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April 21, 2023 01:37 PM UTC

Gazette Opinion Editor Directs Staff Not to Capitalize "Black"

  • by: Erik Maulbetsch

(A telling editorial hill to die on — Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Early last week, Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor for the trio of Anschutz-owned Colorado media properties (the Gazette in Colorado Springs, Denver Gazette and Colorado Politics), sent a one-line email to his staff.

“To all who handle Gazette editorial content: Please do not uppercase “black,” regardless of AP style. Thanks, –Wayne”

He didn’t have to clarify that his directive was not in regards to using the word “black” to describe the color of a car or a tuxedo; he meant when discussing a person’s race.

Among the many changes implemented by large institutions following nationwide protests of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, was the Associated Press’ formal decision in June 2020 to capitalize “Black” when using the word in “a racial, ethnic or cultural sense.” The AP Stylebook is the standard style and usage guide for not only newspapers but the media industry overall.

Asked why he decided to disregard this particular point of AP Style, Laugesen offered his own largely philosophical explanation, as well as complaints he said he has received from some of his writers.

Wayne Laugesen
“It looks weird when you’re writing about justice issues and you’re trying to treat all people equally and then in the middle of a sentence, you have Black capitalized and white is lowercase,” says Laugesen. “They either need to capitalize both of them or lowercase both of them — I don’t care which. I had a discussion with a former desk chief and asked him to do that. And that was the way it was for most of the year, but then he left. And so all of our columns and editorials–for innocent reasons only because that person left–were being uppercased, and I’ve had a lot of complaints from columnists about that for the same reason I just explained to you.”

“I can’t speak for all columnists, but I have had more than one call me and say, ‘Why are they uppercasing Black and lowercasing white? And I’ve never really been able to figure out what the AP’s rationale for that is. I did read it long ago. They made that decision sometime after the Floyd incident. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. What bothers me is not capitalizing Black on its own. It’s that when you’re trying to write about the need for unity and equality, equity, whatever you want to call it–which is what we advocate all the time in our editorials–it looks really weird when you have Black capitalized and white lowercase. It’s divisive. I don’t think that’s the AP’s intention, but it is divisive and we always hear about it.”

Laugesen doesn’t shy away from controversy when it comes to addressing race. He once opined, in a column criticizing his fellow “right-wing gun nuts” for praising George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, that according to “the media” as an industry, “black on black gun crime is not news.” He also oversaw an editorial that blamed former University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy’s resignation in 2021 on “woke racism.”

Asked whether the news side of the Gazette outlets would also be adopting this policy, Laugesen directed me to executive editor Vince Bzdek, saying they’d had an initial conversation on the issue but hadn’t officially made a decision.

“We’d all like to get on the same page, in the interest of our readers so that they don’t get confused,” said Laugesen. “My preference is that we uppercase ‘Black’ and ‘white’ or lowercase ‘Black’ and ‘white.’ I don’t care which, but that’s what I would like.”

Reached via email, Bzdek declined to comment. However, a search of recent Colorado Politics news articles found multiple examples of Black being capitalized.

It also appears as though some opinion editors or staff may have missed their boss’ memo, as at least two opinion pieces, as well as one actual editorial, all published after April 11, capitalize Black.

After hearing part of the AP’s rationale for not capitalizing white, which is that capitalization is the preferred style of white supremacists, Laugesen clarified his position.

“I can see that point and we certainly wouldn’t want to — sometimes you end up doing something in common with someone you don’t like very well,” said Laugesen. “It doesn’t mean that you agree with them on anything else. I wasn’t aware that white supremacists uppercase white. So probably the best solution is just lowercase both of them.”

The AP wasn’t the first national journalism entity to make the change, however. Prominent Black outlets such as Essence have been doing so since the 1960s, while other large regional newspapers including the Boston Globe changed over in 2019, as Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire noted at the time of the AP’s announcement. USA Today’s managing editor penned an editorial explaining its new official style a week prior to the AP.

CU Denver professor Rachel Harding concurs with the AP style, citing a Columbia Journalism Review column that notes “in the absence of the identifiable ethnicities slavery stole from those it subjugated, Black can be a preferred ethnic designation for some descendants.”

At least one prominent Black academic agrees with Laugesen’s conclusion, though perhaps for more nuanced reasons. Writing for the Atlantic in response to the announcements by the AP and other outlets, NYU Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that “Black and white are both historically created racial identities—and whatever rule applies to one should apply to the other,” while also noting that capitalizing ‘white’ would take power away from racists.

The AP clearly did not make its update lightly, including in its statement the reasoning behind its decision both to capitalize Black and keep white lowercase. It also acknowledged the arguments for and against this distinction. Read its full explanation below.

“AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person. AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses.

After a review and period of consultation, we found, at this time, less support for capitalizing white. White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. In addition, AP is a global news organization and there is considerable disagreement, ambiguity and confusion about whom the term includes in much of the world.

We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.

Some have expressed a view that if we do not capitalize white, we are being inconsistent and discriminating against white people, or, conversely, that we are implying that white is the default. We also took note of the argument that capitalizing the term could pull white people more fully into issues and discussions of race and equality. 

We will watch closely how usage and thought evolve on these questions, and we will review our decision periodically.”

This article first appeared in the Colorado Times Recorder.


9 thoughts on “Gazette Opinion Editor Directs Staff Not to Capitalize “Black”

    1. You just know that when Laugesen writes about his staff and editors, he has nary a worry about capitalization, and that any use of the adjective “white” would only be unnecessarily redundant.

  1. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

    I have one of those little minds …. preferring consistency in capitalization for names of groups of people. Growing up in New Mexico, I was reminded (sometimes forcefully) of the differences between names I naively considered interchangeable.   I continue trying to match my generalizations with those whoever I am talking about would call themselves. And I continue trying to remove such generalizations whenever possible. 

    I am left wondering how Laugesen and his papers deal with the naming of other groups…

  2. Literally no one: 

    Laugeson: “To all who handle Gazette editorial content: Please do not uppercase “black,” regardless of AP style. Thanks, –Wayne”

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