Posted on June 27, 2020

A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’?

John Eligon, New York Times, June 26, 2020

It’s the difference between black and Black. A longtime push by African-American scholars and writers to capitalize the word black in the context of race has gained widespread acceptance in recent weeks and unleashed a deep debate over identity, race and power.

Hundreds of news organizations over the past month have changed their style to Black in reference to the race of people, including The Associated Press, long considered an influential arbiter of journalism style. Far more than a typographical change, the move is part of a generations-old struggle over how best to refer to those who trace their ancestry to Africa.

The capitalization of black, which has been pushed for years, strikes at deeper questions over the treatment of people of African descent, who were stripped of their identities and enslaved in centuries past, and whose struggles to become fully accepted as part of the American experience continue to this day.


The move toward Black is not embraced by all African-Americans, and two of the country’s major news outlets, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are still wrestling over whether to make the change.

“Black is a color,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader who popularized the term “African-American” in an effort to highlight the cultural heritage of those with ancestral ties to Africa. “We built the country through the African slave trade. African-American acknowledges that. Any term that emphasizes the color and not the heritage separates us from our heritage.”

There are also concerns that turning black into a proper noun lumps people of the African diaspora into a monolithic group and erases the diversity of their experiences. Some have said it bestows credibility upon a social construct created to oppress black people. {snip}

So far, most news organizations have declined to capitalize white, generally arguing that it is an identifier of skin color, not shared experience, and that white supremacist groups have adopted that convention.

But some scholars say that to write “Black” but not “White” is to give white people a pass on seeing themselves as a race and recognizing all the privileges they get from it.

“Whiteness is not incidental,” the sociologist Eve Ewing wrote on Twitter in arguing to capitalize white as well. She added: “Whiteness is a thing. Whiteness is endowed with social meaning that allows people to move through the world in a way that people who are not white are not able to do.”

At a recent online meeting of Race/Related, a cross-desk team devoted to race coverage at The Times, a discussion of whether to capitalize black or not made clear that there is not universal agreement, even among African-Americans on the staff.

“It has been the subject of a lively and surprising debate,” said Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, who has indicated that he will announce a decision on the issue soon.


The debate among black people in America over how they should be described has often centered on identity as a political statement.

In her 1904 essay “Do We Need Another Name?” Fannie Barrier Williams, an educator and activist, described a lively discussion unfolding at the time among African-American scholars over whether to shed the label Negro in favor of terms like colored or Afro-American. Colored, she wrote, was a “name that is suggestive of progress toward respectful recognition.”

At the heart of the discussion, she wrote, was whether African-Americans needed a new label divorced from Negro and its connections to slavery, something of a fresh start that indicated their new place in society as free people.

Some, like W.E.B. Du Bois, favored keeping the term Negro and transforming it into something positive — an affirmation of their perseverance as a people and their freedom.


With the rise of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, the word black, once seen as an insult for many African-Americans, started winning embrace. In just a few years, it became the predominant descriptor of black people as Negro became obsolete. Mr. Jackson’s campaign brought African-American into popular use in the late 1980s, and it is now often used interchangeably with black.