The New York Times announced today that it's taking Wonkette's lead of two whole weeks and capitalizing “Black" when referring to Black people. Huzzah! Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Associate Managing Editor Phil Corbett explained in a staff memo that the decision was the result of a "longstanding debate" and “thoughtful, nuanced" feedback with a "wide range of opinions among colleagues of all backgrounds."

Personally, I'd feel embarrassed if I was asked whether we should capitalize a colleague's name. “I dunno. Have you asked Robyn?" “Yeah, she'd prefer the uppercase, but what do you think?" That's a little weird, but I guess par for the course with most issues directly affecting Black people, including whether our lives matter. On June 1, the Associate Press stylebook tweeted, "We use lowercase black and white. We know that some people prefer capitalizing Black. We continue to discuss that style."

“Some people" are Black! Isn't that definitive enough?

The AP continued its tea time discussions for a couple weeks and finally relented on June 19 when John Daniszewski, AP's vice president of standards, declared in a blog post: "The lowercase black is a color, not a person."

The Wall Street Journal also joined the party.

The Journal will also no longer use “Black" as a noun because ... gross.

The Times memo concedes that it's bringing up the rear on this matter.

The change will match what many readers are seeing elsewhere. The Associated Press and other major news organizations have recently adopted "Black," which has long been favored by many African-American publications and other outlets.

It's not just favored — like how I prefer collards to turnip greens. We long demanded it, but white-run publications, including the Times, ignored this very simple request.

As Lori L. Tharps described in a Times op-ed from 2014, W. E. B. Du Bois spent the mid-1920s demanding that major publications capitalize “Negro" — that's what we were called back then — and the Times made the style change official in 1930.

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.'

That's pretty woke for the Great Depression. Ninety year later, and the Times seems to think it's brand new information that you should capitalize “Black" the same as "other ethnic terms like 'Asian-American' and 'Latino.'"

Black — unlike “white" — is not a cosmetic description but a reference to a dynamic community. Slavery stripped us of our names, language, and heritage. Most of us can't trace our lineage back to a specific place in Africa, which you know is large. Richard Pryor once observed that white people had taken every African tribe, grouped them together, and made one tribe: (N-word). That's the unfortunate truth, but over the centuries we've come to embrace our shared culture, our shared suffering — the latter of which has been on grisly display the past few weeks.

The Black power movement of the 1960s inspired polite Negros to, as Tharps wrote, "claim that which had been demonized." “Black" was no longer an insult but an expression of self-love and pride. Essence and Ebony capitalize "Black," so the decades-long resistance from "mainstream" publications had a political meaning whether they admitted it or not.

I appreciate the style change but I don't consider it a courtesy or a “gift." It's recognition of what was always true.

[New York Times]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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