Posted on June 18, 2020

Why We capitalize ‘Black’ (and not ‘white’)

Mike Laws, Columbia Journalism Review, June 16, 2020

At the Columbia Journalism Review, we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to racial groups. Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.

In deciding on a styling, fusspot grammarians and addled copy editors generally fall back on a pair of considerations. The first is broad adherence to a general rule—like, say, the Chicago Manual of Style’s (§8.38) edict that “Names of ethnic and national groups are capitalized.” (Though Chicago still generally mandates lowercasing both black and white, it does include the proviso that the rule can be suspended if “a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.”) The second thing we look for is attestation. In this case, it’s instructive to turn not to the largely lilywhite mainstream press (nor to the style guides that govern their renderings), but to writers of color and to alternative stylebooks. The Diversity Style Guide (2019), produced by Rachele Kanigel in consultation with some fifty journalists and experts, takes it as a given that Black ought to be capitalized. Sarah Glover, a past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote in a recent piece for the New York Amsterdam News, a historically Black weekly, that “capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black should become standard use to describe people, culture, art and communities.” After all, she pointed out, “We already capitalize Asian, Hispanic, African American and Native American.”

And, as my CJR colleague Alexandria Neason told me recently, “I view the term Black as both a recognition of an ethnic identity in the States that doesn’t rely on hyphenated Americanness (and is more accurate than African American, which suggests recent ties to the continent) and is also transnational and inclusive of our Caribbean [and] Central/South American siblings.” To capitalize Black, in her view, is to acknowledge that slavery “deliberately stripped” people forcibly shipped overseas “of all other ethnic/national ties.” She added, “African American is not wrong, and some prefer it, but if we are going to capitalize Asian and South Asian and Indigenous, for example, groups that include myriad ethnic identities united by shared race and geography and, to some degree, culture, then we also have to capitalize Black.”


If capping the B strikes you as in part a project of reclamation, well, it is. {snip}