Moving forward, the Mercer Island Reporter will capitalize Black when referring to the race, ethnicity and culture of Black people.
It has long been the practice in mainstream journalism to spell the word with a lowercase “b.” Yet newspapers capitalize other ethnic descriptions such as Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Hawaiian, European, African and more.
At the same time our newsroom was discussing the matter, the Associated Press (AP) announced a revision to its influential stylebook — the gold standard spelling and punctuation guide that U.S. journalists follow — to capitalize Black when referring to the race, ethnicity and culture.
Several U.S. news outlets have adopted the capital “B” as they cover the Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last month after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The policy has been adopted by the National Association of Black Journalists. Multiple companies — from Nike and Amazon to Apple and Disney — have used the capital “B” in their communications when releasing statements about the protests.
Indeed, Black is more accurate than African American, which can be inaccurately assigned to Black people with ties to the Caribbean or South America, for example. Black can be a preferred ethnic designation for the African diaspora (defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “people settled far from their ancestral homelands”) who don’t identify with a specific home country. As history books have taught, many people within this diaspora were forcibly uprooted and shipped to the U.S. as slaves.
“The lowercase black is a color, not a person,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president of standards.
The AP is also expected to soon decide whether to capitalize the word “white” when referring to white people, culture and ethnicity. The nation’s newsrooms will likely follow the AP’s lead.
Capitalizing the word white is a false equivalence between different issues, according to an essay published by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. The think tank is cited frequently and almost equally by conservative and liberal politicians, according to a report from The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
“To argue ‘but what about capitalizing white’ — particularly without presenting rationale and reasonable articulation on the topic — contributes to the harmful framework and power imbalance that says Black Americans’ progress can only be assessed or measured against white Americans,” wrote David Lanham of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Giving Black Americans the respect they deserve is not a zero-sum game.”
In addressing whether to capitalize white, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mike Laws writes: “Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.”
The CJR essay concludes that capitalizing the one letter “will mean nothing if white Americans don’t make an effort to understand the whys and wherefores — which is to say, the history that delivered us to this precise point in time.”
We expect some readers — many of whom can claim Scottish heritage, a German background, or Scandinavian roots, for example — to disagree with this newspaper’s approach. We welcome the conversation.
In the end, the change to our policy is a matter of respect. And it is long overdue.
Contact Mercer Island Reporter Editor Andy Hobbs: email@example.com.