Recently, I read an article describing a book and its author who “grew up in Kenya and has family connections to Indians, Blacks and whites.”
Note the capitalization of “Indians” and “Blacks,” but not “whites.” The article’s writer may have felt he had no choice. Had he uppercased the “w” in whites, the editor probably would have lowercased it. The editor probably would also have felt constrained.
On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis Police officer killed George Floyd, moving the media and others to examine their practices regarding race. Hardly a month later, the Associated Press changed its “Stylebook” language rules, which much of America’s news media follow without question. Normally, AP’s rules rule.
AP’s first change dictated uppercasing the “b” in black when referring to people of African descent. Another month later, AP’s second change required the lowercase “w” in “white” when referring to people with European ancestry. In justifying its new rules, AP wrote, “Black conveys recognition of peoples that share a sense of history, identity and community.”
Presumably, AP’s changes were made in good faith by well-intended people. However, adhering to AP’s rule changes now requires unequal treatment between two races, fostering a divisiveness the U.S. can ill afford.
Blacks may feel denigrated by the artifice of ostensibly elevating them with a capital “b” while “whites” remains lowercase. It’s paternalistic. Strong, proud individuals of color don’t need to be propped up with diaphanous tricks. They see through that speciousness. And it’s offensive.
Whites may feel disparaged through a thinly veiled “woke” effort to saddle them with virtually every cultural inequity. John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards, said, "white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices."
The Happy Grammarian on inconsistency: “Normally most media follow the AP. This time, some do, some don’t, and some originally did but later adopted their own style, leaving everybody confused.”
The New York Times has its own stylebook but quickly changed it to mirror AP’s. “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,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor.
The road to these divisive writing rules reaches at least to the mid-1920s. That’s when William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or simply W.E.B. Du Bois, campaigned for uppercasing the word “negro.” A prolific writer, Harvard-educated through his doctorate and an NAACP founder, Du Bois became hugely influential.
Initially, the media rejected Du Bois’ efforts. But he persisted, noting that it was blatantly disrespectful to address his race — “twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings” — with a lowercase letter. In 1930, The Times agreed, explaining its stylebook change as “not merely a typographical change, but an act in recognition of racial self-respect.”
All good. One can but wonder, though, whether the same logic doesn’t apply to “whites” today. Not according to The New York Times: "white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way ‘Black’ does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups."
Not all media agrees with AP, NY Times, and other media. CBS News, CNN, Fox News and The San Diego Union-Tribune, for example, also uppercase “white,” noting it is consistent with Black, Asian, Latino and other ethnic groups. Fox News, citing the National Association of Black Journalists’ advice, capitalizes “white” and “black” when writing about race.
In turn, the NABJ capitalizes references to all races and ethnicities, as recommended by the American Psychological Association. The Center for Study of Social Policy says, “To not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard."
Lisa McLendon, former vice president of The Society for Editing, an international association for copy editors, favors capitalizing “black” and “white,” saying, “it makes sense to me to keep it consistent.” Even “The Chicago Manual of Style,” the “bible” for scholarly publications, recommends capitalizing both, unless the author has a valid alternative punctuation preference.
Actually, capitalizing “black” but not “white” doesn’t stand up under anyone’s close scrutiny. Capitalizing “black” is principally justified, as The Seattle Times explains, as a way to identify “people who are part of the African diaspora” whereas, “white” should not be capitalized “because it is used to describe people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures.”
Trouble with that, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University notes, is that “Africa is every bit as culturally varied as Europe.” Moreover, many, if not most, African descendants got here after being sold into slavery by members of their own race.
Then too, who checks for applicability? When is the last time you asked somebody if their ancestors came from Africa?
I’m sure astute readers may highlight gray areas, but for me, it’s black and white Both words — or neither — should be capitalized.
Michael Smith lives in Southern Pines.