In the past, I didn’t capitalize “Black” in text, when referring to a group of people. Now I will. The question of why it’s a proper adjective (derived from a proper noun) is worth discussing.
A number of publications have made the switch from “black” to “Black” when referring to people (as opposed to just colors). NYU philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah makes the case eloquently in The Atlantic. The Columbia Journalism Review has a scholarly treatment. And the Washington Post documents the change in newsrooms and publications, including USA Today and other Gannett papers, the LA Times, NBC News, the Boston Globe, and the McClatchy newspaper chain. (The Post itself is still thinking about it.) The Associated Press hasn’t made the change — yet.
So when do you capitalize a word that refers to a group of people?
Proper adjectives and ethnic groups
We all learned about proper nouns in school. A proper noun refers to a specific person, place, thing, or group. For example, The White House is a proper noun (but if you live in “a white house,” that’s not a proper noun, hence no caps). The same applies to individuals — Barack Obama — companies — Facebook — or countries and other geographic entities — France, Normandy, Latin America, the Middle East.
A proper adjective is an adjective derived from a proper noun. Hence it is correct to write about Asian cuisine, Catholic priests, Utahn morals, or Southern hospitality. (Note that the last refers to “the South,” a specific part of the U.S., as opposed to the direction “south.”)
Because most ethnic descriptions are derived from place names, they’re typically capitalized as proper adjectives. For example, you could refer to the Asian tradition, the Hispanic consciousness (which is derived from the name for Spain), and Polish humor. The same also applies to names derived from religions: the Jewish vote.
But Black seems different. We already have “African-American,” but the problem with that is many people who feel ethnically Black don’t trace their ancestry back to Africa — they may have ancestors who are Jamaican or Haitian, for example. Most of the ethnic groups that form the American population are people who immigrated here voluntarily, from China, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Vietnam, or Mexico, for example. Most people who feel ethnically Black had ancestors who arrived in North and South America on slave ships.
It’s clear to me that while the Black community is extremely diverse (as are other groups like Hispanics and Jews, for example), it also has a cohesion that cannot be denied. When you hear a plea that “Black Lives Matter,” there’s no question that it includes descendants of slaves brought from Africa, people who immigrated from Haiti a generation ago, and somebody who came here from Ghana last year. They have a common interest, even if their heritages are diverse.
They need a word that describes their commonality. That word is Black. And it deserves to be capitalized, every bit as much as Jewish, Irish, or Mexican.
Don’t get confused by words that have both proper and common meanings
Does this mean we have to capitalize Black everywhere? Of course not. I could wear black pants, drive a black BMW, and treat diseases of black skin.
There are lots of words that have both proper and common meanings. You can put english (spin) on a cue ball, have a book bound in morocco (a type of leather), or eat off of fine china. Those words are clearly related to their proper counterparts, but are common nouns.
And that doesn’t get in the way of the proper nouns, as when you’re drinking English Breakfast tea imported from China in a Morocco cafe.
Black refers to the group of people, while black refers to the color. It’s not that hard to fathom.
What about “white?”
Black is not the same as white.
There is no white cuisine, and there is no white community. It’s too diverse. As a white Jewish person of Russian ancestry, I have very little in common with a white descendant of English settlers who lives in Alabama, or a white Mormon in Utah. Alabamans have something in common. Mormons do, too. Jews do, and so do Russians. But whites are just a bunch of people who are not part of a minority. As Mike Laws wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.”
If you’ll pardon the pun, there are many shades of grey in this issue. People’s perspectives are evolving. Mine has now evolved; yours should, too. Capitalizing Black when referring to people is a sign of respect. It’s the least you could do.