Checking newspapers' tortured explanations for capitalizing 'black'

Harold Ross must be spinning in his grave, tearing out leaves from his copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage.

With little fanfare, The New Yorker followed suit with other periodicals and adopted a new capital-letter convention: plumping the lower-case "b" in "blacks" to "Blacks."  The style change was implemented in the hebdomadal journal's July 20, 2020 issue.  It was not evident in the previous issue, a doublized special dated for July 6 and 13. 

Unlike other papers and newsweeklies, The New Yorker didn't announce the change in a cloying justification, slavering for a smidgeon of approval from sensitive Black Lives Matter–supporters.  Most publications did: "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 New York Times executive editor Dean Banquet.  "These changes align with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American," wrote John Daniszewski, vice president for standards at the Associated Press.  "When people are offended by how we describe their community, we have to listen," pleaded Cristina Silva, relaying the move on behalf of USA Today.

The common thread among all these expositions is appeasement, not appeals to grammar, consistent style, linguistics, elucidation, or plain understanding of language.  Put another way, it's a normative prescription — this alteration is a mark of moral standing.  Abide, or be a bigot.

What makes The New Yorker's affirmation of capitalizing "black" significant is the uniqueness of its house style, which bucks modern editing mores.  A working-class man of little education, founder Harold Ross was an autodidact in journalism and belles-lettres.  He formalized his ignorance by making sure his rag's style adhered as close to unbendable logic as fluid language like English allows.  It's why the magazine's copy-editors still place diaereses above words like "coöperate" and "reëlect" and insert commas before and after suffixes like "Jr."  Eustace Tilley is as hidebound with his stylistic tics as his monocle and poet shirt.

That The New Yorker capitulated to capitalizing "blacks" shows the real power of the Afro-supremacy movement.  And supremacy it is.  Observe the psychological anchoring effect that takes place in the following sentence from a profile on Steve Mnuchin: quoting Michelle Holder of John Jay College, staff writer Sheelah Kolhatkar carefully writes, "It may be difficult for someone like the Treasury Secretary to relate to what is happening with the everyday Joe and Joanna, whether they be Black or white or brown." 

Not only is "Black" placed before white and brown, but its capitalization suggests that it occupies a higher stratum in a contrived hierarchy of races.  Like with affirmative action, racial equality in de rigueur lexicology means inverting egalitarianism completely, awarding special treatment to some and not others.  It also has the unintended — or possibly intended — effect of belittling other races unworthy of an uppercase. 

Racial resentment, it would seem, is top of mind for the executive editors choosing to award capitalization to "black" over our shrinking phylum of race classifications (using "red" to describe someone of American Indian lineage is now verboten.)  The reasoning behind excluding whites is based on a reductionist view of cultural diversity.  The Seattle Times rationalized its continued lowercasing of "white" with a bit of pop sociology: "Unlike 'Black,' [white] is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures."

This is a pitifully lacking explanation, not to mention patronizing of the wide variety of folkways and traditions that trace back to Africa.  As Harper's contributor Thomas Chatterson points out, "[t]here are 371 tribes in Nigeria alone.  How can even all the various immigrants from Nigeria, from Igbo to Yoruba, be said to constitute a single ethnicity?"  The irony is that the Manhattanite quill-drivers who love these sweeping racial standards will argue endlessly over the uniqueness of their ten-block neighborhood on the East Side.  Forget the distinctive spices the Igbo tribe adds to jollof rice — haven't you tried the pre-made ham sandwiches in this Lenox Hill bodega!?

Amalgamating racial identity and assigning capitalization based on preconceived notions of justice makes the upper-casing of "black" an ideological and political preference.  It's of a piece with what Andrew Sullivan calls the "new newspeak," which includes the degenderizing of birthing terms like "breastfeeding."

This kind of tortured twisting of perfectly good English would make a "profane rube" like Ross hot with indignation.  As a longtime subscriber to The New Yorker, it's my hope the faddish bumpf is but a blip on the diachronic grammar timeline.  Racial equality doesn't come from an unequal holding of the shift key with your pinky for one skin color.

Harold Ross must be spinning in his grave, tearing out leaves from his copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage.

With little fanfare, The New Yorker followed suit with other periodicals and adopted a new capital-letter convention: plumping the lower-case "b" in "blacks" to "Blacks."  The style change was implemented in the hebdomadal journal's July 20, 2020 issue.  It was not evident in the previous issue, a doublized special dated for July 6 and 13. 

Unlike other papers and newsweeklies, The New Yorker didn't announce the change in a cloying justification, slavering for a smidgeon of approval from sensitive Black Lives Matter–supporters.  Most publications did: "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 New York Times executive editor Dean Banquet.  "These changes align with long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American," wrote John Daniszewski, vice president for standards at the Associated Press.  "When people are offended by how we describe their community, we have to listen," pleaded Cristina Silva, relaying the move on behalf of USA Today.

The common thread among all these expositions is appeasement, not appeals to grammar, consistent style, linguistics, elucidation, or plain understanding of language.  Put another way, it's a normative prescription — this alteration is a mark of moral standing.  Abide, or be a bigot.

What makes The New Yorker's affirmation of capitalizing "black" significant is the uniqueness of its house style, which bucks modern editing mores.  A working-class man of little education, founder Harold Ross was an autodidact in journalism and belles-lettres.  He formalized his ignorance by making sure his rag's style adhered as close to unbendable logic as fluid language like English allows.  It's why the magazine's copy-editors still place diaereses above words like "coöperate" and "reëlect" and insert commas before and after suffixes like "Jr."  Eustace Tilley is as hidebound with his stylistic tics as his monocle and poet shirt.

That The New Yorker capitulated to capitalizing "blacks" shows the real power of the Afro-supremacy movement.  And supremacy it is.  Observe the psychological anchoring effect that takes place in the following sentence from a profile on Steve Mnuchin: quoting Michelle Holder of John Jay College, staff writer Sheelah Kolhatkar carefully writes, "It may be difficult for someone like the Treasury Secretary to relate to what is happening with the everyday Joe and Joanna, whether they be Black or white or brown." 

Not only is "Black" placed before white and brown, but its capitalization suggests that it occupies a higher stratum in a contrived hierarchy of races.  Like with affirmative action, racial equality in de rigueur lexicology means inverting egalitarianism completely, awarding special treatment to some and not others.  It also has the unintended — or possibly intended — effect of belittling other races unworthy of an uppercase. 

Racial resentment, it would seem, is top of mind for the executive editors choosing to award capitalization to "black" over our shrinking phylum of race classifications (using "red" to describe someone of American Indian lineage is now verboten.)  The reasoning behind excluding whites is based on a reductionist view of cultural diversity.  The Seattle Times rationalized its continued lowercasing of "white" with a bit of pop sociology: "Unlike 'Black,' [white] is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures."

This is a pitifully lacking explanation, not to mention patronizing of the wide variety of folkways and traditions that trace back to Africa.  As Harper's contributor Thomas Chatterson points out, "[t]here are 371 tribes in Nigeria alone.  How can even all the various immigrants from Nigeria, from Igbo to Yoruba, be said to constitute a single ethnicity?"  The irony is that the Manhattanite quill-drivers who love these sweeping racial standards will argue endlessly over the uniqueness of their ten-block neighborhood on the East Side.  Forget the distinctive spices the Igbo tribe adds to jollof rice — haven't you tried the pre-made ham sandwiches in this Lenox Hill bodega!?

Amalgamating racial identity and assigning capitalization based on preconceived notions of justice makes the upper-casing of "black" an ideological and political preference.  It's of a piece with what Andrew Sullivan calls the "new newspeak," which includes the degenderizing of birthing terms like "breastfeeding."

This kind of tortured twisting of perfectly good English would make a "profane rube" like Ross hot with indignation.  As a longtime subscriber to The New Yorker, it's my hope the faddish bumpf is but a blip on the diachronic grammar timeline.  Racial equality doesn't come from an unequal holding of the shift key with your pinky for one skin color.