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Black and White: To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize

Feb 25, 2021

You might not think that the question of whether to capitalize one or two letters would lead to deep historical meditations and lively discussion. But in the case of the words “Black” and “White,” that’s what happened in our firm.

Recently Oppenheimer Investigations Group (OIG) reexamined whether to capitalize those words in our reports. Black Lives Matter and recent movements for social justice in the United States have prompted a thorough reappraisal of practices of all kinds, including how racial groups are referred to in print. Since many of our investigations involve complaints of racial discrimination or people being treated differently at work as a result of their race, we want to be sure that the way we use words in our reports reflects best practices and an understanding of history and social realities.

When we delved more deeply into why different media outlets are now capitalizing “Black” or “White,” we saw compelling arguments on various sides. The New York Times has one style, for instance, while the Washington Post has a different practice. The Times now capitalizes “Black” but not “white” because, “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.” The Washington Post currently capitalizes both “White” and “Black”: “The use of Black is a recognition and acknowledgment not only of the cultural bonds and historical experiences shared by people of African heritage, but also the shared struggles of the descendants of enslaved people…[M]any White Europeans…were eventually assimilated into the collective group that has had its own cultural and historical impact on the nation. As such, White should be represented with a capital W.”

After much reflection and discussion, Oppenheimer Investigations Group decided to capitalize both “Black” and “White.” While acknowledging that there are strong arguments for a variety of views on this question, our firm ultimately chose an approach that most closely matches our methods.

 “In our work, we think it is important to consider the history of race in North America and how that history impacts racial and ethnic identity,” said partner Vida Thomas. “We also think it is vital that our reports reflect the impartiality we bring to our investigation process.” In explaining OIG’s decision, Vida cited the style guide of the National Association of Black Journalists, which calls for capitalizing both “Black” and “White.”

For more information on the services of Oppenheimer Investigations Group, please visit our website.