A Debate Over Identity and Race Asks, Are African-Americans ‘Black’ or ‘black’?

For proponents of capitalizing black, there are grammatical reasons — it is a proper noun, referring to a specific group of people with a shared political identity, shaped by colonialism and slavery. But some see it as a moral issue as well.

It confers a sense of power and respect to black people, who have often been relegated to the lowest rungs of society through racist systems, black scholars say.

“Race as a concept is not real in the biological sense, but it’s very real for our own identities,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in critical race theory at the University of California, Merced. “I think that capitalizing B both sort of puts respect to those identities, but also alludes to the humanities.”

Vilna Bashi Treitler, a professor of black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that racial categories were fabricated, created to denigrate people considered to be nonwhite. Black and white are adjectives, not proper nouns to be capitalized, she said, calling a term like “African descendant” a more appropriate way to characterize black people.

“It’s a placeholder for describing the group of people who are perpetually reinserted into the bottom of the racial hierarchy,” Dr. Bashi Treitler, the author of the book “The Ethnic Project,” said of the term black. “I think we can be more revolutionary than to embrace the oppressor’s term for us.”

In her first two books, Crystal M. Fleming, a sociologist and author, lowercased black in part because of academic differences between race and ethnicity. But the more she researched, the more those distinctions became blurred in her mind. She came to see race as a concept that could signify a politically and culturally meaningful identity.

Now Dr. Fleming, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of “How to be Less Stupid About Race,” is writing a book for young people about fighting racism. She has decided to use Black.

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