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EBONICS: Black English deserves a place in the schools

EBONICS: Black English deserves a place in the schools
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Last December, when the Board of Education for Oakland, California passed a resolution on Ebonics (later revised), it caused an uproar from coast to coast.

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The board voted to recognize “West and Niger-Congo African language systems” as predominant among African American students and said that educators should use Ebonics to help students attain English language skills.

Politicians and media responded with a racist, inflammatory barrage denigrating Ebonics, or Black English, and laying the educational problems of African Americans at their own doorstep. Clinton decreed there would be no funds for Ebonics. University of Calif. Regent Ward Connerly, a primary destroyer of affirmative action, scoffed that young Blacks have “gotten themselves into this trap of speaking … slang … that people can’t understand.”

Media distortions, and the board’s own lack of clarity, also led many parents to object strenuously to the plan. They believed – mistakenly, the board says – that Ebonics would actually be taught to students, to the detriment of proficiency in standard English.

The board’s plan was prompted by appalling conditions for African American students. No less appalling were the repressive, patronizing reactions to the resolution from the establishment. Both phenomena show plainly that the powers-that-be treat African American students as simply disposable.

Bunk biology The roots of racism have been traced by African American sociologist Oliver Cox and others. They document capitalism’s need to create a caste of people who can be segregated by color, dehumanized, grossly underpaid, and used as a “reserve army of labor” to keep the pulse of Wall Street beating. The sluggishness of today’s economy means the destiny of millions of bright-eyed children is not low pay, but no pay – because there are no jobs. Who needs a good education to stand in an unemployment line?

The justification for this reality is provided by pseudo-scientists like the authors of The Bell Curve, who argue that African Americans are condemned to lower intellectual status, and thus a lower station in life, by genetic fate. Reactionaries like these claim that Ebonics is proof of Black inferiority.

Not just a “Black thing.” There is no consensus today among linguists or scholars, including African Americans, as to whether Black English is a language or dialect, concepts that overlap too much to make an absolute distinction.

Regardless, the point is clear: Ebonics is not a “violation” or debasement of standard English, but a valid communication form with distinct pronunciations, intonations, vocabulary, and grammar. In literature, it is represented by some of the works of Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and others.

Not all African Americans speak Ebonics. It is also spoken by other poor and workingclass kids of all colors who grow up in mixed communities. It is an integration of African and English speech that contributes to the richness of total U.S. culture – like jazz and innumerable other innovations in music, literature, dress, and every arena.

Part of the solution. The school board’s goals, to legitimize Ebonics and use it as a bridge to standard English, are sound. But Ebonics is just one piece of the solution to the problems of Oakland’s children, Black and otherwise.

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Conditions in the Oakland schools are deplorable. Teaching materials are scarce; buildings are dilapidated; students are warehoused in so-called portable classrooms with no windows. In 1996, after a five-year wage freeze, Oakland teachers struck, demanding better pay and a reduction in outrageous classroom size.

Acting as management, the school board tried to break the strike, claiming there were no funds for the crucial improvements being sought. It tried to divide parents and the community from the teachers by painting the teachers as greedy whites (35 percent of them are Black) unconcerned about African American students.

If the board really wants to help students, however, it will become the teachers’ ally, not their enemy, and fight beside them to upgrade the schools.

Quality education now! Undeniably, students of color suffer the most from the lousy state of the Oakland schools. African Americans are 53 percent of the student total, but 71 percent of those in special education classes and 64 percent of those repeating a grade.

Nationally, the achievement gap between students of color and whites is widening. This is mainly because wealthy school districts, which primarily educate white kids, spend almost twice as much per student as do poor districts, which contain many more kids of color.

The problem is not that African Americans are inferior, but that they get an inferior education due to institutional racism and denial of resources.

To liberate the full potential of all students means increasing funding to the schools and respecting diversity of culture, including language.

As the ground breaking Black novelist James Baldwin wrote in a 1979 defense of Black English, “…language is a political instrument, means, and proof of power.” All U.S. students need to learn the dominant language, standard English, to survive. But to grasp English, their native ways of speaking – whether Ebonics, or Spanish, or Vietnamese, or anything else – must be validated. This means that teachers need to learn Ebonics in order to communicate well with students.

A traditional labor song calls for not just bread, but roses too. When it comes to education, we call for not just more money for textbooks and teachers, but Ebonics too.

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Elspeth Kramer is an African American socialist feminist and new member of New York City Radical Women. Asian American lesbian activist Emily Woo Yamasaki is an organizer for the upcoming International Feminist Brigade to Cuba.







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