This week, the Herald Community Newspapers are making a seemingly small, but we believe critical, change to our Style Guide. Going forward, the Herald will use a capital B when writing about Black people.
Our choice was motivated by the Associated Press’s decision to do the same. The Herald generally follows AP style in its writing, only occasionally veering from it, as is the case with hundreds of newspapers across the United States.
After the AP’s decision — and a similar one by The New York Times, which has style guidelines of its own — we began considering whether our policy on the use of the lower-case b required reconsideration, culminating with a group discussion with our editorial staff. We wanted to reach a consensus based on sound reasoning.
We concluded that the capital B is about more than skin color. It represents a shared history and culture among a traditionally marginalized group of people in our society. We had, for many years, used African-American when referring to Black people, but many Black people do not describe themselves as African-American, having lost their ties to Africa centuries ago.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded into the American consciousness after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, crystallized in our minds the importance of the capital B. Black, in this case, not only represents a movement toward social justice, but also a shared identity.
We are making one exception to the new rule. We will not capitalize black in Crime Watch items, where black speaks only of a person’s physical description. In keeping with our longtime policy, no person can be described in Crime Watch solely by the color of his or her skin. A physical description must also include height, weight, clothing and any distinguishing features, such as a beard.
Many will ask why the AP, The Times — and now the Herald — will not capitalize white. First, and most important, white does not represent a shared socio-cultural identity. It is simply a physical description. Most white Americans can, and do, trace their roots back to Europe. They know what countries their ancestors came from, with stories of grandparents and great-great-grandparents passed down in family trees and oral histories. These histories help white Americans feel a sense of cultural heritage, a connection to their past, whether they are Irish-American, Italian-American or Polish-American.
Most Black people in America had their familial and cultural ties ripped away from them because of slavery. In the nation’s earliest census at the end of the 18th century, Blacks accounted for nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population, with nearly all brought here as slaves from Africa, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, most of the nation’s 40 million U.S.-born Black people are descended from this original population.
Enslaved Blacks were forced to start over, developing a shared socio-cultural identity in this new and terrifying land. To write Black, as opposed to black, is to recognize this identity.
Changing a newspaper’s style will do nothing to alter the social and economic conditions that Black people face in America. It will not reverse the evils of systemic racism, which has oppressed them since they were forcibly brought to this land. When all of us commit to and work toward ending racism, in all its forms, we will at last eradicate it.
To write Black is a sign of respect for a people who have, for too long, been castigated and downtrodden. The Herald has long been committed to reporting on the issues that matter to the Black community. In 2014 we took on a yearlong investigative series, “Living on the Edge,” about the challenges that people face making ends meet in Nassau County. Issues of poverty, we found, disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic people. Last year, we took on another yearlong series, “The Racism Around Us,” examining myriad examples of systemic racism throughout society.
In choosing Black instead of black in our Style Guide, we are committing to continuing such reporting in the future.