,” published March 16, 2021, CNN anchor Don Lemon not only capitalizes white (as well as black), he does so within the context of white supremacy (which the Washington Post, that otherwise caps white, does not): “When I say we live in a system of White supremacy,” Lemon writes, “I’m not just talking about cartoon White supremacy — hooded villains marching with ropes and torches — I’m talking about an entrenched socioeconomic system… .”

The “blackness” disconnect: Even among journalists, scholars and other professionals who use uppercase black style, there are disparities in the usage — for example, case style for the term “blackness.”

Art historian Adrienne Childs will be making the uppercase shift in her forthcoming book from Yale University Press, Ornamental Blackness. But she says she doesn’t think that she, her personal editor and her Yale editor will be capitalizing blackness in the book, unless it is in the title, because “blackness is not a proper noun.”

However in this March 11, 2021 New York Times article, blackness is uppercased throughout the piece, not just in the exhibition title which included the word blackness. This uppercase style for “blackness” apparently reflects the usage of the Black Reconstruction Collective as well as the New York Times which shifted to uppercase black style in June 2020. “Blackness” also is capped in this New York Times piece remembering country singer Charley Pride.

So should blackness be capped or kept low? Cappers treat it like a proper noun because it refers to a word that they've made a proper noun. Non cappers agree with Adrienne Childs that blackness is not a proper noun but, according to their reasoning, neither is black.


In general, Marielle T. Poss of the Columbia University Press said the policy of the press is “to always defer to the author’s preference with regard to the usage of capitalization for ‘Black/black’ as a racial identifier” and that policy would apply to the series announced below.

On March 3, 2021, Howard University announced a book series, “Black Lives in the Diaspora: Past / Present / Future,” to be published by Columbia University Press in partnership with Columbia University’s African-American and African Diaspora Studies department.

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