More Grounded Efforts Than A Capital Letter

There’s no style book dictating what words to use, what letters to capitalize, at SJ. But I’ve pondered whether to capitalize the “B” in the word “black,” not so much because I thought it was something of substance that helped anyone, but because the failure to do so suggested that maybe I was sending a message by not capitalizing it that I did not care about racial equality, about racism, about black people.

Fortunately, John McWhorter struggled with a similar question and wrote about it.

Many people these days, noting my frequent skepticism of the woke vocabulary and woke prescriptions for language use, ask me why I’m capitalizing “Black” when I write about Black Americans.

The truth is: I’m not. The New York Times’s house style, on the news side and the Opinion side, requires it, and that’s how it reads when this newsletter publishes. But the copy that I send in has “black” styled with an old-school lowercase “b.”

This is part of a stylistic choice that raises far more questions than it answers. If the “B” is black is capitalized, should the “W” in white be as well?  And then there’s the “B” in brown, often used in conjunction with black in lieu of that weird characterization of “People of Color.”

The editors of the Times offered an explanation for their style choice:

And I’m not oblivious to the impetus for this change that followed the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests over police violence. As Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, and Philip Corbett, the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, wrote in a June 2020 memo to Times staff, summarizing the rationale for capitalizing “Black,” those protests “prompted discussions about many aspects of our coverage” and, after a review, “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.”

To the extent this is a rationale, it smells more of “we don’t want the woke to think we’re unwoke and attack us” than any actual reason. Is that a reason?

Fair enough. But in the grand scheme of things — with which I try to be concerned — I have a hard time caring that much whether we write “black” or “Black.”

It’s not that McWhorter, a linguist by trade, doesn’t care about words. Indeed, he cares deeply.

I know that terminology can matter. For instance, given the deep stain that slavery left on our society, I am in favor of nudging consciousness a bit by replacing the term “slave” with “enslaved person.”

Is your consciousness nudged by taking one word and turning it into two? This view is widely shared by those seeking to “humanize” the marginalized. We see it when crim reformers inform us that ex-cons are now “formerly convicted persons,” or any number of variations on that theme, as they are persons first, and their status as having once been convicted is not the entirety of who they are.

One can’t argue that point, as they are human beings, even if they had once done time, and not merely ex-cons in perpetuity. On the other hand, does the shift in characterization nudge you? Reformers insist it does, and will fight you to the death if you shrug. This matters, they demand. Is it worth fighting with them over it?

But the capitalization issue is about style and usage, rather than replacing one word with another, and the written rather than the spoken word. And it seems to me that people can process the written word “black” as having many meanings, just as they do when it’s spoken, when, of course, no capitalization is possible.

The irony here is that by putting so much emphasis on the word “black,” and whether to capitalize the letter “B,” are we not ex-conning them? Are black people “Black” or are they human beings who have darker skin? If it’s wrong to label the formerly imprisoned as “ex-cons” because that fails to capture their humanity, why would a color be the way to capture the humanity of a race? Why create a style for the sole purpose of conveying a shared identity if its purpose was not to pigeonhole (apologies for being pigeonist) people by something as irrelevant as their skin color?

So: It’s fine with me that others embrace the capitalization of “Black.” Maybe I will someday. But when I think of social change, my mind lingers more on, say, the Year Up program, which offers underresourced high school graduates an all-tuition-paid job training program directing them to positions in finance, I.T. and other fields while also assisting them with progress toward a college degree. Over the past two decades, it has expanded to cities around the country and helped thousands. It seeks, as the organization itself describes it, to bridge the “opportunity divide” for “young adults — no matter their background, income or ZIP code.” I think it’s a glorious thing and I want it to continue to grow.

Not knowing enough about this program to which McWhorter gives a Times’ shout out, I will take his word for its efficacy. And efficacy is very much the point. There are things out there that actually address the burdens that black people endure as a product of historic racism and racism that persists in denying them every opportunity to make the most of themselves. There are very real problems, such as cops’ inclination to believe that black people are more dangerous and less worthy of being treated with the ordinary respect that should be shown every human being.

But does capitalizing the letter “B” do the trick?

Compared to this type of practical problem-solving, “black” or “Black” just isn’t as interesting.

It takes little effort to hit the shift key when I type the word “black.” If I capitalized the letter, it might make others think me less unwoke, perhaps even a little less insensitive to their feelings of respectability. But does putting out a fashionable signal of wokiness help anyone, or should I stick to more grounded efforts? Or both?

8 thoughts on “More Grounded Efforts Than A Capital Letter

  1. Skink

    You’re okay being traditional. If you decide otherwise, Just capitalize all adjectives. That’s Just equitable.

  2. Grum

    Am inclined to think of “black” as a simple adjective; there are many different skin colours in this world, and even more people, and so far as I am aware, no-one is stereotyped as being “bald”, so the simple description is just an identifier (and not necessarily an important one) of a particular individual.
    “Black” seems more of a label, and risks having all sorts of preconceptions, many potentially negative depending on one’s perception, dumped on it.
    The little “b” seems fairer somehow. Growing up in a country where people were labelled by their religion (both capitalised, BTW) makes me wary of that shit.

  3. Keith Lynch

    The Washington Post capitalizes both black and white, and uses “enslaved person” rather than “slave.” I’m not bothered by this, nor would by I be bothered by its lack. I am bothered that they use “enslaver” to mean “slave owner,” as this misled me into believing that various historical Americans actually went to Africa and personally kidnapped random people there, until I eventually realized that they didn’t mean that. Similarly, they use “human trafficker” to refer not just to pimps, but also to the customers of prostitutes. They’ve no longer using the English language.

    As for “ex-con” versus “formerly convicted person,” speaking as one, I have no preference. Just don’t call me an “ex-offender,” as that implicitly defines the wrongfully convicted out of existence. As an aside, “formerly convicted person” may be taken to imply that the conviction was eventually overturned.

    But what do I know? Only last week did I learn, fortunately from someone else’s mistake, not mine, that “Chinaman” is an unforgivably offensive term. Is there any official list of such terms? If so, are “Frenchman” and “Englishman” also on it?

    1. Rengit

      There’s also a stark contrast between “enslaved person” and “enslaver”: the former is supposedly necessary to emphasize the humanity of people who have traditionally been referred to as “slaves”, while the term “enslaver” notably lacks “person” or “human.” If they were interested in fairness, genuinely interested in emphasizing common humanity, one would think “enslaving person” to be the proper term.

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