The changing of names for Black people in the US, from Colored through Negro to African American, has always been intertwined with politics. This is true today with regard to the decision of several US publications to capitalise the b in Black when referring to Black people. But to understand why people have advocated for this orthographic change today, it’s necessary to turn to history.
The traditional account of these transitions suggests that Black people seek a change in name as a means of seeking political recognition. According to such a history, the term Colored was associated with slavery, which led Black people to seek to be called Negroes, a change the US census accepted in 1900. From the 1890s on, WEB Du Bois and others campaigned for publications to capitalise the n in Negro to represent Negroes as a proper noun and hence as people.
In the mid-century, a new generation associated the term Negro with the politics of those who sought success within America’s racial hierarchy rather than those trying to transform it. That generation proffered several terms – including Afro-American, African American and Black – to represent Black people as a people deserving political equality. In the 1980s, as Jesse Jackson campaigned for president, he and others fought for the capitalisation of African American. They wanted, in other words, to represent Black people as a distinct people within the US who deserved all the rights of American citizens, including the presidency. According to the traditional history, changes in names have been, simultaneously, political demands for equity from US institutions.
Yet this traditional history obscures the broader spectrum of political demands of those periods. In the same time in which Du Bois fought for the capitalisation of Negro, he also fought to end lynching and Jim Crow. During the middle of the century, Black Americans in the New Afrikan Independence Movement dubbed themselves New Afrikans, demanded territory owned by the United States, and tried to create a New Afrikan nation. And in the 1980s, groupsincluding the Black Panthers and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement sought political autonomy from the United States. While the name changes succeeded, many of the more radical demands were denied and forgotten.
Today, the move to capitalise Black emerges from a similarly wide field of political demands. As protesters across the nation responded to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, Sarah Glover, penned an open letter calling for publications to capitalise Black: “There is momentous change across America that we are bearing witness to … Journalism and media companies must have a reckoning with themselves, reflect upon their own practices and also shatter systemic racism that exists within the mighty bowels of the free press.” (The Guardian’s style guide notes that “there is ongoing debate about the capitalisation of black” and that while generally lower-case is to be employed, “if a writer, editor or subject of a story prefers to use Black then that choice should be respected”.)
The call from Glover and others was one of many political demands levied at American institutions this summer, just as past transitions to new names for Black people were part of larger movements for new political orders. To reduce these traditions solely to changes in name, however, is a means of denying those demands for safety and liberation all over again.
Importantly, the move towards the use of a capitalised Black people, as opposed to African American, stems from movements that understand anti-blackness as persecuting Black people regardless of their country of origin. Not all Black victims of police violence in America are born in the US; Amadou Diallo was a Guinean immigrant. And this past year, Black people worldwide have decried state violence outside of the United States with Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, Ghana, and Brazil, among many other countries. The move from African American towards Black people, ultimately, stems from the recognition that anti-Black state violence persecutes Black people globally.
But the history of the present has not yet been written. Asking writers to hold down a shift key is simply not enough. Orthographic progress ought also be met with political transformations, including police and prison abolition.
While publications cannot abolish both institutions themselves, I do think that news media can do more. In particular, they should stop overvaluing police accounts of newsworthy incidents. As the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his co-authors documented in their landmark work, Policing the Crisis, newspapers tend to consult police officers about crime first and treat their memories as more trustworthy and authoritative than those of involved civilians. The result is the propagation of a narrative – often in the crucial aftermath of a contested event, like a fatal shooting – that is favoured by the police, a trend that remains true today.
Even more troubling, newspapers can overvalue police accounts of their own violence. Take, for instance, a 12 June article for The Philadelphia Inquirer about widely criticised police violence during protests in Philadelphia, in which the authors primarily relay the police officers’ (and those of the city officials, who oversee them) explanation for their poor response to the protests. The article suggests that the police attacked Philadelphians because there were not enough police officers and because there was not a clear plan. The way to make those anti-police violence protests safer, in other words, would have been to increase police presence. By depending on those who had the greatest incentives to lie (incentives that include avoiding political and moral outrage as well as keeping their jobs), the article legitimated the very institution the protesters were calling into question.
Police officers are no more (if not less, given the function of their roles) trustworthy than other people when discussing police violence. If journalists across the world reacquaint themselves with the critical value of scepticism when it comes to police testimony, they could take a step towards ending systemic racism that amounts to much more than a change in house style – and help fulfil the promise that the current moment yields.
• Elias Rodriques is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and his first novel is forthcoming