Note to Readers: Why the Express Now Capitalizes Black

During the past few years, some prominent members of the East Bay Black community have asked us to capitalize the word Black when using the term to refer to Blacks as a racial group. They point out that when referring to other racial and ethnic groups — including Latinos, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders — the Express and other news organizations have traditionally used capitalization, but not for Blacks. And they contend that this discrepancy is unfair, and serves to delegitimize and dehumanize Blacks as a group.

We agree. And so, effective today, the Express will now capitalize Black, both in its singular and plural forms, when referring to Blacks as a racial group.

[jump] Over the years, editors, reporters, and others have argued against making this change, noting that it’s common to capitalize African American. But many Black scholars and activists have contended that the term African American is inadequate, and that many people prefer Black American.

Having said that, African American is a term that many people still accept and use, and the Express will continue to use it when appropriate. But as scholars such as John Baugh and Geneva Smitherman have pointed out, Black is often a better term. Black is the name that most Black Americans prefer, according to surveys. And according to Baugh and Smitherman and many other historians, sociologists, and psychologists, given Black people’s history of struggle in the United States to achieve freedom and self-determination, and the central role that language and naming oneself has played in this fight, denying the preferred name a social group has given itself is as much a political act as acknowledging that name.

So why not acknowledge it? Professor of linguistics Robert Wachal calls on scholars and everyone else to “please capitalize the names of races as a matter of courtesy, logic, and accuracy.” As Lori Tharps, associate professor of journalism at Temple University explained in a New York Times op-ed last fall, “[w]hen speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”

Some scholarly societies also now capitalize Black. According to the American Psychological Association, it is reasonable to capitalize Black because it doesn’t refer to the color of one’s skin so much as it does the social group that a person belongs to — like being Latino, Chinese, or Russian. In America, to be Black is to have a unique culture and history that’s different from everyone else, while still being as American as apple pie.

For many of those same reasons, the Express also will continue to refer to whites in lowercase. Whites in the United States are not oppressed, and do not have a unique culture and history. As a group, whites are also not requesting capitalization.

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