June 26, 2020
AP rules “Black” should now be capitalized; change seen as long overdue
by Mike Lindgren
On June 19, 2020—better known, this year, as Juneteenth—the Associated Press formally ruled that the word “Black,” when used in “a racial, ethnic or cultural sense,” must be capitalized.
In a statement, the organization said that the change “stems from a long and fruitful conversation among news leaders, editors and diverse members of our staff and external groups and organizations.” The AP also noted, as have many observers, that the change aligns “with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American.”
For many writers and editors, the adjustment is long overdue. In a letter published last week in the Amsterdam New York News, the journalist and editor Sarah Glover called for such a change as necessary “to affirm the significance of being Black in America” and “to bring humanity to a group of people who have experienced forms of oppression and discrimination since they first came to the United States 401 years ago as enslaved people.”
The AP’s guidelines apply to journalists, of course; what about books? The bible of book publishing is, of course, the magisterial Chicago Manual of Style. Section 8.38 of the 17th edition, which was published in 2017, notes that black is “usually lower-cased unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise,” a sensible descriptivist position by which we are happy to abide. Most book people expect that the next edition, which is expected in 2022, will follow AP in this usage.
In Slate, Julia Craven noted that with this decision “mainstream news organizations are finally aligning themselves with generations of Black publications, such as Essence and Ebony, and with scholars and writers outside of journalism.” The latter, it seems to us, are reliably in the vanguard of changes in the language; one observes that the explicit identification of pronouns began in academia before spreading to media-heavy cities and social media.
The national paper USA Today, of all periodicals, was one of the first news organizations to embrace the change. “Capitalizing Black,” wrote managing editor Michael McCarter, “reflects an understanding and respect that is consistent with how many Black people and Black publications describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora and reflects a rich range of shared cultures.”
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.