The latest trend in woke journalism is the use of the capital letter “B” to refer to black people. This is in contrast to “white”, “brown”, “yellow”, and “red” – occasional descriptors of other racial groups. They all remain in lower case. The trend has been embraced by the New York Times, the Associated Press, USA Today, and several other pillars of American journalism. It is safe to say that it will soon become the norm – if it is not so already.
The mainly white-owned and operated organizations behind this trend believe that by doing so, they are showing respect to black America. They are wrong. Capitalizing “Black” does not show respect. It patronizes.
In 1930, when the New York Times decided to capitalize “Negro,” the terms “Caucasian” and “Asian,” counterparts to “Negro,” were already capitalized. The Times’ decision was intended to encourage equality in the designation of racial groups: The current trend among progressive institutions does the opposite. It seeks not equality but inequality.
The main argument advanced to justify this disparate treatment is that “Black” is more than a color; it is a culture. In a memo to their staff, Dean Baquet, the New York Times’s executive editor, and Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, explained that “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.”
The first part of that statement is absolutely correct. The word “white” does not represent a shared culture and history.
But to state that all those who are generally referred to as black share a common culture or history is akin to saying: “They all look alike to me.” Black people do share the ability to trace their ancestry to Africa. But Africa is a continent of 3,000 different ethnic groups who speak more than 2,100 different languages. Ethiopians and Nigerians may seem similar to journalists ignorant of Africa’s rich heritage of diversity. But in fact they are no more similar to each other than the Sami people of Lapland, who live above the Arctic Circle, are similar to the Corsicans who live along the shores of the Mediterranean. Yes, both the Sami and the Corsicans are “white.” But no serious observer would say that they share a common culture or history just because of their coloration. It is demeaning to black people to say that they do for that reason.
Another defense of the change is the claim that capitalizing “Black” merely gives the word equal treatment to designations like “Latino” and “Asian” and “Native American,” all of which are capitalized. But each of those terms is a geographical designation. For that matter, “African-American” is also a geographic term, and is rightly capitalized. But “Black” is different. It is a color, not a geographical term.
The New York Times denies that capitalizing “Black” is mere woke activism. “We don’t treat the stylebook as an instrument of activism; we don’t view it as at the vanguard of language,” said Mike Abrams, senior editor for editing standards. Really? The same New York Times story admits that “Conversations about the change began in earnest at The Times and elsewhere after the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests.” This represents a tacit admission that social activism was indeed the impetus behind the change.
Ideas have consequences. The notion that blacks constitute some kind of homogenous group, and that they share a common culture and history merely by dint of skin color, is already dangerously pervasive. In a recent interview, Joe Biden said: “Unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things.” This was an incredibly inane statement for anyone to make — even Biden. But it is depressingly consistent with the movement to capitalize “Black.” If “Black” should be capitalized because black people, unlike “brown” people, share a common history and culture, then Biden should be forgiven for assuming that only the latter are “diverse.”
If the change does become widely accepted by the mainstream media, it will lead to unintentionally absurd reportage. We may read that “white students and Black students issue a joint demand for equal treatment in news coverage.” Or: “A panel of Black and white economists condemned disparity among racial groups.” Or: “The entertainment industry pledged to de-emphasize racial stereotypes in casting Black, brown, and white roles.” In each case, capitalizing “Black” would undermine and actually mock the message of the story.
The trend toward capitalizing “Black” poses special problems for conservative and traditionalist writers. By definition, such writers are accustomed to complying with rules. By character, they conform to stylebooks and favor consistency. But matters of principle must override uniformity. W.E.B. Du Bois did not wait for the New York Times to capitalize “Negro” to do so himself in his own writing. He was not willing to be a party to degrading a sector of humanity, just because the stylebooks of his time told him to do so.
Writers of our day should also oppose becoming parties to such unequal treatment. The grave error of capitalizing “Black” may soon become the established norm. But even if it does, this modest publication will never abide by it. It urges all other publications to similarly resist.