The Capitalization of Black and Native American
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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 364-365

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Issues of Identity

The Capitalization of Black and Native American

Robert S. Wachal, University of Iowa


I am extremely surprised at the hyphenated entry African-American in the new edition of the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1998). The term should not be hyphenated. The case for not using a hyphen was eloquently made in articles in American Speech by John Baugh (1991) and Geneva Smitherman (1991), two prominent Black linguists. Surely people's wishes as to how their own ethnic group is labeled should be the only consideration.

According to Baugh, Black is the term preferred by most Black Americans. As a proper noun, like Negro (Spanish for 'black') or African American, it should be capitalized. The claim that black is a color word requiring lowercase makes meaning the major criterion for determining upper versus lower case. However, capitalization is determined by whether a term is a proper noun or not. Surely Black is synonymous with Negro, just as White is [End Page 364] synonymous with Caucasian. Either they are all proper nouns or none of them is. Like White, Black is not a color term. If it were, such locutions as light-skinned Black person and dark-skinned White person would make no sense. Furthermore, when black is a color term and part of a proper name, as in Black Angus, it is nonetheless capitalized. And one would not think of using the color-word argument to downcase Mr. Black or Ms. White. The failure to capitalize Black when it is synonymous with African American is a matter of unintended racism, to put the best possible face on it.

A similar case arises with the racial term Native American. The previous edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (1982) insisted not only on downcasing black on the grounds that it was a color word, but also on downcasing the first word of native American. Several stylebook editors and at least one prominent language lack the mother wit to understand that native American refers to anyone born in the United States regardless of racial stock, and that Native American refers to an American Indian wherever that person was born. Happily, this distinction is now acknowledged in the current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (1993) and some current dictionaries.

Consider this a "call to the colors." Let us please capitalize the names of races as a matter of courtesy, logic, and accuracy.

Robert S. Wachal is professor emeritus of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Iowa. He retired in 1997 after 33 years at the university and many years on the editorial advisory board of American Speech. He received his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the direction of Frederic G. Cassidy.