Why is Black spelled with a capital ‘B’ and white lowercase? It’s divisive

Why is Black spelled with a capital ‘B’ and white lowercase? It’s divisive

Greg Moore

Have you noticed that most mainstream media outlets capitalize the “B” in “Black” when writing about Black people? Have you noticed the “w” in “white” doesn’t receive the same treatment?

It’s a well-intended but confusing practice that might be doing more harm than good.

Decision came at the height of Black Lives Matter

The decision from the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, which sets the standard for the language of journalism, came at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Ahmaud Arbery had been killed in February of that year. Breonna Taylor was killed in March. And George Floyd was killed in May.

The nation spasmed, with disaffected Black people and their allies from other races taking to the streets in what has been called the largest protest movement in world history.

There’s no coincidence that it came during the peak of pandemic lockdowns and quarantines when there were no sports, no commutes and few obligations to distract people from the reality that was getting beamed into their televisions, computers and cellphones on a never-ending loop.

By summer, race experts had emerged like worms after the rain, producing lists of documentaries and books that they said would contextualize the chaos for confused people who didn’t know how to help.

Donations poured in by the tens of millions from corporations promising diversity initiatives and support for grassroots programs to ease the socio-economic disparities that undergirded the uprising.

AP capitalizes ‘Black,’ keeps ‘white’ lowercase

And in June 2020, AP Stylebook editors made a decision that has vexed readers for the past two years: “AP changes writing style to capitalize ‘b’ in Black”.

“The Associated Press changed its writing style guide Friday to capitalize the ‘b’ in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context, weighing in on a hotly debated issue,” the nation’s oldest, largest and most influential 24-hour news organization wrote at the time.

“The change conveys ‘an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president of standards, said in a blog post. “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

A month later, a new headline “hit the wire,” as we say in the journalism business: “AP says it will capitalize Black but not white”.

“After changing its usage rules last month to capitalize the word ‘Black’ when used in the context of race and culture, The Associated Press on Monday said it would not do the same for ‘white’.

“The AP said white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

This disparity plays out in education, courts

Put another way, “white” has a broad and wide-ranging meaning, culturally. A “white” person could have descended from Irish, Italian, Russian, British, Jewish, Catholic or protestant ancestors.

“Black,” meanwhile, is connected to the shared experience and legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which shipped 12.5 million Africans to North and South America and the Caribbean.

The ripple effects can be seen to this day in the form of anti-education bills circulating in state legislatures around the nation (including Arizona), seeking to severely limit how teachers can discuss race in the classroom, ostensibly to fight a boogeyman called “critical race theory.”

There are also legal disparities that help explain why Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population but about 40% of the nation’s prison population.

Consider the most egregious legislative example from the so-called War on Drugs: the 100-to-1 ratio.

Possession of 500 grams of cocaine in powder form came with a five-year prison sentence. It would have taken only 5 grams of the same drug in rock form, known as “crack,” to draw the same penalty. Poorer people, who are disproportionately likely to be Black, use crack. Wealthier people, who are more likely to be white, use powder.

The ratio improved to 18:1 in 2010, but a bill that would even out this gap entirely has stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Standards are there to reduce confusion

The problem with capitalizing one term and not the other is that linguistic standards exist to minimize confusion.

I spent the overwhelming majority of my 20-year career in journalism as a copy desk editor, including a five-year stretch at The Associated Press.

Among other things, we tried to make sure that “farther” meant physical distance and that “further” applied in figurative contexts. We tried to ensure that we were consistent when we used the Roman numeral “9” as opposed to spelling out the word. And we looked for pedantic little details such as the difference between “like” and “such as.”

The goal was always to make sure that readers weren’t distracted by nonstandard variations that would take their mind away from the idea being conveyed by our reporters.

Consider the following: “People in an arizona heard from doug ducey.”

Chances are you stopped to wonder why “Arizona,” “Doug” and “Ducey” weren’t capitalized, meaning you weren’t focused on what the governor might have been saying.

A standard construction wouldn’t be nearly as confusing: “People in an Arizona heard from Gov. Doug Ducey.”

If we apply that same logic to “Black” and “white,” we can see the potential for confusion among readers who don’t follow the annual updates and changes to the prevailing journalistic style guide.

This creates division when we need the opposite

How could they ever try to understand what “critical race theory” is or how it could be helpful for students, teachers and their families, if they’re distracted over why is “Black” spelled with a capital “b”?

How many writers who tackle the subject of race get emails from readers who are confused or angry or both over the distinction?

And can you blame white people, especially those who look around and don’t see anything similar to “privilege,” for considering this as a form of discrimination against them?

The intention was good, and the explanation is understandable.

I just worry that the effect creates confusion and division when we’re trying to accomplish the opposite.

I’m concerned the practice is doing more harm than good.


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