black, Black, etc.

From an op-ed column in the NYT on the 19th, “The Case for Black With a Capital B” by Lori L. Tharps:

this is one of my greatest frustrations as a writer and a Black woman living in the United States. When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.

Linguists, academics and activists have been making this point for years, yet the publishing industry — our major newspapers, magazines and books — resist making this simple yet fundamental change. Both Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries state that when referring to African-Americans, Black can be and often is capitalized, but the New York Times and Associated Press stylebooks continue to insist on black with a lowercase b. Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?

I’m not going to object to this orthographic proposal, but I am going to argue that (though it’s innocuous) it’s not especially useful and is seriously confused on the nature of the categories at issue.

Precedents. Tharps is right to note the use of Black rather than black by linguists and other academics. My Stanford colleague John Rickford, in particular, varies between using African-American and Black as the adjective and noun referring to the group in question: one of his books uses the former and another of his books (and his Stanford course on the vernacular variety of English associated with the group) uses Black.

Orthography only. Tharps’s proposal affects orthography only; there is no distinction in speech between Black and black in speech. There’s an advantage here, but a small one. (There’s a similar issue here in the literature an ASL (American Sign Language), where many authorities make a distinction between deaf (referring to hearing impairment) and Deaf (referring to membership in a particular sociocultural community). More on this distinction below, but again the distinction can be conveyed only in print.)

Prevailing usage. The fact is that /blæk/, however spelled (black people or Black people), is customarily used to refer to the racial group, and only very rarely to people of a certain skin color. So the orthographic proposal doesn’t buy you much. (This in contrast to the ASL case, where the different spellings convey a real difference.)

What are Black people, then? The AP calls for proper names of “nationalities, peoples, races, tribes” to be slled with initial caps, and Tharps clearly intends that Black people constitute a race, but this is simply confused. Paraphrasing Rickford (on other occasions), Black (or African-American) refers to an

American descendant of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa

— moreover, one who participates in a community (linked by various cultural practices) of people in this group. That is, BLACK (using all-caps to refer to the category rather than to any label for its members) refers to a complex sociocultural identity that involves race, ethnicity, nationality, shared history, language, and other cultural practices.

Black vs. White. Tharps got into this topic by looking at a student writer who opted to write about Blacks and Whites, rather than blacks and whites. Seeing BLACK as a sociocultural identity clarifies things somewhat, but it’s not clear that WHITE is a corresponding socioculural identity, and the ways people use white and White are so various that it’s hard to make sense of things. White/white suprem(ac)ists exclude a large number of groups from their category — not only Blacks, but also Hispanics/Latinos, Jews, Native Americans, and more. Meanwhile, the current immigration controversy in the U.S. counterposes Hispanics/Latinos to whites, where Jews count as whites, and Blacks don’t figure in things at all. U.S. census categories are thoroughly balled up (and change with almost every census).  Many people fall back on the 18th and 19th century racial “color” categories White, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Red. And so on.

(And all of this is in the context of people in the U.S., when it’s obvious that the situation is different in other places. And in other times as well.)

In any case, there are clearly quite a few sociocultural identities at issue here, crying out for systematic and careful analysis. And also several systems of everyday (not academic) categorizations of race and ethnicity, which also cry out for analysis.

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