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Date: Sat, 11 Jan 97 16:57:48 CST
From: "Workers World" <ww@wwpublish.com>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Don't dis "Black English"
Article: 3749

Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Jan. 16, 1997 issue of Workers World newspaper

Why the uproar on Ebonics? Don't dis "Black English"

By Monica Moorehead, Workers World
11 January 1997

On Dec. 18, the Oakland, Calif., Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution formally recognizing Ebonics, or Black English, as a distinct patois--a blend of a distinct dialect with a standard form of language.

In part, the resolution said that Black students should be taught "in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language ... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills."

Oakland is a predominantly African American city located near San Francisco. Fifty-three percent of the OUSD students are African American.

Since this resolution was passed, there has been a growing national debate in the media as well as among educators over whether the recognition of Ebonics will discourage rather than encourage the teaching of so-called standard English in the "inner city" schools. Black students within Oakland have varying opinions of whether they do speak a distinct language rather than mainstream English.

Conservative opponents of Ebonics including those in the big-business media reacted almost convulsively against the idea. They are terrified that the initiative taken by the Oakland School Board will set a trend. They fear other predominantly Black school boards will recognize Ebonics in their districts and this will lead to the promotion of Black nationalist pride and identity rooted in an African heritage.

The Clinton administration quickly came in against Ebonics and said there would be no extra funds for bilingual education.

The truth is that what the Oakland school board did was to officially acknowledge what has been a fact for many generations: a significant portion of the African American population speaks a distinct form of English--and even this form varies depending upon the material conditions and different degrees of isolation of its speakers from the mainstream institutions.

Black English has played an instrumental role in distinguishing African American culture for many generations. Just pick up a poem written by Langston Hughes or a novel by Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin or listen to rap music by Ice Tea or the be-bop lyrics of Dizzy Gillespie. Also Black English has had great influence on other cultures worldwide and has transcended not only racial but class lines.

Big publishing conglomerates and the music industry continue to make big profits off the sales of these creative artists expressing in their own words the experience of growing up in and resisting a racist, bigoted society in the areas of gospel, spirituals, jazz, blues and rap.

If Black English has permeated the "American culture" to such a great degree, then why have the actions of the Oakland school board caused such a furor? Is the issue really whether or not Ebonics should be taught to educators to deepen sensitivity?

The African American community should have the right to decide that issue independently, without the biased intervention of capitalist analysts and politicians.

The capitalist media and politicians certainly do not want the cultural recognition of Black English to ignite millions of Black youth into the political struggle for equality.


The attack on Black English is also a diversion to cover over the growing gap in educational opportunities for rich and poor children in the United States-- and especially the lack of opportunity for African American and Latino children.

Politicians like Clinton and others do not want that issue to become a part of the debate because it exposes the inherent inequality under capitalism in the form of cutbacks in education--from the federal level on down.

This inequality is worsened where there exists an oppressor white nation and many oppressed nations such as African Americans--as in the United States. The capitalist system itself prevents so many millions of Black youth from learning standard English.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. the Board of Education--which challenged segregation--exposed the apartheid-like conditions in education growing out of the history of chattel slavery.

Ever since that decision, Black people have been struggling for equal funding for equal education. Conditions are getting no better; in fact, they are worsening.

A recent finding of Education Trust, a research group, based on the National Assessment of Educational Pro gress, a national test that measures student achievement, showed the following: in 1990 predom inantly white schools--which had low poverty levels--spent an average $6,565 a student; those schools located in higher poverty areas with a majority non- white population spent an average $5,173 per student.


The report gave some indications that better educational opportunities exist for Black children growing up in the North than for those in the South. For instance, Black fourth graders in Massachusetts are three times as likely to be better readers than their counterparts in Louisiana. This shows that differences in wages do make an impact in educational achievement and that the right to a decent education is not only a racial question but a class question.

The study also showed that in the underfunded schools, only 54 percent of the science teachers were certified and 67 percent of the English teachers had at least a minor in English. In the more privileged schools 86 percent of the science teachers were certified and 80 percent of the English teachers had a minor in English.

So again those school districts that received the most funding were able to attract teachers better qualified in their subjects.

Isn't it ironic that the same forces attacking Ebonics and defending standard English in such a chauvinist way are silent on the need to fight for more quality education for the most oppressed and poorest children. Why are they not calling for dismantling the monstrous Pentagon budget and transferring those billions of dollars toward upgrading the most underfunded schools from Oakland to South Bronx to the hills of Appalachia? That would be a real affirmative-action program.

Once again the victims are being blamed for the oppression they suffer in the capitalist media. Their argument is that tolerating the use of Black English will prevent Black youth from getting good paying jobs. Again that argument is an excuse to let corporate downsizing and racist hiring practices off the hook.

It's not Black English that prevents Black children from learning to read and write. It is that the capitalist system denies all children the right to an equal and multicultural education along with decent jobs at a livable wage. It is capitalism that holds back the full potential of cultural development of whole nations of people.

Only under socialism, a system that puts peoples needs before profits, will the languages of the most oppressed be respected by all peoples.

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: ww@wwpublish.com. For subscription info send message to: ww-info@wwpublish.com. Web: http://www.workers.org)