When I opened the door to my office after a summer doing research and writing far away from campus, it was there: The 2015 Associated Press Stylebook.
It was like Christmas morning for a copy editor, though the book had probably been there since its release in May. As always, I flipped through it to read new entries and see if there’d been any update to a particular entry, this year on page 30.
There hadn’t. The b in Black is still lowercase, according to the AP.
Perhaps it’s a quibble to some, but the decision to keep the descriptor in its lowercase form is a niggling reminder of the pervasive issues of Black underrepresentation in the newsroom and its effects: tone-deaf and/or anemic coverage of Black individuals and communities.
As media coverage of networked activism in the #BlackLivesMatter movement revives discussions of how media talk about race, the question persists: Why won’t mainstream news outlets capitalize the b in Black?
It’s a question of social and political will.
“If you reach out to any copy editor why they don’t capitalize it, they don’t have a philosophical reason,” said Lori Tharps, an assistant professor at Temple University and the author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Hair in Black America.”
Tharps, a former journalist for publications including Vibe and Entertainment Weekly magazines, created a Change.Org petition to “Capitalize the ‘B’ in Black when referring to Black Americans. Always.”
In the interest of full disclosure, readers should know that I signed the petition weeks ago and will have my money ready to buy T-shirts advertising the desired change.
Historically, style matters
Tharps’ open letter to editors at The Associated Press and The New York Times has historical precedent. Not only did The New York Times, agitated by W.E.B. DuBois (a renowned sociologist, yes, but also an editor himself), adopt Negro with a capital N as its style at the turn of the 20th century, the paper vigorously defended the choice as an act of social consciousness, she wrote.
If The New York Times saw fit to make the change then, why are are we still talking about this now?
It raises a style issue for our colleagues on copy desks everywhere. Proper-noun modifiers, including Asian, Latin and Pacific Islander, are capitalized per conventions of traditional grammar. That’s a given. But quizzically, so is Native American, a catch-all used to describe individuals from any of the 567 different tribes the label encompasses. Some niche publications, such as Ebony and Essence magazines, flout the rule, using the capital B as a nod to their target audiences. It’s a move that other outlets could choose to make.
“Every publication I’ve ever worked for has had its own style guide: it’s OK to use contractions or ‘duh,’ etc. This whole ‘we have to use AP Stylebook’ is arbitrary, but it’s treated like the holy grail,” Tharps said.
A little letter with big political implications
“There are two very different meanings,” said Steve Bien-Aime, a former copy editor at publications including The Baltimore Sun.
“If you put it up — capital B — you are really trying to call attention to a very political identity, very much a communal activity, as ‘Black,’” said Bien-Aime, who is finishing his doctoral dissertation on the AP Stylebook and gender identity.
That missing keystroke could factor into Black Americans’ tepid responses to questions of whether the news media portrays their communities accurately. In a March 2015 study published by the Media Research Project, only a quarter of Black respondents indicated strong belief of unerring reporting on their communities.
“In so many ways, it’s about the lower-class way that Black people are perceived,” Tharps explained. “And we are not a lower-class people.”
“The physicality of seeing a lower-case b beside an uppercase ‘L’ in Latin, capital ‘A’ in Asian just smacks of inequality,” she added, acknowledging that the presence of the “African-American” entry in the stylebook doesn’t eliminate the problem.
“The stylebook says to call people what they want to be called,” Tharps said. “And if that’s Black, it should be with a capital B.”
And — because someone will inevitably ask — I’ll be happy to discuss “what about the W in white?” in the comments. But this column will not be derailed.
If editors remain apathetic about revisiting a guideline created in an atmosphere where Black journalists are still markedly absent — one upheld by what is arguably a handful of the most elite editors in the U.S. news media — that silent shift key will strike a resounding chord about the short distance we’ve traveled in the nearly 50 years since the Kerner Commission urged news media to “accelerate efforts to ensure accurate and responsible reporting of … racial news, through adoption by all news gathering organizations of stringent internal staff guidelines.”
Tharps’ next steps are to reach out to editors at other influential news outlets and encourage them to reconsider changing their style.
“I don’t want to be an antagonist. I’m reaching out with genuine desire to affect change, not to protest or raise argument,” she said. “My hope is that even smaller publications will make that change. I hope that I’ll have media partners that will help me put the word out. I really want to bring national attention to this issue. I don’t feel it’s radical at all. It’s so basic.”
It’s a basic matter of extending human dignity to the people who define themselves by the legacy of the African descendants’ American experience. It is fundamentally the same gesture of dignity that same-sex couples and immigration advocates have won in years past. Those victories are a reminder that thoughtful consideration of identity politics matter to all of us, especially in the language we use to define ourselves and each other.
DuBois’ adage that “the problem of the 20th Century is the color line,” still rings true, right down to the edicts written in the journalist’s bible.
But those guidelines aren’t written in stone. They haven’t been passed down by a prophet cloaked in the light of the Almighty. The stylebook itself notes that its conventions shift with time and sentiment. The time has come to reconsider the ideology behind withholding a punch on a single key.
Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. This is her first monthly column for Poynter. You can find her on Twitter at @meredithclark.