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Bilingual education as it relates to African-Americans: the Ebonics debate

March 9, 2012

by DeBray ‘Fly Benzo’ Carpenter

A year ago, Dr. Robert Williams, who coined the term “ebonics” in 1973, returned to his alma mater, Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., to speak to a large, receptive crowd. “His rationale was that ebonics is really the linguistic retention of African languages,” wrote college president Walter M. Kimbrough, Ph.D. “I had never heard the rationale for ebonics but it made great sense to me.”
Bilingualism in schools is an interesting and controversial topic. For Asian- and Latino-Americans, there are classes such as ESL (English as a Second Language), ELL (English Language Learner) and LEP (Limited English Proficiency), yet and still, Dr. Taiwanna D. Anthony and Dr. William A. Kritsonis, in their doctoral forum, “Bilingualism and How it Impacts the African American Child,” note, “Literacy has been on the decline in the African American culture for many years,” and the issue has gone overlooked.

One attempt to address the issue was Oakland School Board’s 1996 Ebonics Resolution, which proposed similar literacy programs for African American students who primarily speak Ebonics at home. The Los Angeles Times reported, “The Oakland resolution calls on the district to provide teacher training in so-called Ebonics, recognize it as distinct from standard English, and help black students who use Ebonics to master standard English.”

However, the attempt was highly controversial, primarily due to the fact that many misunderstood the resolution to mean abandoning standard English and teaching students only Ebonics. If African Americans are struggling to learn English, they should be given the same liberties as a native Spanish speaker or someone who speaks Mandarin; however, there are many conflicting opinions on this topic from both the African American community and from the government.

Another time there was a similar debate was in 1974, when a civil rights case was brought by Chinese American students from San Francisco with limited English proficiency. The name of the case was Lau v. Nichols, in which, according to Wikipedia, the students claimed that they were not receiving special help in school due to their inability to speak English. They argued they were entitled to special help under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of its ban on educational discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Consequentially, ELL classes were developed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an 11-title act enacted July 2, 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination against Blacks and women. The act ended unequal voter registration requirements and segregation in schools and in “public accommodations.”

Dr. Theresa Perry and eminent scholar and author Lisa D. Delpit in their book, “The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Students,” argue in favor of the Oakland resolution to legitimize Ebonics due to the fact that African American students were underachieving. They provided the following statistics.

“Comprising 53 percent of the students enrolled in the only predominantly Black school district in the state of California, African-American children accounted for 80 percent of the school system’s suspensions and 71 percent of students classified as having special needs. Their average grade point average was a D+.”

A sociolinguist from the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University endorsed the resolution and actually fought to get a resolution passed by the Linguistic Society of America legitimizing the language, as he explains in his essay, “The Ebonics Controversy in My Backyard: A sociolinguist’s experiences and reflections.”

“Comprising 53 percent of the students enrolled in the only predominantly Black school district in the state of California, African-American children accounted for 80 percent of the school system’s suspensions and 71 percent of students classified as having special needs. Their average grade point average was a D+.” – Dr. Theresa Perry and Lisa D. Delpit

Dr. Geneva Smitherman, professor and director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University as well as a native speaker of the “African American Language,” in her book, “Talkin that talk: Language, culture, and education in African America,” clarifies that “‘Ebonics’ was coined by a group of African American scholars, chief among them clinical psychologist Robert L. Williams, at a conference, ‘Language and the Urban Child,’ convened in St. Louis, Missouri, in January of 1973.”

“Ebonics” is a combination of “ebony” and “phonics” – “ebony” meaning black and “phonics” for sounds; however, when it comes to defining Ebonics, many contradictory attempts have been made. According to Smitherman, Dr. Robert L. Williams in his 1975 book, “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks,” defined the term as the “linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean and United States slave descendants of African origin.”

Dr. Robert L. Williams in his 1975 book, “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks,” defined the term as the “linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean and United States slave descendants of African origin.”

Nevertheless, Washington Post writer John F. Harris in his article, “U.S. Bilingual Education Funds Ruled Out for Ebonics Speakers,” emphasizes that on Dec. 24, 1996, less than a week after the controversial Oakland School Board Ebonics Resolution, the Clinton administration denounced it stating that “Black English” was a form of slang, had no place in the classroom, and that no federal funds allocated to the school district for bilingual education can be used for students who predominantly speak Ebonics.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a prominent African American civil rights activist, Jesse Jackson, had a similar opinion of the resolution, stating that “I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace … It’s teaching down to our children and it must never happen.” African American legend author Maya Angelou agreed and refuted the idea, stating, according to the Los Angeles Times, “The very idea that African American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.”

According to CNN in the article “Jackson, Oakland School Board Discuss Ebonics,” teacher Patricia Jensen argues, “All the attention has been focused on the sections that say … instruction will be imparted in the primary language; that’s where the confusion has come.” She then adds, “If that had been amended or clearly written down, I think this would die down.”

DeBray Carpenter (Fly Benzo) speaks at a press conference after his release on July 28, 2011, from several days in jail following a protest against the police murder of Kenneth Harding on July 16, 2011. He has become a hero to the community and a target of police brutality and harassment since emerging as a leader on the issues of police oppression and economic equity. - Photo: Brant Ward, SF Chronicle
Jesse Jackson, however, in that same article, recanted his statement in a Dec. 30, 1996, interview with CNN claiming, “The intent is to teach these children standard American, competitive English, because if they cannot read, they cannot reason.” He then reasons, “Just as you go from Spanish to English, go from improper grammar to English.”

Contrary to the initial thoughts of Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou and the Clinton administration, York College Honors Program graduate Stacey Thomas, in her scholarly article, “Ebonics and the African American Student: Why Ebonics Has a Place in the Classroom,” insists that it is a worthwhile program and documents its success. For this purpose, she confirms Regina Wilder’s article on the subject, “Ebonics is Working: Three Years Later,” stating that “the article notes that ‘the students have tested above district averages’ in reading and writing skills.”

Thomas also quoted Courtland Milloy’s article, “Nothing’s Funny About Ebonics,” in which he noted, “Once students see and comprehend the differences between Standard English and Ebonics in terms of structure and syntax, they display a greater understanding in Standard English, and as a result, decrease their use of Ebonics, which has transpired in the Oakland School District.” Thomas then declares the Oakland School District proved that Ebonics can help African American students learn and communicate in standard English.

In spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Lau v. Nichols, African Americans continue to be held at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English, partially due to their natural disposition to Ebonics and partially due to the discrimination and the indifference of America’s public school system. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination, specifically against Blacks and women in schools and in “public accommodations”; however, Blacks have been yet to benefit from Title IV, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination, specifically against Blacks and women in schools and in “public accommodations”; however, Blacks have been yet to benefit from Title IV, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds.

This is made evident by the fact that in Lau v. Nichols, which was won on these grounds by some 1,800 Chinese-American students with limited English proficiency who claimed that they were not receiving special help to learn English and charged the SFUSD with discrimination. ELL classes were then developed; however, African American students are barred from the benefits of such instruction for the reason that their language is not recognized by the American government. This is a disparity, especially with so many African American students being placed in special needs classes, being held back grades and dropping out of school. Ebonics in schools has proven successful, and by no means should struggling African American students be denied the help they are entitled to, unless, as African Americans, we are entitled to less.

Bayview Hunters Point community advocate and straight-A City College student DeBray “Fly Benzo” Carpenter can be reached on Facebook, at Fly Benzo’s Blog, where this story first appeared, or at flybenzo@gmail.com. For the latest developments in the police effort to silence Fly by sending him to prison, see “City College student ‘Fly Benzo’ put on trial after heated confrontation with SFPD.”

 

8 thoughts on “Bilingual education as it relates to African-Americans: the Ebonics debate

    1. The 56%

      Nothing just an excuse for the baboons we call niggers to explain why they are too stupid to any language. Most niggers can't even speak one language.

      Reply
  1. Borderless Learning

    As clarification, Lau v. Nichols is not about the receipt of "special help" for students who are not proficient in English. It is about access to effective and meaningful participation in the (English language) educational opportunities provided by the school district. Ebonics (also referred to as African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE) is recognized by linguists as a "non-standard" dialect of English. In this case, "standard" is not a value-based judgment on the dialect. As they say, the standard dialect of a language always belongs to the group that controls the financial system and the army!

    Although the issue of Ebonics/AAVE in school is controversial for reasons that are more socioculturally than linguistically rooted, I do believe that speakers of a non-standard dialect can benefit from many of the same interventions offered to non-native speakers of the language, as the Oakland example illustrates. Certainly there is a lot of research that indicates that the study of another language or dialect gives the learner a deeper understanding of the structure of language, and has been shown to have positive effects on test scores due to explicit learning and due to the changes in the brain that take place when a person becomes bilingual. The recognition that these students are bilinguals may also become a tremendous source of pride.

    PS: The idea of teaching African languages in (any) schools is a good one.

    Reply
  2. Change Is Good

    There is no such thing as "correct" english since english is a "bastard" language! It's consist of Germatic grammar rules with French and Latin word. While "ebonics" consist of West African grammar rules with French and Latin words….If one isn't "correct" then the same applies to the other!

    Reply
  3. Barry Eisenberg

    I really like Ebonics and wish I could speak it or at least understand it better. I find it totally hip and clever and creative and think it should be recognized as such in the educational establishment and at large.

    Reply
  4. Akron

    I think every language is worthy. English is a well reputed language and for that reason it becomes mandatory for many peoples around the world to learn English. To get good job and value from everywhere as well. Thanks.
    bilingual education

    Reply

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