Should the b in black, as a designation for people of African descent, be uppercase? Media outlets and other institutions are asking themselves that question these days, and many are answering in the affirmative. But the reasons given for why can sometimes be perplexing—in a way that reveals larger perplexities about the meaning of race.
Everyone knows that black people aren’t literally black. Plenty of white Americans are darker in complexion—look at your olive-skinned friends of Mediterranean or Armenian extraction—than plenty of black Americans. If Kim Kardashian, the media personality and entrepreneur, counts as white while Maulana Karenga, the radical activist and creator of Kwanzaa, counts as black, it isn’t because he’s darker than she is. So the color term is a poor metonym for the group in question.
And there’s plainly a rationale for capitalizing black in order to head off ambiguity (what am I referring to when I refer to “black hair”?). For many advocates of the uppercase, though, the stakes are far greater. “Black with a capital ‘B’ refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces,” Lori L. Tharps, who teaches journalism at Temple University, wrote in 2015. “When a copyeditor deletes the capital ‘B,’ they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” Or as Anne Price, the president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, put it last year: “capitalizing Black is about claiming power.” When W. E. B. Du Bois campaigned, back in the 1920s, for Negro, rather than negro, he remarked, mordantly: “Eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.” According to the diversity committee of USA Today, which decided last week to capitalize the B-word, the change reflected “understanding and respect.”