Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Sharon Smith

On 18 December of last year the Oakland, California school board voted unanimously to recognize Ebonics, or black English, as the 'primary language' of its black students who make up a slim majority of the district's 52,000 students. Ebonics is the term coined by some linguists in the 1970s , joining 'ebony' and 'phonics', to describe American black vernacular as a distinct language with roots in Africa. The Oakland school board resolution stated that Ebonics is 'genetically based and not a dialect of English', and announced plans to train teachers in Ebonics so they could teach standard English as a foreign language to black students.

The Oakland board's decision was greeted with a torrent of ridicule, from right wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh to a Newsweek editorial column which began, 'If Oakland's school board accomplished nothing else, it gave people (at least those not howling in dismay) something to laugh at over the holidays.' And Congress used the opportunity to hold a sparsly attended hearing on the subject, at which Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina denounced Ebonics as 'absurd', declaring it 'political correctness that has simply gone out of control'.

If the argument was merely about exposing the racism and hypocrisy of the right wing demagogues ridiculing the Oakland school board, it would be simple to figure out where socialists and anti-racists should stand. And if Ebonics training were simply about developing grammar skills programmes which are sensitive to the special needs of poor and inner city black students, every socialist would support it. But it isn't. For these reasons, the Ebonics debate has generated a fairly heated controversy within the left. By mid-January the Oakland school board backed down from the most controversial aspects of its ruling, but the debate raged on.

The debate is not so much about whether black English is a bona fide language as it is a return to a much wider debate, first opened by the civil rights movement of the 1960s: how to explain the overwhelming failure of the US educational system to provide equal education to black students, particularly those who are poor. The city of Oakland epitomises this failure: black students make up 53 percent of all students, but 71 percent of students in special education classes and 80 percent of students who had been suspended from school. Moreover, black students had the poorest attendance rates and the lowest grades compared with other racial groups in the Oakland system, and more than half of all black students drop out of high school before they graduate. Some on the left hailed the recognition of Ebonics as a step in the right direction. But in reality, it is a misguided distraction from the most fundamental sources of the crisis in public education which is a crisis of both racial and class inequality: grossly inadequate funding of inner city schools, resulting in crumbling school buildings, outdated text books, which are often 25 years old, and shortages of the most basic school supplies, like pencils and paper.

Linguistic scholars generally agree that black English is a distinct dialect, with consistent speech patterns, which is neither 'better' nor 'worse' than standard English. But there is no general agreement among linguists as to whether black English is a distinct language. Some trace the speech patterns of inner city blacks to languages of West Africa, while others find roots in Creole or even Irish or English dialects. And blacks who speak the vernacular known as black English tend to be those who live in segregated, impoverished neighbourhoods.

William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued that the differences between black and mainstream English have increased, rather than decreased, with the passage of time along with the increasing racial and class segregation in inner cities. He points out that the unique use of the verb 'to be', as in, 'She be home,' did not exist in black English before the Second World War. These facts undercut the argument that Ebonics traces its roots back to Africa. 'It's the present, not the past, that's creating the division and that's scary,' Labov said. Recent statistics seem to back this view. The proportion of black students in schools with more than half minority students actually rose from 1986 to 1991, to the level that had existed before the Supreme Court began desegregation programmes in 1971.

Other linguists argue that, good intensions aside, to claim black children speak a seperate language is demeaning to them because it assumes they cannot learn using standard teaching methods. John H McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics and African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, maintains, 'It's an insult to the cognitive abilities of black children... It would be misleading for the public to equate the language of the descendents of slaves with the linguistic problems of new immigrants from Russia.'

But, linguistic debates aside, it is clear that the Oakland school board was off the mark in targeting Ebonics training as the solution to the crisis of Oakland's school system. To begin with, Oakland already has programmes to train teachers to understand black English in 26 of its schools, and Los Angeles has a similar programme in 31 schools. Neither of these programmes has made a significant difference for black students. And rather than demanding the money needed to improve schools, the logic behind the Oakland school board's resolution is to effectively place the blame on teacher's inability to relate to black students.

The reality is quite different most Oakland teachers struggle daily to teach students in classes which are far too large and in substandard conditions. Until last year, when the Oakland teachers waged a bitter strike for higher pay and smaller class size, they were among the lowest paid teachers in the US. The same Oakland school board now praising the wonders of Ebonics training spent $70,000 on a public relations campaign against the teachers. During the strike the school board systematically race baited the striking teachers who are 48 percent white calling them 'carpetbaggers' for wanting higher pay.

The school board's emphasis on Ebonics training for teachers therefore cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It is not a reform which was demanded by either teachers or parents. It is a policy put foreward by the managers of the Oakland school system. Last year, when Oakland teachers struck to demand smaller class size, they were pointing the way foreward to improving Oakland schools. As Sheila Quintana, a high school teacher and vice-president of the Oakland teachers' union, the Oakland Educational Association (OEA), said of the board's Ebonics plan, 'It's like putting a Band-Aid on my toe, and I need a tourniquet because my leg is being cut off.'


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