Once again, “Black” versus “white”

I doubt that I’ll write much more about this issue, and bring it up here because Greg has turned up some curious journalistic information. This all involves newspapers’ decisions about whether to capitalize “black” and “white” when they refer to races, or rather, to socially constructed entities formerly known as races. I’ve discussed the capitalization issue in two earlier posts, prompted by the AP’s stylebook that newly mandates capitalization for Black but not for white (see here and here for my posts).  The New York Times has adopted this usage, while the Washington Post, in contrast, capitalizes both Black and White. I’d like to see their editors fight it out.

None of the justifications for the contrasting caps decision seem valid. For instance, some say that Black should be capitalized because the group shares a common fate of oppression (though not everywhere), but of course whites share the common trait of being the oppressor. And so it goes. My own take is that the real reason “Black” is capitalized is as a form of linguistic reparations: to give respect to a people who have been poorly treated. In contrast, “whites” get lowercase as a form of punishment, for being the oppressor. This is clear from an article in the New York Times that says this:

For proponents of capitalizing black, there are grammatical reasons — it is a proper noun, referring to a specific group of people with a shared political identity, shaped by colonialism and slavery. But some see it as a moral issue as well.

It confers a sense of power and respect to black people, who have often been relegated to the lowest rungs of society through racist systems, black scholars say.

“Race as a concept is not real in the biological sense, but it’s very real for our own identities,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in critical race theory at the University of California, Merced. “I think that capitalizing B both sort of puts respect to those identities, but also alludes to the humanities.”

Similarly, this recent article in HuffPost (below) which pretends to be evenhanded but comes down on the side of disparate capitalization, says this:

Years before the AP decision, The Diversity Style Guide ― which is produced by San Francisco State University journalism professor Rachele Kanigel in consultation with some 50 journalists and experts ― recommended capitalizing Black.

“It’s true that Black, unlike African American, Asian American and Italian, is not derived from a proper noun,” she told HuffPost. “But it is an identity and to lowercase it robs Black people of a certain dignity.”

. . .“The widespread move by media organizations, universities and other institutions to capitalize Black restores this dignity to Black Americans, who have had so much taken from them for so many generations,” Kanigel said.

Alexandria Neason, a Columbia Journalism Review staff writer, said. . . To capitalize Black, she explained in a blog post, is to acknowledge that slavery “deliberately stripped” people forcibly shipped overseas “of all other ethnic/national ties.”

Click on the screenshot to show HuffPo’s Twister game of capitalization.

In contrast, the argument for lowercase “whites” is largely, according to both the AP Stylebook and the HuffPost article, because if you capitalize the term, you’re validating white supremacy (!):

From HuffPo (which at least lays out arguments for capitalizing “White”):

Capitalizing white certainly doesn’t have widespread support, though, in part because white supremacist sites have also been known to capitalize the “w” in white.

“Capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs,” the AP said of its decision to leave white lowercase.

From the AP stylebook:

We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.

Well, I think that’s ludicrous, but to avoid being accused of being a Proud Boy, while at the same time not treating people differently based on their skin color, I’ll write “black” and “white” for the time being. “Brown” will also be in lowercase, though there are arguments about that, too.

So that’s settled, but of course readers can use whatever forms they want. The addition to the debate this week comes from Greg Mayer, who noticed what I see as unconscionable editing of other people’s words to conform to your own ideology. This is being done by the New York Times. I’ll quote an email from Greg:

 I’ve noticed that the Times silently emends quotations from others’ printed texts to follow their house style of “Black”. I noticed this when reading a piece about Michael Cohen’s book in the Times, and they quoted Cohen as writing:
“Tell me one country run by a Black person that isn’t a shithole,” Mr. Cohen quotes Mr. Trump as saying.
The Guardian, in its review, quotes the same line:
“Tell me one country run by a black person that isn’t a shithole. They are all complete fucking toilets,” Cohen writes, attributing the comments to Trump following the former president’s election in 2008 – mirroring earlier reports he referred to African and Caribbean nations by the same insult.
The Guardian‘s house style, like the Times, is to capitalize “Black” but they, at least in this instance, don’t emend someone else’s usage.
Here’s further confirmation that the Times routinely alters the typography of quoted material to fit house style:
Times article with “Black” in quoted material:
Original sources, quoted in above, using “black”
This is interesting, and seems to me distinctly un-journalistic. I was told, when I learned to write term papers, that when you quote you must quote exactly.  You don’t change other people’s words.  If you do, like inserting explanatory material, you must be obvious about it and use brackets. I think someone should point out to the New York Times that they’re subtly altering quotes to conform to their style, which of course conforms to their ideology. However good the ideology, though, changing things without mentioning it is a journalist no-no.

19 thoughts on “Once again, “Black” versus “white”

  1. What percentage of black people are personally bigoted on race? What percentage of non-black people are personally bigoted on race?

    “Racism” is trivial and should be retired. The more energy put on these fine points of structural racism, crossed with what is in the heart of individuals, only enables hatred.

    All effort should be on rooting out “personal bigotry.”

  2. The AP stylebook recommends lowercase for “white”, because Capitalizing the word would be White Supremacist. What about this simple alternative: rather than merely lowercasing “white”, the word could always be printed in smaller, barely readable type, as in:

    1. If capitalizing “white” risks lending legitimacy to white supremacists, why isn’t capitalizing “black” legitimizing black supremacists? Notably, the black Hebrew Israelite sect is a virulently antisemitic and black supremacist organization which capitalizes “black” in its publications. If you retort that most people capitalizing “black” are not black supremacists, isn’t it just the result of this recent social fashion? If the AP decided to capitalize “white”, pretty soon the white supremacists capitalizing the word would be the tiny fringe compared to the mainstream publications in the same way that now black supremacists capitalizing “black” are in minority.

  3. in re ” … … without mentioning it is
    a journalist no-no ” = I utterly concur,
    Dr Coyne. And UPON a whole lotta.lotta.
    contextual reiterations of stuffs by others.

    I see so, so many students presenting that
    they are letting others know what someone
    else stated. But. Then … … NOT truly.

    They DO put onto the alleged ” quotation ”
    .exactly and only their own. twist /
    their … … yeah = own ideology.
    And do not use to others the exactness
    of the particular quotation or excerpt
    at all. I loathe that.


  4. This is a very prompt (two days) and thoughtful response I received from the NYT on this issus.
    “Thank you for your note. As the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, noted in a message to the staff, the decision to capitalize “Black” came after he spoke to a range of writers, editors, and staff members about the issue. The urge to capitalize “Black” to refer to people of the African diaspora is clearly a matter of respect, and it has emerged as a preferred form. The adjective has been capitalized for years in many academic venues and mainstream publications, and earlier this year it became standard at the Boston Globe, the Associated Press, the New York Times,
    and the Wall Street Journal. The terms “brown” and “white” are problematic. As an ethnic or racial description, “brown” is far more elusive as an adjective, since it doesn’t describe a shared heritage; it can take in peoples of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Indigenous, or Latin-American origin. Capitalizing “White” is even more vexing, as the people who seem to be calling most ardently for its capitalization are so often white-supremacist groups. The magazine recognizes the inconsistency in having “Black,” “brown,” and “white”; but, all things considered, for now it’s what we have decided to do.

    The Editors
    On Wed, Sep 2, 2020 at 10:00 PM UTC, Merilee Olson wrote:
    I find the capitalized “Black” and the lower-case “white” and “brown” to be jarring. Why not either capitalize all or none?

    Merilee Olson

    1. ” . . . a very prompt (two days) and thoughtful response I received from the NYT on this issus.”

      I wonder if the NYT does double backward somersaults to avoid starting a sentence with the word “white.”

    2. “Capitalizing “White” is even more vexing, as the people who seem to be calling most ardently for its capitalization are so often white-supremacist groups.”

      Yep. Decide your position on an issue by looking to see who supports or opposes it and aligning yourself accordingly. This is where we are.

    3. The same “logic” they apply to “brown” and “white” applies to “Black”. Not all Blacks were part of the “African diaspora”. Not all of them came from Africa. Not all of them are descendants of African slaves. Not all slaves were/are African blacks. One would wish that our news writers were more knowledgeable about the subjects on which they write. And not continue to spread drek.

        1. I was referring to the “African diaspora” in regards to “…the descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas via The Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, with their largest populations in Brazil, the United States and Haiti.” (Wiki)

          If one wants to look very far back into prehistory, all humanity purportedly originated in Africa and spread in various migrations at different times to other areas of Africa as well as to other continents. People living in numerous places evolved differently into a multitude of colors and cultures. In more recent history, Black Africans who were not enslaved migrated out of Africa to many other countries. In addition, as with many other human beings, mixing has taken place between Blacks, whites, browns and yellow peoples throughout time. The proportion of Black to white (brown, yellow) has been used to
          determine whether a mixed person is Black or not. In the U.S, I think there are still some states that consider a mixture of 1/16th Black to be Black.

  5. The capitalization of “Black” but not “white” appears to be a “microaggression” and I thought they were supposed to be a bad thing?

  6. I am seeing news reports wherein the word “black” is capitalized within a direct quote, such as –

    “I saw a man running away. He was Black.”

    I don’t know how a reporter can divine that the intent of the speaker was to describe the running man in cultural, rather than in immediately descriptive terms.

    1. My problem is that, in most cases, the word “black” is being used as an adjective not a noun. It should never be capitalised except when used as part of a genuine proper noun e.g. “Black Panther”. To me “Black” signifies a single coherent group with a shared identity which is blatantly false and possibly racist. Black people are as diverse as any other group. If I was a native of one of the many African countries or cultures, I’d find it pretty offensive to be lumped in with those Americans who think my identity should be reduced to that of oppressed slave descendant.

  7. What about some form of hyphenation/capitalization to acknowledge that slavery of blacks is extinct in the West and alive and well in africa?

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