Nick Sands, 'Ebonics' and the fight for education

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Date: Sat, 18 Jan 97 23:34:25 CST
From: (Brian Hauk)
Subject: `Ebonics' And The Fight For Education
Organization: InfoMatch Internet - Vancouver BC
Article: 4092

'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 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 country.

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" are dropped.

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 public education.

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 schools.

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 slang.

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 language?"

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 1980s.

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 class rule.

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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