In late July, the Associated Press Stylebook, the set of standardized rules of usage that inform newspaper writing, decided to capitalize the letter “b” in the word “Black” when used in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense.
After much discussion, the AP decided to keep the “w” in “white” lowercase. Why does this matter, and is it unfair? Let’s discuss.
As we saw last Wednesday, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks did not take the floor in their first-round playoff Game 5 against the Orlando Magic. Things quickly unfolded throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, as the rest of the slated NBA playoff games were postponed. In addition, three Major League Baseball games were postponed, while some players in games that continued as scheduled decided to sit out their games. All three WNBA games were postponed, as well as most Major League Soccer games. The NHL held a “moment of reflection” in its first game of the evening. All this was in reference to the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha earlier in the week.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with these decisions (American sports leagues as well as the AP). The way the AP sees it, “white people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color,” while capitalizing Black conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.” The word “Black” will be capitalized in the same way that the words “Latino,” “Asian American” and “Native American” are capitalized.
As the AP writes, “We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”
I don’t know if the AP’s recent style change will stay the same long-term. In fact, the AP Stylebook changes all the time, and, as a newspaper columnist who writes about grammar, spelling and punctuation usage, you’d better believe that I have to be on top of the most up-to-date preferred AP usage. Just as the dictionary includes new words based on how and which words are being used in our culture, the AP Stylebook reflects cultural usage as it evolves.
What the capitalization of “Black” (and also “Indigenous” as it refers to original inhabitants of a place), I suggest that the AP is drawing attention to centuries of racial injustice in the United States in the same way that the Bucks’ decision to sit out Game 5 on Wednesday did. These symbolic statements are unprecedented, and they are bringing to light the continued problem of police officers shooting and killing unarmed Black people, while often seeing no negative consequences for their actions. These decisions to not reflect a political agenda, but, rather, a human one.
Police officers are sworn to “serve and protect” the citizens of their towns and cities. This includes all people, Black and white alike. Black people are two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to be killed by police. This is not right. This has to change.
I applaud the NBA and the AP for acutely drawing attention to the issue of racial injustice in the United States. Whether we’re acting in response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or the recent shooting of Jacob Blake (seven times in his back), it’s time to hold police officers accountable for their actions, and demand accountability from their bosses as well as our elected officials on local, state and national levels.
I’m a white father of a strong, handsome and smart Black son. Miles is now in first grade, and I fear as he grows up that he’ll begin to be seen by law enforcement officials as a walking crime-in-progress. How many more Black sons and daughters will become reduced to trending hashtags before things change? How much longer will white Americans ignore the injustices that Black Americans continue to face? My challenge for fellow white people is to learn, discuss and — most importantly — begin to act as allies on behalf of our Black neighbors, friends and coworkers. Do you care? It’s time to do something about it.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.