Effective Tuesday, June 30, 2020, The New York Times began capitalizing the word “Black” when describing people and cultures of African origin.
“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,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor, and Phil Corbett, another senior editor, wrote in a memo.
The Times will not be capitalizing the word “white.” As Dean and Phil explained: “There is less of a sense that ‘white’ describes a shared culture and history. Moreover, hate groups and white supremacists have long favored the uppercase style, which in itself is reason to avoid it.”In The Atlantic, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued for capitalizing both “Black” and “white.” Neither is a literal description of skin color, he writes, and neither is a “fully formed and stable social category.” Both encompass a varied group of cultures.
Citing the work of Sally Haslanger, a fellow philosopher, Appiah concludes: “Racial identities were not discovered but created, she’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.”More on race: The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson compares American racism to the Indian caste system in a new article for The Times Magazine.
“Their hierarchies are profoundly different. And yet, as if operating from the same instruction manual translated to fit their distinctive cultures, both countries adopted similar methods of maintaining rigid lines of demarcation and protocols,” she writes.
In the mid-1920s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. Even though Du Bois himself didn’t use the word Negro consistently — one of his most famous works, after all, is “The Souls of Black Folk” — it was the official name for the race, and as such, Du Bois wanted that word to confer respect on the page as well as in daily life.
In 1926, The New York Times denied his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” The editor changed his mind and conceded to the capital N, as did many other mainstream publications including The Atlantic Monthly and, eventually, The New York Times.
On March 7, 1930, The Times announced its new policy on the editorial page: “In our Style Book, Negro is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change, it is an act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the ‘lower case.’ ”
Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. Both Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized, but the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black with a lowercase b. Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?
Black Westchester has always capitalized the word Black when referring to Black People, Black Elected Officials or the Black Community since its inception in July 2014. As a Black Publication we have always believed in the importance of the capital B when referring to Black People and we believe the move by the New York Times is very important in the need to change the narrative of how Black People are portrayed in the media.
While we applaud the effort it should not have taken a national outrage in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor to make this move. But whatever the reason or inspiration behind the move, we applaud the NY Times for finally making it.