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The last time The New York Times made a sweeping call to capitalize how it referred to people of African ancestry was nearly a century ago.
W.E.B. Du Bois had started a letter-writing campaign asking publications, including The Times, to capitalize the N in Negro, a term long since eradicated from The Times’s pages. “The use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings,” he once wrote, was “a personal insult.”
The Times turned him down in 1926 before coming around in 1930, when the paper wrote that the new entry in its stylebook — its internal guide on grammar and usage — was “not merely a typographical change,” but “an act in recognition of racial self-respect.”
Decades later, a monthlong internal discussion at The Times led the paper on Tuesday to make, for similar reasons, its latest style change on race — capitalizing Black when describing people and cultures of African origin.
“We believe this style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, and Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, in a memo to staff.
Conversations about the change began in earnest at The Times and elsewhere after the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, said Mike Abrams, senior editor for editing standards. Several major news media organizations have made the same call including The Associated Press, whose stylebook has long been an influential guide for news organizations.
“It seems like such a minor change, black versus Black,” The Times’s National editor, Marc Lacey, said. “But for many people the capitalization of that one letter is the difference between a color and a culture.”
As tensions rose across the country, Mr. Abrams noticed members of the newsroom raising questions about the capital B and sharing articles on the subject in Slack, the workplace chat platform. He talked with editors at other publications, including The A.P. and The Washington Post, about conversations happening in their newsrooms. And he talked with Times staff members: more than 100 of them, by phone, email and Slack.
“The lowercase B in Black has never made sense to me as a Black woman, and it didn’t make sense to me as a Black girl,” said Destinée-Charisse Royal, a senior staff editor in the Graphics department and one of the editors consulted on the change. “My thought was that the capital B makes sense as it describes a race, a cultural group, and that is very different from a color in a box of crayons.”
The style change is one of dozens of other updates or additions that have been made to The Times’s usage guide this year, Mr. Abrams said. The decisions can take anywhere from hours to months. Suggestions for changes are typically submitted by staff through email or an online form, filtered into a spreadsheet and parsed each month by the Standards team.
New entries, intentionally, can often lag behind the most current language. Ms. Royal likened new style guidance to new dictionary entries: The Times adds words once people are already widely using them, not before.
“We don’t treat the stylebook as an instrument of activism; we don’t view it as at the vanguard of language,” Mr. Abrams said. “We generally want the stylebook to reflect common usage.”
Most updates don’t require much input or approval from other editors, but on sensitive issues, he said, particularly those that reach every corner of Times coverage, a range of perspectives is vital.
“Some have been pushing for this change for years,” Mr. Lacey said. “They consider Black like Latino and Asian and Native American, all of which are capitalized. Others see the change as a distraction from more important issues. Then there are those troubled that our policy will now capitalize ‘Black’ but not ‘white.’ Over all, the view was that there was a growing agreement in the country to capitalize and that The Times should not be a holdout.”
Before the style change, Ms. Royal said, some writers might have been inclined to use African-American — the only uppercase option, and still acceptable per the Times stylebook — even when Black might have been more accurate.
“Because of the history of Black people in this country, most of us do not have a specific African nation to link our ancestry back to,” she said. “Broadly speaking, when you are looking at a group of people of African ancestry in the United States, you do not know if they identify as African-American. You do not know if they were born in, say, Ghana or if they were born in the Bronx like I was.”
But specificity is always preferred when possible, Mr. Abrams said — that is, when race is mentioned at all. Times policy advises reporters to cite a person’s race only if it’s pertinent to an article, and in those situations, reporters must explain why.
The Times also looked at whether to capitalize white and brown in reference to race, but both will remain lowercase. Brown has generally been used to describe a wide range of cultures, Mr. Baquet and Mr. Corbett said in their memo to staff. As a result, its meaning can be unclear to readers; white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.
“To be parallel does make sense usage-wise when talking about grammar and usage, but we can never just go on these sorts of standards,” Ms. Royal said. “Language doesn’t work that way. You have to consider the other factors.”