On Juneteenth, the Associate Press announced that it was updating its style guide to capitalize the B in Black. The decision came after a week in which USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC News all made the switch.
“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,” wrote John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, in a blog post. “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”
Much has shifted since Americans started flooding the streets to protest police violence and racism after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. A number of the changes have been novel and groundbreaking. The Minneapolis City Council has pledged to disband its police department, a number of city school systems are breaking their contracts with their local departments, and police abolition has become a mainstream conversation.
The AP announcement wasn’t as dramatic as tearing down a Confederate monument, but it was an influential turning point in an ongoing orthographic transformation. The Seattle Times and the Boston Globe changed their stylebooks last year. Time, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, HuffPost, and many others have made the switch as well. The AP, though, sets the standard for a broad cross section of the mainstream journalism industry—including Slate, whose style guide mostly defaults to the AP. (Before the update, individual writers who chose to use the capital B on Slate were allowed to do so; now writers with a strong personal preference against capitalization may opt to use lowercase.)
With this round of changes, mainstream news organizations are finally aligning themselves with generations of Black publications, such as Essence and Ebony, and with scholars and writers outside of journalism. The ones I talked to about the movement toward the capital B all looped around to the notion of respect. An uppercase letter signals importance in the mind of a reader. Former Ebony editor Lynn Norment started working at the magazine in the late 1970s, and the publication was already capitalizing Black then.
“It always felt right. It was right,” said Norment. “It was never a question.”
Norment said she’s glad to see other organizations making the shift to what has become a natural part of her writing. “It’s very hard not to capitalize Black. I write for a newspaper now and all my drafts have B uppercased and I have to make changes, but I’m hoping that will change,” she said in an interview conducted before the AP’s announcement.
The old AP style was confounding to me when I started writing for my college newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. I’d always capitalized Black in my personal and academic writings, because it made sense to do so. As a Black woman, I viewed Blackness as a cohesive culture, and the lowercase B looked wrong sitting beside other capitalized racial and ethnic identifiers. It had never occurred to me that an institution as influential as the AP would choose to identify an entire group of people with the lowercase word.
Black people, historically, have not had much say over how we identify ourselves, in the U.S. census or in the news media. Black American identity is a gritty, resilient amalgamation of different indigenous Black cultures, kidnapped and brought to a stolen land. “But we learned, and we built community together after being brought to a new land, not knowing anything and not having any resources and being brutalized and being harmed,” said George M. Johnson, a bestselling author who wrote in favor of capitalization last year. “And we still figured it out.
“Saying we’re Black Americans doesn’t negate the fact of where we came from,” Johnson continued. “It just acknowledges the fact of where we started. Our starting point is here.”
The underlying question goes back before the current discussion around Black to the push to capitalize another moniker. During a time when all other racial and ethnic identifiers were written in uppercase, there was a conscious push for newspapers to capitalize negro. An 1878 editorial in the Conservator, a Black publication based in Chicago and founded by Ferdinand Lee Barnett, claimed that the primary reason for the lowercase N was to further stigmatize and sow contempt toward Black folks.
“These words were their tools of the trade as well,” said Lori Tharps, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University, of publishers’ determination to keep using the lowercase spelling. “And they wanted to keep Black people in an inferior status. They wanted to make sure Black people understood they were not equal and did not merit an uppercase letter. So something that just felt personally wrong to me, visually wrong to me, actually has deep roots in a system of inequality and injustice.”
In the late 1890s, W.E.B DuBois announced that “eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” By the mid-1920s, DuBois was at the helm of a letter-writing campaign demanding that book publishers and newspapers make the shift to capitalization. Negro started to become less favorable in the mid-1960s when Kwame Ture coined the term Black power. In his speeches and writings, Ture argued that negro was another way to call Black people inferior. Black activists categorized “negros” as members of the establishment who were perceived as aiming only to placate white folks. And, by the end of the decade, Black publications phased out Negro.
Language wields that much power. It shapes how we perceive one another and ourselves. It influences how we validate, or invalidate, identity, as Tharps explained. “If we use words that are inherently unjust or are inherently prejudicial in some way, then that language essentially [informs] the society and the culture,” she said. “And if we don’t question the language and what its influences are, then we’re missing a great opportunity.”
Perhaps the most common pushback organizations receive when they opt to put Black in uppercase is the question of why they refrain from capitalizing white as well. The AP said there’s an ongoing discussion as to whether it will eventually do so. But the relationship between Black identity and white identity, shaped by centuries of systemic racist oppression, is not symmetrical; despite recurring complaints, Black History Month doesn’t have a white counterpart.
The comparison between the capitalization of Black and white is “a symptom and analogy for our country’s long-standing power imbalance, that what could be advocated for Black people can only be measured against that which white people have or might have,” said David Lanham, the director of communications at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. “That, for some reason, it’s a zero-sum game, which it’s not.”
For the organizations that do choose to capitalize white, it’s a much different, more controversial decision.
As the Center for the Study of Social Policy was moving to capitalize Black earlier this year, it thought back frequently to phrases like “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud” and “Black power,” where the emphasis has always been on the virtue of Blackness, said Maya Pendleton, a policy analyst who focuses on social policy, race, and gender. When capitalizing white entered the discussion, there was more debate. Language had been central to the fight for racial equality in the U.S., while white is capitalized most prominently in supremacist literature. But, Pendleon noted, anti-racist scholars also capitalize it.
“Capitalizing white asks people to contend with what white, as a race, means, [and] how it functions in this country. It asks people to contend with the violence, to contend with the upholding of white supremacy,” said Pendleton. “Whiteness is often an unnamed thing, especially in our business. We come up against this hesitancy to name whiteness and the presence of whiteness in systems. And until we do that, we can’t really begin to talk about dismantling white supremacy because we haven’t even named it.” Ultimately, the center decided to capitalize White.
However the words are written, it’s imperative that these changes not become substitutes for broader systemic change. Black journalists, if they’re not absent from newsrooms, are paid less and disciplined more frequently for speaking out about their struggles than their white peers are. We often unwillingly carry the duty of explaining racism to our colleagues, and many institutions don’t do enough to support us or the Black communities a number of us opt to cover. If the language used to describe Black people is going to change, it must carry weight. Newsrooms can’t continue to uphold racist policies and practices.
“If we’re going to capitalize Black, if we’re going to come out and be bold, we have to reckon with what that actually means. And it can’t just be a symbolic sort of gesture,” said Pendleton. “I’m excited but, again, I’m cautiously optimistic because … I don’t want it to be empty. I want there to be weight behind those shifts.”