One year later, George Floyd’s murderer is in jail, but we still can’t decide if he’s white or White.
It was this week last July when the Associated Press, which leads journalistic style standards, decreed that white as an adjective would remain lowercase. This came a month after it decided that Black, when referring to people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context, should be capitalized.
But for once, not everyone followed the AP’s guidance. Now there’s wide inconsistency across publications, and readers are justifiably confused.
With a handful of exceptions, most — including The Inquirer — have decided to capitalize Black. Even right-wing stalwarts Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Newsmax, and One America News Network do so. (A few publications, most of them conservative, still lowercase black, including the New York Post, Washington Examiner, and National Review.) But on white, for which The Inquirer also abides the AP’s lowercase guidance, unanimity is elusive. The New York Times, MSNBC, and the News Leaders Association lowercase white; the Washington Post, CNN, and the Society of Professional Journalists capitalize it.
This is what happens when style changes are snap reactions to news rather than studied considerations of how language is used and what will be most readable.
Style changes over time are natural. Because style decisions reflect the ways that we speak, write, and read, it’s commonplace to change spellings or punctuation or terminology as language changes, or as our reading shifts from one medium to another (say, from print to online). For example, readers consume books more leisurely than they do newspapers, which is why books often have more commas, more numbers spelled out (twenty-three vs. 23), fewer words abbreviated (Gary, Indiana, vs. Gary, Ind.).
And usage preferences evolve. A reader recently shared a 1951 Time magazine article that described a college protest by “three Negro students” who “objected to [their history textbook’s] use of ‘blacks’ to refer to Negroes” — preferences that seem backwards to a 2021 reader. (Also, most publications today indicate writers should avoid using Black as a noun.)
Rapid style changes, however, are rare. That’s why, outside of copyediting circles (which are really fun circles), these changes aren’t often newsworthy.
But a year ago, snap decisions happened around the world, and readers noticed. Amid the global reaction to George Floyd’s murder, individuals and institutions reexamined their practices and beliefs — some discovered for the first time that racism exists! — and in many cases underwent long-overdue changes. Journalistic institutions were no exception.
Some of those changes, like capitalizing Black, didn’t cost anyone anything. Reasonable people can disagree whether it is an appropriate and productive style change. There exist compelling arguments for capitalizing (it recognizes the shared experience of Black people; it replaces African American, which is capitalized) and against (it standardizes white while othering Black; it creates inconsistency).
The deeper problem is that many publications capitalized Black … and then stopped. They got so wrapped in a black vs. Black and white vs. White debate that they didn’t bother with the harder, more impactful work of diversifying their coverage or their newsrooms, which are far whiter than the populations they cover in almost every market in the country. A capitalization controversy should never be a fig leaf for the necessary, important work of increasing diversity and pay equity and inclusive newsroom culture. That would be a capital crime.
Without widespread agreement about capitalizing Black and white, the issue isn’t settled. We can expect publications to continue adjusting their styles for a while. Because as with most worthwhile arguments, there are always shades of gray.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and the MLA Handbook to email@example.com.