Date: Sat, 18 Jan 97 23:34:25 CST
From: email@example.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: `Ebonics' And The Fight For Education
Organization: InfoMatch Internet - Vancouver BC
'Ebonics' and the fight for education
By Nick Sands, The Militant,
Vol. 61, no. 4, 27 January 1997
SAN FRANCISCO - A special task force appointed by the
Oakland Unified School Board (OUSD) announced January 13
that it had redrafted a resolution on "Ebonics" that had
been debated across the country for nearly a month.
On December 18, school board members had unanimously
voted, based on the recommendations of this task force, to
recognize "the existence and the cultural and historic
bases of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems...as
the predominately primary language of African-American
students." The resolution immediately stirred a controversy
that many right-wing forces have picked up on as part of
their "culture war" to attack gains won by Blacks and other
working people. For workers it posed the question of how to
fight for decent public education, especially for Blacks.
The Oakland resolution claimed that African Language
systems or Ebonics are "genetically based and not a dialect
of English." The resolution added that bilingual education
programs, similar to those used for students whose first
language is Chinese or Spanish, are needed for Black youth,
whose test scores and grades average well below the overall
district average. It calls for teachers to be trained and
their pay upgraded to that of bilingual education teachers.
The term "Ebonics" combines the words ebony and phonics.
Since the resolution was announced, radio and television
talk shows by the dozens have taken place on the subject
and scores of articles have appeared in papers across the
In a statement posted on the City of Oakland Web page,
OUSD members said that in passing the resolution, it has
"adopted a policy on teaching English, not Ebonics."
"Unfortunately," the Board continues, "because of the
misconceptions in the resulting press stories, the actions
of the Board of Education have been publicly
misunderstood." The task force's new draft resolution has
been modified to say, "These language systems have origins
in West (African) and Niger-Congo languages and are not
merely dialects of English." The words "genetically based"
Also altered are provisions that called Ebonics or
African Language systems a primary language of Oakland's
Black students. The new wording states, "standardized
tests and grades...will be remedied by application of a
program featuring African Language Systems principles to
move students from the language patterns they bring to
school to English proficiency." The school board is
expected to ratify the changes in the resolution at its
January 15 meeting.
Much of the debate centers on whether "Ebonics" is a
distinct language, rather than a dialectic or slang derived
from English. Also being debated is whether teachers should
be competent in Ebonics as a method of teaching young
people "proper or standard English."
Democratic Party politician Jesse Jackson paid a much
publicized visit to Board members at the end of 1996.
Jackson initially criticized the resolution as justifying
talking "garbage," but switched gears complimenting the
Board for opening a national debate on the necessity of
improving the English proficiency of Black youth.
The California State Superintendent of Instruction,
Delaine Eastin, and the Clinton administration rapidly
weighed in against the proposal. U.S. department of
education head Richard Riley stated that no federal funds
will be made a available to teach Ebonics.
Opponents of bilingual education have seized upon the
opening created by the debate on Ebonics to deepen their
attacks on bilingual education. Stanley Diamond from the
California English campaign blasted the plan as did Ward
Connerly, the University of California Regent, who
spearheaded the anti-affirmative action proposition 209 on
the 1996 California state ballot.
New York Republican Congressman Peter King, a strong
proponent of making English the official U.S. language,
introduced a bill into Congress January 8 that would bar
federal funding for schools programs based on Ebonics. King
stated that Ebonics "is a racial stew of inner-city street
slang and bad grammar."
Conditions in the public schools
Deplorable conditions exist in the Oakland schools.
Because of overcrowding, classes are taught in the
hallways, on auditorium stages, and lunchroom corners.
Schools lack basic supplies including text books. Fifty-
three percent of the students in the city schools are
Black. Seventy-one percent of the students in special
education last year were Black, as were 80 percent of those
suspended from school, and 71 percent of those required to
repeat a grade. The grade point average of Black students
was 1.8 on a scale of 4, compared to the average of 2.4
These conditions are by no means unique to this Bay Area
city and are of major concern to workers who are Black,
Latino, and Asian who want schools to provide the
opportunity for learning and lay a basis for finding jobs
with decent pay.
The Oakland School Board's Ebonics proposal is a schema
put forward by a group of elected officials. Its funding
arguments plays into the hands of those who want to pit
Blacks against Latinos and Asians and undermine bilingual
educational programs. It is my opinion that Ebonics is not
a language. Moreover, whether or not Ebonics is used as a
"tool" by a handful of teachers to attempt to raise
standard English proficiency for youth who are Black will
make little difference in changing education in Oakland or
anywhere else. But I don't think this is decisive in coming
to understand what is behind the Oakland debate and what
the road forward should be.
Education is a class question
Education, like every other question, has to be looked
at in class terms. You can't get a handle on the Oakland
controversy by simply discussing how you are going to
improve the schools there.
In response to the worldwide economic depression,
shrinking markets and their declining rates of profits, the
small handful of billionaire families that rule this
country are using their two capitalist political parties to
slash funding for education, public hospitals, social
services, and the infrastructure. They are trying to role
back gains won in struggle by Blacks and their supporters
in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s. They are eliminating
school busing programs across the country and trying to
make inroads into curtailing affirmative action. They are
promoting "charter schools" and other schemes that undercut
The Black population has class differentiation within it
with a growing middle class layer. But capitalism's day-to-
day workings, with their legacy of racial inequality, breed
less integration and more resegregation. Especially hard
hit are Black working-class areas across the country where
high unemployment, poor housing, and decaying schools are a
fact of life in the grinding circumstances faced by
millions. This is what led to the conditions in Oakland's
Low test scores among Black youth are a reflection of
the unequal education working-class youth receive under
capitalism, and particularly those who are Black and of
other oppressed nationalities. This, not how language is
taught, is the key question that must be addressed. Working
people need to fight concretely to defend and extend
busing, affirmative action, and other measures that were
fought for and won as part of the fight for Black rights,
all of which are under attack today. And we must oppose any
discrimination against youth who are Black, in school or on
the job, for using idioms referred to as "Black English" or
These assaults are accompanied by an ideological barrage
directed at the working-class. The rulers attempt to sow
division by targeting immigrants, and those they term
"welfare cheats," "the criminal element," and the
"underclass," for scapegoating. The hatred toward working-
class youth who are Black has come through the press,
radio, and television talk shows dealing with the Oakland
Ebonics resolution, frequently peppered with blatantly
racist jokes. The Economist magazine even illustrated their
article, headlined "The Ebonics virus," with a photo of
three Black children and the question, "Speaking another
During the massive civil rights struggles of 1960s and
early 70s, Jim Crow segregation was smashed as fighters
raised demands against the government based on the
objective needs of the Black community. The dignity of
workers who are Black was raised by their participation in
the struggle. They won respect of workers who were white.
In its June 20, 1969 edition, the Militant ran "A
Transition Program for Black Liberation." Adopted as a
resolution by the 1969 Socialist Workers Party convention a
few months later, the `Transitional Program for Black
Liberation" included demands for self-determination of the
Black community including community control of education.
This program was circulated among Black fighters and
other workers and youth. It noted that mass social
struggles in this epoch tend to point toward which class
rules and will exercise governmental power. The SWP program
called for the formation of a Black political party,
independent of the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Demands for Black community control of education were
also incorporated into the Charter of the National Black
Independent Political Party that existed in the early
The Oakland School Board's resolution, however, does not
come out of a struggle. It is a maneuver by elected
officials whose framework is appealing for funds within the
boundaries of ever-shrinking budgetary allotments set by
Democratic and Republican party politicians in Washington,
Sacramento, and Oakland city hall.
Schools under capitalism
Schools are a reflection of the class society we live
in. The ruling rich have no interest in education per se.
The so-called better educated are trained to believe they
are more important than those who work in factories. This
is one of the primary ways the ruling class gets the
"educated" to defend this system and to reinforce their
At best, for working-class youth, schools offer the
possibility to learn, to read, write, compute, and to
increase your attention span, though the capitalists don't
care if you are functionally illiterate. They only require
that you have the minimum knowledge needed to operate their
machinery without damaging it. Everything taught in history
and other social science classes is designed to hide the
truth about how the ruling class makes its billions off of
our backs through its plunder at home and abroad.
The capitalists want youth in school to learn to be
obedient, to get ready to work hard throughout your life as
a wage laborer and to be grateful that you are employed.
A socialist society that values human beings and social
solidarity will undertake education as a lifetime pursuit.
Education is not just a "youth question." Why should
education end at 17, 18, or 21?
History has shown that it is only the working class in
power that can deal with education in a meaningful way.
The great revolutions of the 20th century from the
Russian Revolution in 1917 to the Cuban revolution in 1959
put a premium on organizing literacy campaigns so that the
entire population could participate equally in building the
new society. This was necessary to overcome the legacy of
illiteracy in those countries fostered by capitalism and to
break down the divisions between the factory workers in the
city and the peasantry in the country side.
If you read the speeches and writings of the communist
and revolutionary leaders who have arisen from the ranks of
the oppressed here or internationally in this century you
will note that they never talked down to fellow fighters,
never adapted their speech so it sounded like jargon or
slang, regardless of the level of development in the
country they lived in.
This is true for Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, for
Maurice Bishop in Grenada, for Thomas Sankara in Burkina
Faso, and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba. This is
testimony to their confidence in the fact that working
people are capable of rapidly rising above the degradation
produced by capitalism and using the most powerful ideas
developed by humanity to begin forging themselves into new
men and women.
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