Journalist petitions The New York Times and AP Stylebook
By Lori Tharps
This is a call to action to capitalize the “B” in Black when referring to Black people in printed material. Specifically, I’m calling on magazine and newspaper editors, as well as book publishers, to always use the uppercase for Black Americans. Currently, the vast majority of media outlets and book publishers refer to Black people in the lowercase.
This could be viewed as a simple style issue, one that only writers and editors would take seriously, but I’m not looking to start a revolution over grammar. This is about identity and respect. With a mere slash of a copyeditor’s pen, Black culture is reduced to a color. It seems silly to have to spell it out, that black with a lower case “b” is a color, whereas Black with a capital “B” refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces. When a copyeditor deletes the capital “B,” they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of a people.
As a journalist and author myself, I cannot understand how any editor, who understands the significance of an errant comma or a “there” instead of a “their,” can sanction the use of a lower case “b” to signify a culture of people. Latinos get a capital “L,” Asians get their “A,” Native Americans get both the “N” and the “A” in capital letters (even though grammatically speaking, native should not be capitalized), but Black people don’t deserve the uppercase? Even visually, seeing that lower case “b” in a sentence where blacks stand beside Latinos and Asians, reeks of second-class citizenry and disrespect on the page.
Some like to argue that if we capitalize the “b” in Black than we have to do the same for the “w” in White, when referring to White Americans. I have no problem with that. White Americans deserve their capital letter too, but I’m not here to fight their battles.
Another problem we’re dealing with is that there isn’t a consensus around this issue. Some publications, mostly academic ones, capitalize Black when speaking of Black people. But most news organizations, including The New York Times as well as any publication that relies on the AP Stylebook (which is most mainstream media outlets), use the lower case for any “racial designations derived from color.” But the dictionary – both Webster’s and Oxford – states quite clearly that when referring to Black people, uppercase is acceptable and correct.
So, if capital “B” is acceptable, what’s keeping news organizations like The New York Times and The Associated Press from taking a stand for equality on the page? If both are correct, then why not offer a capital “B” as a token of respect if nothing else? Is it inertia or racism? Not for nothing, the editors of the AP Stylebook just recently updated not one but five !!!! of their rules, so we know that change is possible.
Ironically, W.E.B. Du Bois fought this very same fight almost 100 years ago. Only back then, he and other activists were demanding to have the “n” in Negro capitalized. Du Bois targeted local and national newspapers and like me, viewed the lower case letter as a form of disrespect and overt racism. And he wasn’t wrong. Reportedly, one editor of a Georgia newspaper said he’d never capitalize the “n” because it might, “lead to social equality.” Finally, on March 7, 1930, The New York Times agreed to change their policy and wrote in a stirring editorial, “In our ‘style book’ ‘Negro’ is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in ‘the lower case.”
If The New York Times had the courage and the insight to make that change in 1930, then I challenge them – and the Associated Press – to do the right thing today. Change your stylebooks and capitalize the “B” in Black. Always.