Discussing 'Ebonics' in plain English


THE NATIONAL debate over ebonics is far more coded and hard to translate than black English, its purported topic. Here are four truths behind the controversy that nobody wants to talk about in plain English.

Black parents and educators envy -- and increasingly resent -- the millions of dollars going to Asian and Latino bilingual programs. As immigrant populations grow, these programs are eating up a growing share of bare-bones urban school budgets. While the media framed the issue as Black English vs. White America, the ebonics controversy was more a symptom of rising inter-minority tensions, a product of our zero-sum approach to race relations.

Oakland educators insist their ebonics resolution wasn't a ploy to snare bilingual dollars -- since they knew from the outset it wouldn't work -- but it clearly was an expression of growing black frustration that Latino and Asian kids get programs that help them both succeed in American classrooms and bolster their native language and culture, while African-American children get no such help. The ebonics resolution was a rhetorical salvo in a war about resources and respect, and it won't be the last. The questions it raises are profound.

Programs that help inner-city black children "translate" their home speech into standard English seem to work. Without weighing in on the "Is it a language?" debate, many urban districts, including Oakland, are quietly training their teachers to help students translate the language they hear at home into FTC standard English, much the way Spanish speakers think in their native tongue and translate to English as a first step to true bilingualism.

Urban isolation means inner-city black children aren't around as many people who are fluent in both tongues as in prior generations, and standard English is an idiosyncratic, illogical language that's hard to master without reinforcement. It's too soon to say whether such language programs merit expansion to the funding levels of bilingual education -- let alone whether bilingual education's record merits emulation. But the Oakland School Board would easily have been able to defend expanding its successful black-language program throughout the district -- if that's what its ebonics resolution had done.

There was an unmistakable tinge of white racism in the ebonics media frenzy. Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou notwithstanding, the hand-wringing over the Oakland School Board's measure reflected continuing white mistrust of how black people handle their business. There was a clear subtext of "Tsk, tsk, what will those people do next," a familiar objectifying and exoticizing of black culture.

Furrowed brows

You could see the furrowed Caucasian brows as editors cranked out condescending "glossaries" of black English in the daily papers. I can just imagine cautious New York Times researchers -- or was it William Safire? -- agonizing over how to punctuate the crossover exclamation, "You, go girl!" (I would have written, "You go, girl," but then I'm white.)

Only belatedly did some pundits remind us that black English has been a gift to American culture, like jazz and rock-and-roll, a wellspring of new words and imagery that has replenished the language, not diminished it.

The Oakland School Board's refusal to amend its ebonics resolution is crazy, but predictable. In the public realm, white disdain yields black intransigence, more reliably than "i" comes before "e."

So while black leaders were among the first to attack the nationalistic, pseudo-scientific Oakland measure, the ensuing media firestorm triggered the same circle-the-wagons reaction that made the deracinated O.J. Simpson an unlikely hero to many African Americans. Jesse Jackson recanted, and the school board "clarified" but refused to retract its sorry resolution calling "African Language Systems" the "primary language" of black people and "genetically based" and committing to "instruct African-American students in their primary language and in English."

Why not amend the resolution to say what the board insists it meant -- that it wants to expand the successful language programs, without teaching ebonics? "We don't want to appear that we are confused or changing our mind," says board member Carole Lee Tolvert. This is the traditional wary dance of white and black America, our dysfunctional call and response, depressing but familiar.

Yet there were flickers of new political and cultural life in the ebonics mess. The vital black public debate over ebonics was unique, and marked a growing capacity for black America to have its arguments out in the open, in front of the white folk. Equally important was the acknowledgment by white commentators that black English is our most vivid vernacular -- a welcome if belated acknowledgment that our mulatto American culture is ever changing, and belongs to all of us.

Joan Walsh's new report, "Stories of Renewal: Community Building and the Future of Urban America," has just been published by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Pub Date: 1/07/97

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