A few thoughts on AP’s capitalization of the “b” in “Black”

I’ve been a professional copy editor for 15 years this month, and the AP Stylebook has grown up and evolved right along with me.

The book itself is still a book, but most of us access it online. “Web site” is now “website,”; “videotape” became “video recording” or just “video”; and “cell phone,” “e-mail” and “smart phone” shifted to “cellphone,” “email” and “smartphone,” respectively.

These changes all make sense, and The Associated Press was usually catching up to other large publications. That’s understandable. AP style is reflected in articles ready by tens of millions of people every day, and hundreds of publications will reflexively change their styles to match. AP can’t screw around.

And yet, in my opinion, AP has too often been haphazard and knee-jerk in the style policies it sets. Many decisions appeared not to think through consistency or second-order effects (“US” in a headline but “U.S.” in text? Really?).

Those official updates weren’t the only problem. The AP’s online-only “Ask the Editor” Q&A supplement often offers contradictory or conflicting guidance, which is then pointed out — but rarely resolved — in later questions.

All of this is to say that I’m pleasantly surprised in the way AP handled the change from “black” to “Black” when used, to quote AP, “as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense.”

(AP’s policy change also calls for capitalizing “Indigenous,” for which I would also apply the reasonings below, with the caveat that I’ve not examined the term as closely)

I was expecting a laborious, contradictory reasoning, but AP’s blog post and the entries themselves are relatively straightforward. To quote a large part of the relevant entry:

Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.

African American is also acceptable for those in the U.S. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known, and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.

Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.

I don’t think it was wrong to have not done this earlier. The national mood has changed, and many people for the first time are conscious about the significance of using “black” or “Black.” Updating your views on new information is a sound practice, and that’s what that feels like to me — rather that, say, rewriting or redefining the English language.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. This is not a new idea.

Calls to capitalize “Black” because of its specific context and meaning are decades old. John McWhorter made the case in 2004 even while recognizing the reasons why “African-American” emerged. There are earlier examples that I, regrettably, forgot to bookmark.

“Black” is also one of the terms that replaced “Negro,” which clearly deserves capitalization but didn’t receive it in many quarters for decades because of racism. The New York Times took until 1930 to do so.

In the 1930 article announcing the style change, let us note that the Times was still stuck in a vocabulary of paternalism and false race science (praising Maj. Robert R. Morton as “the foremost representative of the race in America”). However, the paper also recognized its error and the disrespect it showed by capitalizing other designations of culture and population but not capitalizing Negro.

The Times article closes by saying: “It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in ‘the lower case.'”

Recognition is not the only argument to make in capitalizing “Black,” but it’s certainly one that helps distinguish it from, say, “white” or “brown,” and aligns it with terms such as “Hispanic.”

2. English capitalizes proper nouns and nouns of social/human categories.

Here’s a simple example: Prince and “The Prince” are proper nouns, “the prince” is not.

As NYU professor Kwame Anthony Appiah writes for The Atlantic:

We routinely name and capitalize entities (the Middle Ages, January, the Pacific Ocean, Copenhagen) that reflect human interests or actions. On the other hand, we tend not to capitalize “natural kinds”—that is, categories that track with inherent features of the world, independent of our interests or doings. Einstein, the physicist, is capitalized; einsteinium, the element, is not.

A good reason to capitalize the racial designation “black,” then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label “black” plays a role in generating that identity.

Appiah correctly notes the tension over how we go about rationalizing the case of “black” and how we then treat “white.”

For instance, I’m sympathetic to the logic and consistency in APA’s style entry that calls for “Black” and “White,” but I’m not sure that academic style conveys the same nuance in the news articles that AP style is geared toward. What to do about capitalizing “white” remains unfinished business, whether as grammarians or people using the language.

One other thing Appiah notes brings me to my final point.

3. Language is what’s used, not what’s decreed.

Language has rules and conventions, but it does not have laws. Language evolves over time — most of us don’t worry about “thou” or “thee,” “whom or “shall,” and certainly not about whether you can use “collision” with only one object in motion.

Even the meanings of once straightforward writing can become muddled, both within a language and when trying to translate to another. Why else would we still be debating phrases in the Constitution, arguing how to best translate the Bible or “Beowulf,” or striving to create a dictionary out of Latin scribblings?

As Appiah writes:

There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of whether to capitalize black and white in advance of such a consensus. … It’s not exactly grassroots democracy; some voices count more than others, and people usually leave typographical niceties to the expert associations concerned with them. What vox populi retains is veto power.

What are the strong arguments against? I don’t think concern and uncertainty about capitalizing “white” is a reason to foreclose the discussion altogether. Not wanting to change, obviously, is a common trait among “hold the line” editors but not sufficiently a valid defense.

I understand the argument that this change is political. But once it became a public issue, not changing it also became political. And I don’t think it’s solely a political issue, especially when we consider the historical and grammatical precedents.

There’s also the unscientific issue of popular opinion to consider. Like it or not, once enough news organizations sign onto something — “email” or “website” in the last decade, “Black” in this one — the fluid pressure of consistency becomes a factor. Being consistent has less to do with being correct than with picking your battles.

It’s not just the momentum of newsroom policies, of course. Popular usage carries the day. Right now, all the usage and momentum are going in the same direction, and there are also decent historical and grammatical arguments for the change.

In the end, I’m satisfied with the reasoning, and I’ve got bigger battles to fight, like getting writers to learn how commas work or to spell people’s names correctly.