The Chicago Manual of Style passively, equivocally advocates capitalizing “Black”

The AP Stylebook recently endorsed capitalizing “Black” when referring to the racial or ethnic group. Now the other major stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, has joined in. But the CMoS announcement is hardly a masterpiece of clarity.

Yes. I’m about to critique the style of a book on style. Of course I am.

What’s wrong with the CMoS announcement?

The announcement is below, with my analysis included.

Black and White: A Matter of Capitalization

In light of recent announcements elsewhere in publishing, many of our readers have been asking us whether we continue to recommend lowercase for terms such as black and white to refer to a person’s race or ethnicity, “unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise”—as we have advised in section 8.38 of the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

So we are taking this opportunity to clarify that, as of today—partly in light of old arguments, partly in light of new, and very much in light of recent and ongoing events and the evidence of a real shift in usage across many sources—we have joined the ranks of those who “prefer otherwise.”

First rule: put the most important information in the title and the lede. Instead, CMoS starts with “In light of recent announcements, many of our readers . . ” and ends the second paragraph with “we have joined the ranks of those ‘who prefer otherwise.’ “

Folksy. Clever. And weak.

Just start by saying you recommend capitalizing Black when referring to ethnicity. Then give the context. If you can read the first two paragraphs and still be confused about where the CMoS stands, they haven’t done their jobs.

Specifically, we now prefer to write Black with a capital B when it refers to racial and ethnic identity. At the same time, we acknowledge that, as a matter of editorial consistency, White and similar terms may also be capitalized when used in this sense. We continue to recognize that individual preferences will vary, and we acknowledge that usage may depend on context. A correction has been made to CMOS Online and will also appear in subsequent printings of the seventeenth edition.

Finally, in paragraph 3, the CMoS states its decision clearly. And then it waffles, passively. “White and similar terms may also be capitalized” is passive (better “Writers may capitalize . . . “). This paragraph is equivocal: should White be capitalized? Maybe. Then “individual preferences may vary” and “usage may depend on context.” So CMoS’s stand is full of loopholes. It finishes with the passive “A correction has been made.” I expect more.

As a matter of editorial policy, we avoid making substantive changes to our rules and recommendations between editions, which have historically appeared every seven to ten years. Each edition, then, reflects the prevailing editorial practices at the time of publication. This policy is important to the many writers and editors who apply Chicago style to projects that are developed over the course of months and years, particularly in book publishing.

We do, however, make corrections and clarifications as needed to resolve typographical and other minor errors discovered after publication. These changes are reflected immediately online. And, as always, we use this forum and our Q&A to provide our readers with updates on our latest thinking.

The change we are making today goes beyond the mere correction of a typographical error, but we felt it was too important to hold for the next edition.

I’m sure the Black people who have strived for recognition of their status as an ethnic group are pleased to know that they are more than a typographical error. Really? A little more dignity would be nice here.

Specifically, it is no longer accurate to observe, as we did in 2017 when the seventeenth edition was published, that “black and white . . . are usually lowercased.” Though usage is far from settled, many writers, editors, and publishers now capitalize one or both terms.

The quoted passage is passive. And the theme is that CMoS is trying to catch up to people who actually make decisions.

We offer this update to our recommendations not as a requirement but as a guideline in the service of editorial logic and consistency. As always, we remain true to the caveat in our very first edition: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

In practice, the editors in our Books Division have long taken this principle to mean that if an author has a conscious and consistently applied preference regarding capitalization, punctuation, or the like that differs from what the Manual recommends, we will respect that preference. That is the spirit in which our advice is offered, and in which we hope others receive and interpret it.

More passives: “cannot be endowed . . . are meant . . . must be applied.” And they follow that up with “Do whatever you want, as long as you are consistent.” And then more passive: “advice is offered.”

Why these passives? This is a common problem: people who make decisions, but don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they made the decision. CMoS will get the same criticism for a wimpy, equivocal stance as for a firm one. So be firm! This is no time to be wimpy.

At the same time, we do not want to diminish the significance of our decision, which owes a lot to recent events and to persuasive voices—especially those of Black and Brown authors and their allies in publishing and elsewhere—not only in academia but in news outlets and on social media. The commitment of the Press to honor these voices is at the heart of this change.

Going forward, we hope to more fully incorporate today’s recommendations in future editions of the Manual, though not before conducting a rigorous examination of changing usage, in consultation with our colleagues and readers outside the Press. In the interim, it is with a spirit of equity and with an eye toward future generations—and with a debt of gratitude owed to those who have led us here—that we embrace the changes we have announced today. We hope you will embrace them too.

University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff

How nice that Black and Brown authors were persuasive. It’s just a shame you needed to be persuaded.

And then “we hope to more fully incorporate today’s recommendations in future editions of the Manual, though not before conducting a rigorous examination of changing usage, in consultation with our colleagues and readers outside the Press.” This makes the decision sound provisional, rather than definitive. And if there is one thing the manual of style ought to be, it is definitive.

One more thing. My new least favorite word is “hope.” As in “we hope to more fully incorporate” and “We hope that you will embrace them, too.” For someone who is supposed to be an authority, “hope” is a failed word. Say what you mean. Tell us what to do. I have no use for hope. What I want is clear guidance.

Pathetic. It is better to make the right decision than the wrong one . . . but it is not so great to do so in an equivocal and “hopeful” way.

If you’re an authority, or plan to be one, learn from this. Don’t hope. Direct. Proclaim. Analyze. Give instructions. You’ll get a lot more respect.

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  1. Do they consider the press an ethnic group as well? They capitalized that word.

    Josh, curious if this and response to your previous post on capitalization has changed your mind about your usage of how you refer to us white folks.

    1. The Press is capitalized since it is the University of Chicago Press, which is a proper noun. (The “press” as in “the press is having a field day” are obviously not a proper noun.)

      I haven’t changed my mind on white, but I acknowledge that those who want to capitalize it also have a point.

  2. Chicago Manual, in this same release, capitalizes “Brown.” So where does that leave all the other skin colours? How do we describe people who look Oriental but are not ethnic Chinese? “Yellow”? Currently, people who look even vaguely Chinese are being attacked in the streets for spreading Coronavirus. How do we write about them?

    It seems just creepy to capitalize “White,” as CMoS allows for but seems clearly uncomfortable with. But to do otherwise is to elevate one colour/race/ethnic group above the others.

    How about Autistic vs. neurotypical? Homosexual vs. heterosexual? Does the capital letter fix anything for gay people or people on the spectrum?

    Are some colours/races/ethnic groups/cultural groups/minorities “more equal than others”? Oh, what a corner we’ve painted ourselves into.

  3. As a technical writer, I never use “may” in writing, unless the implication is that I am authorizing permission. Most of the time, people “can” do something if they want to. So, I would say that “Writers can capitalize . . .”

  4. I am clear on Chicago’s being in charge of communicating the prevailing best practices of formal style and grammar. As the best practices change, so does Chicago (reminds one of the windy city…). Chicago is at most an influential advisor that has as much authority as you give it, just like any reference guide. Style guides and dictionaries are caught in the difficult position of being in charge except when they don’t want the consequence of responsibility, or don’t have any real power to effect change, upon which time it is clear that they have none.

    Remember, if reference guides were the final say on anything, there wouldn’t be any new words added to dictionaries aside from technical terms, scientific jargon, new scholarly philosophical terms, etc. People would just learn all the words, speaking and writing from there. Any time something new arose in style or grammar, the Chicago scholars would put their Black, Brown, White (and Yellow?) heads together and invent a perfect grammatic solution, and everyone would begin to use said solution without question. Except that’s not how language works.

    Chicago is waffling because things may soon change again, as the racial politics in this country is evolving by the day. Chicago is just saying, Hey this is where we are right now, and we’ll make other changes when prevailing attitudes go in another direction. Remember, that’s all they can do. Because the people decide the language, not style guides. Realizing that is part of the reason why people are pushing for these changes in the first place. As for Chicago, they’re just trying to find that perfect middle ground which, as you’ve correctly pointed out, looks absurd. But the added indignation is a bit much.

    1. Bravo, Zack! Bravo!

      The reason I just can’t make myself use the capital B for Black and the small w for white is the same reason I would find it repugnant the other way around: A White man and a black man walked into a bar….
      See how that looks?
      It’s equality we’re after, not redress by grammar.
      I understand (and applaud) the intent behind that capital B, but can’t we just make all the people of all the colours equal?