A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’?

It’s the difference between black and Black. A longtime push by African-American scholars and writers to capitalize the word black in the context of race has gained widespread acceptance in recent weeks and unleashed a deep debate over identity, race and power.

Hundreds of news organizations over the past month have changed their style to Black in reference to the race of people, including The Associated Press, long considered an influential arbiter of journalism style. Far more than a typographical change, the move is part of a generations-old struggle over how best to refer to those who trace their ancestry to Africa.

The capitalization of black, which has been pushed for years, strikes at deeper questions over the treatment of people of African descent, who were stripped of their identities and enslaved in centuries past, and whose struggles to become fully accepted as part of the American experience continue to this day.

“Blackness fundamentally shapes any core part of any black person’s life in the U.S. context, and really around the world,” said Brittney Cooper, an associate professor at Rutgers University whose latest book, “Eloquent Rage,” explores black feminism. “In the choice to capitalize, we are paying homage to a history with a very particular kind of political engagement.”

The move toward Black is not embraced by all African-Americans, and two of the country’s major news outlets, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are still wrestling over whether to make the change.

“Black is a color,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader who popularized the term “African-American” in an effort to highlight the cultural heritage of those with ancestral ties to Africa. “We built the country through the African slave trade. African-American acknowledges that. Any term that emphasizes the color and not the heritage separates us from our heritage.”

There are also concerns that turning black into a proper noun lumps people of the African diaspora into a monolithic group and erases the diversity of their experiences. Some have said it bestows credibility upon a social construct created to oppress black people. Perhaps the most notable concern is what to do about white and brown as racial identifiers.

So far, most news organizations have declined to capitalize white, generally arguing that it is an identifier of skin color, not shared experience, and that white supremacist groups have adopted that convention.

But some scholars say that to write “Black” but not “White” is to give white people a pass on seeing themselves as a race and recognizing all the privileges they get from it.

“Whiteness is not incidental,” the sociologist Eve Ewing wrote on Twitter in arguing to capitalize white as well. She added: “Whiteness is a thing. Whiteness is endowed with social meaning that allows people to move through the world in a way that people who are not white are not able to do.”

At a recent online meeting of Race/Related, a cross-desk team devoted to race coverage at The Times, a discussion of whether to capitalize black or not made clear that there is not universal agreement, even among African-Americans on the staff.

“It has been the subject of a lively and surprising debate,” said Dean Baquet, the New York Times’s executive editor, who has indicated that he will announce a decision on the issue soon.

The debate over racial vocabulary is unfolding amid growing recognition across society of the need to tackle racism after several high-profile police killings of black people incited mass protests nationwide.

The acceptable terms in America for identifying black people have evolved over generations, from colored to Negro to black and African-American. Also commonly used is “people of color,” an umbrella term used to include many ethnic minorities.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, which has unleashed a national conversation on questions of race and racism, many say the country is long overdue to standardize the use of the uppercase B in black, which has been commonly used at black media outlets for a long time.

The New York Amsterdam News, for instance, describes itself as “the oldest Black newspaper in the country that offers the ‘New Black View’ within local, national and international news for the Black community.”

The debate among black people in America over how they should be described has often centered on identity as a political statement.

In her 1904 essay “Do We Need Another Name?” Fannie Barrier Williams, an educator and activist, described a lively discussion unfolding at the time among African-American scholars over whether to shed the label Negro in favor of terms like colored or Afro-American. Colored, she wrote, was a “name that is suggestive of progress toward respectful recognition.”

At the heart of the discussion, she wrote, was whether African-Americans needed a new label divorced from Negro and its connections to slavery, something of a fresh start that indicated their new place in society as free people.

Some, like W.E.B. Du Bois, favored keeping the term Negro and transforming it into something positive — an affirmation of their perseverance as a people and their freedom.

“There are so many Negroes who are not Negroes, so many colored people who are not colored, and so many Afro-Americans who are not Africans that it is simply impossible even to coin a term that will precisely designate and connote all the people who are now included under any one of the terms mentioned,” Barrier Williams wrote.

Negro became the predominant identifier of people of African descent for much of the first half of the 20th century, and even then descendants of enslaved people from Africa waged a yearslong campaign before getting most of society, including The Times, to capitalize it.

With the rise of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, the word black, once seen as an insult for many African-Americans, started winning embrace. In just a few years, it became the predominant descriptor of black people as Negro became obsolete. Mr. Jackson’s campaign brought African-American into popular use in the late 1980s, and it is now often used interchangeably with black.

For proponents of capitalizing black, there are grammatical reasons — it is a proper noun, referring to a specific group of people with a shared political identity, shaped by colonialism and slavery. But some see it as a moral issue as well.

It confers a sense of power and respect to black people, who have often been relegated to the lowest rungs of society through racist systems, black scholars say.

“Race as a concept is not real in the biological sense, but it’s very real for our own identities,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in critical race theory at the University of California, Merced. “I think that capitalizing B both sort of puts respect to those identities, but also alludes to the humanities.”

Vilna Bashi Treitler, a professor of black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that racial categories were fabricated, created to denigrate people considered to be nonwhite. Black and white are adjectives, not proper nouns to be capitalized, she said, calling a term like “African descendant” a more appropriate way to characterize black people.

“It’s a placeholder for describing the group of people who are perpetually reinserted into the bottom of the racial hierarchy,” Dr. Bashi Treitler, the author of the book “The Ethnic Project,” said of the term black. “I think we can be more revolutionary than to embrace the oppressor’s term for us.”

In her first two books, Crystal M. Fleming, a sociologist and author, lowercased black in part because of academic differences between race and ethnicity. But the more she researched, the more those distinctions became blurred in her mind. She came to see race as a concept that could signify a politically and culturally meaningful identity.

Now Dr. Fleming, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of “How to be Less Stupid About Race,” is writing a book for young people about fighting racism. She has decided to use Black.

Part of the reason, she said, was her desire to honor black experiences and speak with moral clarity about antiracism. Another reason was more basic, born in the urgency of the current moment.

“Frankly,” she said, “because I want to. That’s also something that I think we need to see more of in every field — black people doing what we want to do.”

Posted in

Nathan Odige