Black is not a color

When I saw this magazine cover, I did a double-take:

At a glance I didn’t think that was Black Hair. Seems like a good time to bring up the old schoolyard debate point: Black is not a color.

In many quarters, such as the those administered under the rules of the Chicago Manual of Style, black is a color, which means it’s not capitalized:

8.39 Color. Common designations of ethnic groups by color are usually lowercased unless a particular publisher or author prefers otherwise… (black people; blacks; people of color; white people; whites)

That rule, from the 16th edition, is progress from the 15th, which said “capitalization may be appropriate if the writer strongly prefers it” (8.43, emphasis added). Under that older provision in 1996, the journal Signs required that I add a footnote in my first journal publication, which read, “I … capitalize Black to signify its reference to a people rather than a color or a ‘race.'”*

Most media do not capitalize Black or White. The Associated Press Stylebook reads:

black Acceptable for a person of the black race. African-American is acceptable for an American black person of African descent. (Use Negro only in names of organizations or in quotations.) Do not use colored as a synonym.

So, for example:

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012. The death of the unarmed black teenager and the decision of the local police not to bring charges against the volunteer, George Zimmerman, 28, set off a national outcry…

Sociology journals are inconsistent. For example, the American Sociological Review goes both ways (e.g., this 2010 presidential address used uncapitalized black, while our 2007 article’s capitalization sailed through without objection). On the other hand, some sociology journals follow the more progressive APA Style, in which Black is capitalized (as is White).

In the wider American world – at least as measured by Google Books ngrams – the uncapitalized version is leading by about 3-to-1.

(Black by itself wouldn’t work, so I added “people.” The pattern is the same if you use “community” instead.)

The Census Bureau capitalizes, as in this report on the 2010 Census:

“Black or African American” refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s) as “Black, African Am., or Negro” or reported entries such as African American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian.

That usage differs from the Office of Management and Budget directive, from which that language is drawn: “…any of the black racial groups of Africa,” without capitalization. That Census practice of capitalizing seems to have started between 1990 and 1995. (Others, like the Department of Education, have their own rules, which specify that racial designations should be capitalized.)

Finally, African American is not going to get us out of this. It is not appropriate when the subject really is race rather than ethnicity. I feel for this poor research subject in a Census cognitive interview:

She is an immigrant to the US from Africa. However, roughly six generations ago her ancestors were from India. She lived in an Indian community in Africa prior to immigrating to the United States. She answered “no” to … “Black or African American” because she was from an African country, but of Indian origin. She answered “yes” to the Asian question and “yes” to Asian Indian. She also reported ‘some other race’ by saying “African, not African American, African from Africa, Asian African.”

Anyway, Black and White are racial terms. They are a social construction and not a biological classification. We use them socially. Whether or not that’s OK, I think it’s better to capitalize them at least.

*Update: I just noticed this footnote by Catharine MacKinnon, who was also asked by Signs (University of Chicago Press) to justify capitalizing Black for her 1982 articlewhich I assigned in my stratification seminar. She wrote:

I have rendered “marxism” in lower case and “Black” in upper case and have been asked by the publisher to explain these choices. … Black is conventionally (I am told) regarded as a color rather than a racial or national designation, hence is not usually capitalized. I do not regard Black as merely a color of skin pigmentation, but as a heritage, an experience, a cultural and personal identity, the meaning of which becomes specifically stigmatic and/or glorious and/or ordinary under specific social conditions. It is as much socially created as, and at least in the American context no less specifically meaningful or definitive than, any linguistic, tribal, or religious ethnicity, all of which are conventionally recognized by capitalization.

I guess I should have cited her note for my article.

P.S. If your organization or publication has its own way – or I’ve misrepresented a practice you know better than I do – please let us know.


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9 responses to “Black is not a color

  1. The underlying issue in English usage is whether there is a proper noun involved.(i.e. one that refers to a specific named group of people.) Contrast: “There are many Democrats here” with “There are many liberals here”. To capitalize Liberals in the preceding entry would be appropriate only if one were referring to members of a party named the Liberal Party. “Negroes” fought to have “Negro” capitalized in the first half of the 20th Century and Black people typically prefer to have Black capitalized and insist upon that convention in many circles, leading many Whites to adopt it. Black people would often capitalize Black but not white, and there are many academics who argue this is correct, i.e. that Blacks are and should be recognized as a corporate entity in a way that whites/Whites are not. After studying up on the issue I started capitalizing White as well, partly out of symmetry and partly because I think Whites do act as a corporate entity.


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  5. Allison

    The journal Gender & Society requires Black to be capitalized but not white. I assume this is intended to follow the influence of racial justice movements, including Black power, to capitalize Black (esp. since otherwise they follow Univ of Chicago B style which uses lower case). Yet, I have often heard the argument that black and white should not be capitalized because doing so reifies racial categories as real and immutable. Your argument is the opposite: because they are social constructions they should be capitalized. Why would this follow? Is the point that treating these words as names for a people requires capitalization out of respect for lived reality of the group? I suspect this is the logic of Gender & Society’s policy. But this cuts both ways, White supremacist movements also prefer to have white capitalized. I appreciate the point about acknowledging a people, but how are the enormously diverse people that we typically define as “black” or “white” a social group unless you rely on biological notions of race to define the group? I still think social construction arguments about race suggest not capitalizing either.


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  7. Grantwriter

    whenever i need to discuss “black” or “white” and I am referring specifically to the social construct of race, I lowercase each and put within quotation marks.


  8. some white guy

    I prefer leaving these terms uncapitalized. Doing so indicates that these are indeed just skin colors. Treating them as proper terms seems to me to somewhat endorse them as indicators of “race.”


  9. Robert Lopresti

    I am dealing with the copy-editors of my book and are trying to decide whether to argue this point. I am using black, white, African American, negro, and mulatto (it’s a history book, obviously) and I would like to capitalize them all…


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