CommunityPam's House Blend

'Ebonics' rises from the dead

My bloggrrrl Shakes Sis is stirring the pot about Ebonics, which is back in the news as a result of this article, Ebonics suggested for district. San Bernadino (CA) is going to incorporate Ebonics into its new school policy to try and target black students, the lowest-achieving group the city district. From the San Bernadino County Sun:

The goal of the district’s policy is to improve black students’ academic performance by keeping them interested in school. Compared with other racial groups in the district, black students go to college the least and have the most dropouts and suspensions.

Blacks make up the second largest racial group in the district, trailing Latinos.

A pilot of the policy, known as the Students Accumulating New Knowledge Optimizing Future Accomplishment Initiative, has been implemented at two city schools. Mary Texeira, a sociology professor at Cal State San Bernardino, commended the San Bernardino Board of Education for approving the policy in June.

Texeira suggested that including Ebonics in the program would be beneficial for students. Ebonics, a dialect of American English that is spoken by many blacks throughout the country, was recognized as a separate language in 1996 by the Oakland school board.

“Ebonics is a different language, it’s not slang as many believe,’ Texeira said. “For many of these students Ebonics is their language, and it should be considered a foreign language. These students should be taught like other students who speak a foreign language.’

Texeira said research has shown that students learn better when they fully comprehend the language they are being taught in.

Shakes Sis took the time to thoughtfully view this through the prism of the Democrats’ lack of ability to understand black voters, and makes a case that taking this constituency for granted has resulted in myriad socioeconomic problems that have not been effectively addressed, education being one of them. This move to recognize Ebonics, she feels, is a response to the vacuum of solutions.

Linguistics can be a tricky thing, and a subjective thing; there’s not a definitive consensus on when a dialect stops being just a dialect and becomes its own language. There are areas within the United States—a small island off the east coast (the name of which escapes me at the moment) where the inhabitants speak a strange mix of German and English, certain remote enclaves in Appalachia, as examples—where the form of English spoken is so unique as to have spawned endless debate about whether it’s truly a rare American dialect or a language all its own. When one reads about these idiosyncratic tongues, in America or elsewhere, the thing that their native speakers have in common is geographical isolation.

Ebonics speakers are not geographically isolated—not in the same way residents of a small coastal island are, anyway. This dialect, or language, depending on the linguist or sociologist to whom you are speaking, is instead the result of cultural isolation. Whether Ebonics started and/or developed strictly due to immersion in a community of like speakers, or as a result of a search for unique cultural identity, or a combination of both, or different factors altogether, really doesn’t matter in terms of this discussion. The point is that a wholly distinct dialect, which has developed divergently from all other dominant regional dialects to the point of being recognized in some quarters as its own language, happened within a community that has not been given full equality in our society.

I agree blacks have not been given full equality, but I disagree that recognition of Ebonics is a solution. I think it is damaging. I also think this topic is even more inflammatory than the GOP peeling off votes by exploiting black homophobia, something that I’ve written about extensively. I realize that on this topic, I’m clearly not in step with many progressives. Oliver Willis, notably, is also with me on this position.

Personally, I know that my mom, who was of West Indian descent, is rolling in her grave at the thought of Ebonics as a concept rising again. She died in 1997, so we did have conversations about that 1996 Oakland school board decision to recognize Ebonics. She was appalled. Ebonics doesn’t pass the test of say, the Gullah language, a Creole blend of Elizabethan English and African languages, would fall into the category of on that is in geographical isolation (the coastal South), as you mentioned.

It’s hard enough to get by if you’re black in this country (I don’t use African-American either); Ebonics is not the acceptable language of education, commerce or any standard of success in this country. “Shizzle to the nizzle” isn’t going to fly in an interview.

Black people know this; they are exposed to the dominant culture and language from day one. Slang or Ebonics is a method of communicating within a social group/community. To elevate it to the status of a dialect that must be “overcome” in order to assimilate into the dominant culture takes the burden of responsibility off of the individual to do so.

The black community needs no more help in this area.

Our culture (and in this case I mean American culture), has made it too easy to blame someone else – the State, the President, your neighbor, “the Man”) for why they cannot read and write. Acquiescing to the lowest common denominator of achievement has been an enabling device, sadly, I believe it is part of the reason we have the Acting White phenomenon and the glorification of anti-intellectualism in the black community spurred on by a segment of the hip-hop culture (that also debases women).

I get flamed for this all the time, but no one has made a convincing argument that would change my position on this.

I’ll fight for inclusion on every front, but taking this Ebonics path is ultimately destructive for the black community.

What kids need are schools of equivalent quality, smaller classroom size and qualified teachers that are paid what they are worth — and that’s not going to happen when resources are allocated based on property taxes.


To frame the subject of accommodating “difference” outside of race (for those of you uncomfortable talking about it), a colleague of mine and I had a long conversation yesterday about how “equal access” in the area of education has gone over the margin of common sense into insanity. She notices this first-hand with some of the kids she deals with in the school system that are using their disability to manipulate both the parents and the school system into not holding them accountable for performing academically.

Since the rightful goal is mainstreaming, what does this mean for academic standards, classroom size, the obligations of teachers, administrators and the State to accommodate these situations? She sees kids that aren’t compliant in using the state-provided resources for them to be able to function well in the classroom — and the parents and kid wonder why they are doing poorly.

The parents, in turn, don’t like seeing their child slipping academically and want the State to “do something”, provide additional services, or diagnose their child in a way to
establish the need for those additional services, when it’s sometimes a behavioral problem. It can be frustrating when actual kids with real, aching needs have to move down on the list because of the kids/parents that are working the system. Everyone loses.

The number of kids with ADD, ADHD is exploding, and this cannot be discounted in the woes of the school system. One has to come to the conclusion that either: 1) kids are coming out of the womb f*cked up; 2) child-rearing errors are part of the problem; or 3) something is adversely affecting kids developmentally. Number three is particularly important. There have been recent studies that the act of watching TV (not the content) has a profound effect on actual physiological development of the brain. It affects learning because vicarious viewing replaces real sensory involvement with the real world. [You can substitute “TV” with video games, iPods, GameBoys and the like — same issue.] This is also where #2 comes into play. If parents have been told to believe that TV can be a good babysitter, an educational tool, they may be inadvertently creating/exacerbating the problem.

Bottom line: too many kids aren’t reading as they should, partially because it doesn’t provide the brain stimulation those other forms of entertainment do, and add on top of that, they need to be able to sit still in a classroom and LISTEN. This might explain why you’ve got so many kids that are “incorrigible” and need to be on medication to function in school.

The question that scientists need to answer is whether behavioral modification can eliminate the need for medication, or whether the neural network cannot be re-wired. Is this a family problem or a problem for the state? Is it a personal responsibility issue, or a true ADA-accommodated disability, or is it something in-between? I have no earthly idea. I’m just tossing this out there.

School systems are wrestling with these issues and once you add race/dialect and other socioeconomic issues with a cherry on top, you can see where we find ourselves in a massive quandry. This is almost an overwhelming issue for our educational system to handle. How do you begin to fix this? No one wants to pay to get the job done (raising taxes is never popular), but no one wants to toss good money after bad, either.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding