In a story about the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, a description of a player set off my grammar alarm.
It read, “…a Black member of the school’s volleyball team….”
Why was an adjective capitalized? It is well known that the primary work of an adjective is to describe. In the case above, the word “black” is used to describe a person.
Colors—black, blue, green, orange, etc.—can be adjectives, common nouns, and verbs. But the only time a color is capitalized as a proper noun is when it is part of a name.
I know a man named Steve Green. I’ve eaten at The Red Hen. I’ve shopped for clothing at White House Black Market.
A few days later, I read a news story that spoke of a highly-respected “Black federal judge.”
Though I am not an expert grammarian, I try to keep up with the rules. Thus, the reason I had to find out if adjectives had somehow morphed into proper nouns while I was sleeping.
I discovered that indeed they have, but no they haven’t. In other words, I found a glaringly inconsistent rules change by The Associated Press (AP).
I came across an AP story by David Bauder with the headline: “AP says it will capitalize Black but not white” (July 2020). Amid the uncertainty of COVID and unrestrained rioting across the U.S., the AP decided to make an adjective a proper noun—but only one adjective, the word “black.”
Many publishers follow guidelines set either by the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manuel of Style.
Quoting Bauder’s article, the powers that be at the AP decided that “…the word ‘Black’ when used in the context of race and culture” would be capitalized. However, “…it would not do the same for ‘white.’”
In explanation, the AP contends that “… white people, in general, have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”
So, elevating the word “Black” to proper noun status and not doing the same with “white” is not discrimination? What’s it called if “White” is capitalized and not “black”?
Before anyone gets all worked up, let me remind you that I am a firm believer that God doesn’t favor any color, country, or political party. In His eyes and mine, ALL lives matter.
I would be equally annoyed if the AP Stylebook used an uppercase “W” for white and not for black, blue, green, yellow, red, orange, and more.
And I’m not the only one. The National Association of Black Journalists and more than a few Black scholars disagree with the AP. They think White should also be capitalized.
In a country that appears to be striving for equality doesn’t such a rule create division? The media outlets’ response shouts, “Yes.”
The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times were among the organizations that went with capitalizing “Black,” but have not done the same for “white.”
On the flip side, outlets including CNN, CBS News, Fox News, and The San Diego Union-Tribune favor consistency. They capitalize “Black” and “White,” applying the same rules they follow when referencing Asian, Latino, and other ethnic groups.
One major positive is that newspapers/broadcasters remain free to adopt rules changes or not.
The New York Times agreed with the AP, stating “White doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does.”
Really? That’s like saying the English, French, and Irish have no shared culture and history.
If we still taught history in this country, students would discover a treasure trove of culture and history for people both Black and White. There also exists lots of positive shared history between all ethnic American groups.
If the United States is truly seeking equality, Dr. Martin Luther King would wonder why we continue to describe and define individuals by adjectives. To confine people to black, white, purple, green, or yellow is nonsensical.
We all are and should be referred to as one proper noun: Americans (with a capital “A”).
writer, blogger, columnist