“It doesn’t get any easier than this,” said Sarah Glover, an executive at NBC and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, referring to a move that The Washington Post would go on to characterize as “the simplest way to begin establishing trust with the black community.” Namely, capitalizing the word “Black” when referring to a racial group who just a few decades ago were the subject of an activist campaign to re-christen themselves “African-American.”
At the time of its coinage, “African-American” was seen as conferring a degree of dignity beyond “black.” It was a new term that, as the journalism professor Lori L. Tharps, writing in The New York Times, put it, “wasn’t tainted by a racist history.” “Black tells you about skin color and what side of town you live on,” Jesse Jackson said in 1989. “African-American evokes discussion of the world.” But while the formerly hyphenated term has caught on, it’s ironically the latter half of the term that has caused activists to revert to its predecessor. “Black,” as the Associated Press put it in a post announcing a change to its style guide, “conveys 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.” “Black” was itself a politicized word held to confer a degree of dignity beyond “Negro,” which came to be capitalized after a letter-writing campaign started by W. E. B. Du Bois.
“If we’ve traded Negro for Black,” Tharps wrote, “why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?” The ease of this gesture is part of why hundreds of American newspapers have adopted the practice in the weeks since the nationwide surge in protests following the death of George Floyd. A number of major news outlets have since adopted the change, and their stated reasons for doing so reveal the latent complexity beneath the apparent simplicity.
At the time of its coinage, “African-American” was seen as conferring a degree of dignity beyond “black.” It was a new term, untainted by “a racist history.”
When the Associated Press announced it would be capitalizing “Black,” it said it was still debating whether it would do the same for “white”—the term against which “Black” was defined, which in turn was defined in opposition to it. Consistency would ordinarily dictate that two composite racial designations that encompass a wide range of distinct ethnicities under a single color should either both be uppercase or both be lowercase. But the sociopolitical meaning that this stylistic change has been assigned precludes such determinations.
Several commentators have noted that white supremacists capitalize “white” while refusing to do the same for “black.” Some have gone so far as to explicitly declare that what is inappropriate for whites—conferring greater dignity on a particular race by capitalizing its name while leaving others’ lowercase—is in fact appropriate for advocates of the interests of black people, because of the ongoing marginalization of the latter group at the hands of the former, and will remain so until such time as that marginalization ends. According to this view, equality does not mean neutrality—it means precisely favoring the weaker over the stronger.
Others sought different grounds to leave “white” lowercase, instead denying that “white” names a racial group bearing a distinctive culture at all. “White is not a description of culture but of a skin color,” as Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, told The Washington Post. Implicit in this denial is the claim first articulated by James Baldwin that “America became white … because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.” A sociological sub-field has since arisen known as “Whiteness Studies,” which has in turn become a central part of the new anti-racism.
When Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to people who “believe themselves to be white,” he invokes these doctrines. The real complication sets in—and here is what the Associated Press is internally debating—with the contrary implication that to capitalize “Black” and leave “white” lowercase would be to collude with whiteness in declaring itself to be primary and unraced in contradistinction to the Black Other. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, “To not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard.” In sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes, “White people get to be ‘just people,’ without having their race named, whereas people of color are often described with their race.”
Thus, we are left unable to decide whether the act of anti-black white supremacism is to leave “white” lowercase or to uppercase it—an illuminating conundrum of the broader anti-racist moment in which we find ourselves.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk