How the Murder of George Floyd Affected U.S. Newsrooms

Derek Chauvin with his knee on the neck of George Floyd. Wikipedia

By Charlotte Dennett

The televised trial of (former) officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has once again brought home how deeply embedded racism is in our “Anglo-Saxon” culture. New video footage of Floyd’s cries for help, accompanied by bystanders’ anguished protests throughout the entire 9 minute and 29 seconds of his painful demise, will hopefully have far-reaching ramifications regarding police reform and legislative actions to redress racist policies in the U.S.

What you may not know is that the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death last summer caused considerable introspection and angst in American newsrooms over an issue that may strike some as relatively trivial, but to editors throughout the U.S. was long overdue and fraught with meaning: whether to capitalize the word “black” in reference to “peoples of African ancestry.”

When I came on as Guest Editor of Toward Freedom, I wondered how to handle the issue and learned of two fascinating articles on the subject, one by the New York Times (favoring the capitalization of Black but not white) and the Atlantic (favoring the capitalization of both.) I will link them and summarize some of their main points below to give you a window on how the editors reached their conclusions after going into a deep dive into the cultural issues surrounding the issue of race in America.

Nancy Coleman, in her Times article “Why We’re Capitalizing Black” pointed out  that the last time the Times considered whether to capitalize people of African ancestry was nearly a century ago, when in 1926 the paper rejected W.E.B. Dubois’s campaign to capitalize the N in Negro. Dubois claimed it was insulting to twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings not to have the N in Negro capitalized.

When the Times finally came around in 1930 and made a new entry into its stylebook (on grammar and usage) the change, the paper offered, was “not merely a typographical change,” but “an act in recognition of racial self-respect.”

The term Negro has long since been eradicated by the Times, Coleman points out. But in the summer of 2020, following “the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests,” internal discussions in the New York Times apparently went on for a month. They included calls to other news organizations like the AP and Washington Post and consultations with over 100 staff members who had begun sharing articles on the subject in Slack, which is a workplace chat platform.

Destinee-Charisse Royal, a Times staff senior editor was among those consulted and quoted in the Times article.

“The lowercase B in Black has never made sense to me as a Black woman, and it didn’t make sense to me as a Black girl,” she explained. “My thought was that the capital B makes sense as it describes a race, a cultural group, and that is very different from a color in a box of crayons.”

The Times National editor, Marc Lacey, put it this way: “It seems like such a minor change, black versus Black. But for many people the capitalization of that one letter is the difference between a color and a culture.”

Lacey went on to explain the internal debate in greater detail:  “Some have been pushing for this change for years, They consider Black like Latino and Asian and Native American, all of which are capitalized. Others,” he added, “see the change as a distraction from more important issues. Then there are those troubled that our policy will now capitalize ‘Black’ but not ‘white.’ Over all, the view was that there was a growing agreement in the country to capitalize [Black] and that The Times should not be a holdout.”

The Atlantic, in its Time to Capitalize ‘Black’—And ‘White’ – The Atlantic deliberated at length over whether to capitalize white and ended up deciding to do so, but not before Kwame Anthony Appiah, the author of the article, explored the full range of discourse on the matter, noting  that the reasons given for capitalizing only black “can sometimes be perplexing—in a way that reveals larger perplexities about the meaning of race.”

I won’t go into all the formal usage distinctions, like traditionally capitalizing entities (the Pacific Ocean, Copenhagen) and not capitalizing “natural kinds” that “are independent of our interests or doings (Einstein cf einsteinium, the element that is not capitalized).” Appiah concludes that black is “not a natural category” but a social one, that is, a “black person sometime does things as a black person, and is sometimes treated as a black person.”

I found myself sympathizing with a writer for the Insight Center, cited in Appiah’s article, who wrote.  “We strongly believe that leaving white in lowercase represents a righting of a long-standing wrong, and a demand for dignity and racial equity…Until the wrongs against Black people have been righted, she adds, “we cannot embrace equal treatment in our language.” The capital letter, in her view, “amounts to a benefit that white people should be awarded only after white supremacy has been rolled back.”

Well, what about white people? Appiah cites The Style Guide of the American Psychological Association, which declares: “Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use ‘Black’ and ‘White’ instead of ‘black’ and ‘white.’” Appiah finds that article “sensible enough.”

White is the sticking point

But for some people, he has found, “White is the sticking point.” He notes that the The American Heritage Dictionary declared in its fourth edition: “In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.” Including, interestingly enough, Appiah, who refrains from capitalizing black or white in his entire article.

What do white supremacists think? “What supremacist websites,” explains Appiah, have “been known to capitalize the w in white; by doing the same, do we lend them support?” He then posits, “If the capitalization of white became standard among anti-racists, the supremacists’ gesture would no longer be a provocative defiance of the norm and would lose all force.”

The style guide of the American Psychological Association, Appiah continues,  declares –as it has for a generation– that “racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use ‘Black’ and ‘White’ instead of ‘black’ and ‘white.’” ..”

An MIT philosopher favors capitalizing the names of all races, ‘to highlight the artificiality of race.” Observes Sally Haslanger “racial identities were not discovered but created.” Concludes Appiah, “She’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them.”

This is the closest he comes to endorsing the capitalization of white.

His piece is titled “The Case for Capitalizing b in Black,” but it comes with the subhead: “Black and white are both historically created racial identities—and whatever rule applies to one should apply to the other.” That seems to be the Atlantic’s position, which, if you check the URL for his article, reads “It’s Time to Capitalize ‘Black’—And ‘White’ – The Atlantic

It’s a fascinating discourse, one that forces us to examine our own culture by looking at the written word as it has evolved. And while Appiah does justice to the arguments favoring the capitalization of White, we on the editorial board of Toward Freedom have decided to capitalize Black, but not white for some of the reasons mentioned above. We agree that race is an artificial construct. But we are still a long ways away from dignifying white with a capital W.

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