Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice
reviewed by Rodney Hopson - 2002
If issues couched in terms of language come to the fore in the United States in ways not now expected, now is the time to build the knowledge needed to understand them when they arise. (Hymes, 1983:190)
Within our educational and social life in the United States, we take language issues for granted. Why, in our nation where E Pluribus Unum reigns, should we be concerned with language issues when our predominant American culture promotes English? Is it not clear that standard English is the key to economic and social prosperity in the United States, particularly where education is concerned? What exactly was all the hoopla regarding Ebonics anyway; wasn’t it just a miscalculated attempt for a school district to receive federal monies? And after four years after the Ebonics controversy, why are we still talking about it?
On one hand, these questions reveal the assumptions we make about language and education in the general socio-academic life of most learners who matriculate through our American schooling arena, assumptions that expose larger social beliefs and attitudes that undergird our American identity. On the other hand, considering the debate that ensued during the winter of 1996/1997 (clearly overshadowing any other domestic and foreign news during the period, including events that led up to the second term of the Clinton presidential administration), they too uncover our ignorance when it comes to the importance and role of language in our daily life.
John Baugh’s recent book is arguably the most clearly articulated and detailed account of the controversy that surrounded the Oakland Unified School District’s policy decision in December, 1996, and his book suggests why these issues will continue to be at the forefront of language education in the United States. Professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University, Baugh is one of a few leading scholars contributing to the educational reform debate for learners from linguistic minority backgrounds. This latest book of Professor Baugh’s is in some ways a continuation of his concern for the educational improvement and advocacy of learners who face historic, social inequities and inequalities. Perhaps more readable to the general public than his previous two books (Baugh, 1999, 1983), Beyond Ebonics is no less pivotal to practitioners, educators, and academics who concern themselves with educational language politics in this country, especially as it pertains to the unique linguistic heritage of enslaved African American descendants.
Relevance and Significance of Beyond Ebonics
In the United States, as evidenced by the swell of comment about Ebonics in the six to eight week period from mid-December, 1996 to early February, 1997 by political analysts from George Will and Sam Donaldson to Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, none were shy about offering their opinions about the Ebonics controversy, however misguided and disconnected from the relevance and significance of language politics in education and our public life. What is clear, as Dell Hymes offers in his foreword of the book is the tendency for the public to confirm themselves as experts on language: "Most educated people, probably most people, feel they already know what they need to know about language, opportunity, and accomplishment" (vii). Here, of course, as Hymes implies and Baugh expands in his book, these issues are best left to those who study language and have an understanding of the historical depth of these very issues, and are simultaneously ready to challenge the basic assumptions that our American society has about language.
Language is more than about being good or bad, incorrect or correct; prescriptive assumptions about language lie only at a surface level though the political debates around language have largely been just that. Hence, the controversy of Ebonics as other issues around language policy in this country (i.e. bilingual education and official English/English Only) remain in the general purview of politicians rather than educators and linguists. Herein lies the critical relevance of Baugh’s book: taking the issue of language from the perspective of a sociolinguist and educator to better inform "rational discussion on how best to educate students for whom standard English is not native" (xiii) and contributing to an understanding of the larger issues of race and equity that surround language.
Official English/English only (OE/EO) decisions in much of the country, for instance, have focused narrowly and symbolically on the role of English at an administrative and governmental level without much concern for the multicultural and multilingual realities of the nation or respective states. We ought not to be so naïve as to suggest that the lack of an overt decision about official language policy is indicative of the cultural assumptions we make about English in the USA (Schiffman, 1996). The debates surrounding language policy have resulted in no real tangible vehicles or developments, perhaps the real catastrophe in the decoration of English as official language in over half of the states in our nation. The push to preserve the primacy of English within our American linguistic and cultural heritage bespeaks larger conditions that pervade our melting pot. Donaldo Macedo contends that one such condition is a general xenophobic cultural attitude, and colonial mentality that is reflected by the passage of recent propositions in California (e.g. Propositions 187 and 229, specifically) and within the present assault on bilingual education in this country (2000).
That the Ebonics issue can be juxtaposed alongside the OE/EO and bilingual education debates is evident when we consider the tolerance (or lack thereof) towards certain bilingual speakers and certain speakers of color who use nonstandard language varieties. The issue here is the same, one that Baugh accurately portrays in his book; that is, whereas the political and pedagogical implications for students who are considered linguistic minority (in this case, those who use African American language) have profound implications, their unique plight in our educational settings is virtually ignored.
Overview of the Book
Beyond Ebonics consists of nine chapters, followed by appendices of the Linguistic Society of America’s Resolution on the Oakland "Ebonics" Issue and bills introduced in the Texas and California legislatures shortly following the Oakland resolution.
The initial chapter, "Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice" situates the crux of the Ebonics controversy in personal terms, as Baugh reflects on the original discussion between African American scholars at a 1973 conference hosted by Robert Williams (later professor emeritus, Washington University in St. Louis) who would coin the term Ebonics in an attempt to define for ourselves the unique communication pattern of black people in the United States, establish linguistic and cultural linkage to and continuity with Africa, and object to the term black English, used by white scholars in linguistics, psychology, and education. The major portion of the chapter surrounds Baugh’s own observations and experiences around social and linguistic performances and attitudes to language among church members, school friends, neighbors, and family. His own linguistic realities and reflections as a child illuminate the issues that pervade racial prejudice and linguistic pride (or shame) that lie at the heart of the Ebonics controversy.
Chapter two, "Ebonics Genesis", chronicles more specifically the birth of Ebonics and its accompanying social and linguistic circumstances. In the chapter, Baugh attends to the original definition of Ebonics, indicating how the very definition, with its terminological inconsistencies, partially contributed to the confusion that resulted from the brouhaha. This becomes a recurrent theme in Baugh’s critique of the controversy. Contending that "how one defines Ebonics is more than mere semantic quibbling"(p. 20), Baugh illustrates the divergent opinions about and definitions of Ebonics - primarily by African American scholars - that existed prior to and following the actual Oakland controversy, including the consequences of its terminology. The third chapter, "A Contentious Global Debut", begins with attention to the differences of opinion among black, white, and other supporters of Ebonics and the black, white, and other detractors of Ebonics in the U.S. and abroad. Baugh reveals that the vast majority of people who heard of the term after the passage of the school board resolution tended to reject it, many of the most ardent critics being notable African Americans. The chapter furthermore illustrates the patterns of linguistic integration in the U.S., differentiating immigrants who arrived in this country and their corresponding linguistic trajectory of assimilation and acculturation in American culture and society.
Baugh’s fourth chapter, "Oakland’s Ebonics Resolutions", gives rise to the policy steps undertaken by the Oakland school board to address the linguistic legacy of American slavery and the educational plight of the majority African American student population in the urban school district. He includes the policy statement and subsequent resolutions (the original of December 18, 1996 and a revised one, dated January 15, 1997), noting noteworthy contradictions and changes that were made to the revised resolution. The following chapter, "Legislative Lament", documents the political backlash that followed the Oakland resolution, beginning with Education Secretary Richard Riley’s rejection of the notion that African American students in the Oakland school district speak a foreign language (and should therefore be eligible to received Title VII funds). This fifth chapter documents furthermore the Ebonics hearings by the Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education and the remarks and comments by various academicians, clergy, and educators who testified before the subcommittee.
In the sixth chapter, "Legal Implications", Baugh makes the connection between the Ebonics episode and subsequent legal rulings that conjoined African American race, education, and language. Suggesting that the two Supreme Court rulings: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Lau v. Nichols (1974) were largely cast in the shadow of the Oakland controversy, Baugh highlights the significance of the 1979 Black English trial which ruled that the Ann Arbor school district had not made provisions in teacher education or student instruction as a result of the language barriers of the plaintiff’s native nonstandard vernacular English, and the subsequent California State Board of Education policy to create a Standard English Proficiency (SEP) program in response to the backlash in California to the Ann Arbor ruling. Baugh’s critique of the problematic nature of the 1981 SEP policy statement and Senate Bill 205 in 1997 illustrates the misleading interpretations that resulted from these primary legal antecedents.
Baugh’s seventh chapter, "Disparate Theoretical Foundations", displays some more of the definitional weaknesses from which Ebonics suffers. In the chapter, he highlights the four primary scholarly fields (i.e. the Afrocentric tradition, speech pathology and language disorders among African American children, educational concerns regarding the language of black students, and linguistic research focusing on analyses of vernacular African American English) which focus their attention on African American speech. Furthermore, Baugh delineates divergent definitions that exist between and among these four disciplines and provides a brief account of noteworthy historical hypotheses relevant to the Ebonics episode. Chapter eight, "Racist Reactions and Ebonics Satire", documents some of the media reactions to Ebonics, including newspaper opinions, talk shows, electronic mail and web site displays. The insidious examples of racist commentaries as well as the exaggerated attention to the manner in which the topic of Ebonics is portrayed signal to Baugh that "much of the Ebonics satire has turned back the clock regarding prospects for greater linguistic tolerance or a better understanding of the dismal educational plight of so many African American students" (p. 99).
The final chapter, "Beyond Ebonics: Striving toward Enhanced Linguistic Tolerance" rests on Baugh’s hope of enhancing national linguistic reconciliation in the United States. His appeal to challenge and expose linguistic ignorance is not confined to detractors in the mainstream of education and society, but extends to conservative African American pundits, black scholars, and journalists who have been as guilty in spreading misleading Ebonics statements. That the challenge of the book is not limited to the linguistic plight of African Americans alone is an important theme that reverberates in this last chapter.
The key, according to Baugh, is tackling the social, educational, and particularly linguistic consequences of American slavery which contribute to the poor linguistic and educational plight of African American students in many inner city populations of the U.S. One major step, according to Baugh, means "enhanced linguistic consequences and a better understanding of the linguistic consequences..."(p. 112) which extend beyond efforts to ensure that students master standard English to include attempts to broaden our educational curricula to expose students to the realities and dualities of our American linguistic heritage.
The paradox of course is that language is only part of the issue here, as Baugh knows. As prevalent as language appears to the public, it has been virtually silent in the walls of our own academic halls. Hymes captured this nearly twenty years ago when he noted in his seminal paper the (lack of) linguistic competence in the U.S., comparing it to an underdeveloped country. The same still holds true:
American scholarship has hardly addressed the facts of the matter. Language has been invisible to us as a problem for critical social science and educational history. Planning and policy about language have been thought of as something found in Belgium and Quebec….In the U.S., there has been neither a public agency signaled as responsible for a language policy, nor consciousness of policy….(207)
Despite the lack of consciousness of language policy at a public agency level in this country, we would be remiss if we did not see a trend that has enveloped our thoughts and concerns around language and social policy over these last twenty years. As we explore elsewhere (Hopson, et.al, 1998), social inequalities and disparities in our country have been camouflaged in much of the recent language policy debates and decisions. The birth of the OE/EO movement and the retrenchment of social policies and programs to aid marginalized and historically discriminated populations are not coincidental happenings.
When the role of language is juxtaposed with race, equity, cultural hegemony, and social stratification, we need to search for new explanations that depict language as a social problem in our American society. In retrospect, episodes like the Ebonics controversy, OE/EO, and the bilingual education debates should not be left to the expertise of pundits and politicians alone. Nor should these incidents been seen as a flash in the pan. Much more is at stake. Remember, the impetus for the establishment of the Oakland resolution was a report of the school district in 1996 which concluded that differences between black children’s home language and the school standard were the crux of the matter when it came to explaining why African American children lagged greatly behind their peers. Of the eight language groups in Oakland, black students had the lowest scores on the 1995-1996 Language California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). Moreover, black students made up nearly three-fourths of the special education population, a situation attributed largely to their performance on language assessment tests (Ogbu, 1999).
That the socio-academic performance (and failure) of diverse cultural groups is tied to language is inevitable, due to schools’ reliance on dominant cultural and linguistic norms of the society. It is equally obvious that a form of linguistic Darwinism and discrimination has evolved in American social institutions which have come to favor some languages and dialects over others (Baugh, 1997), largely shaped by the broader cultural backdrop Baugh exposes in Beyond Ebonics. Conflicting views, cultural conflicts, and ideological splits that surround language education are not unique to Ebonics as illustrated by scholars in bilingual education, foreign language, teaching English as a second language, and language diversity and learning (Delpit, 1995; Faltis, 1997; Morgan, 1999; Ortega, 1999; Wiley & Lukes, 1996). The key now is to use our language education expertise to mobilize the general public and colleagues in anthropology, urban studies, educational policy, and African American studies in order to advocate for social change in our classrooms and institutions so that we contribute to building knowledge around these issues as eloquently as Baugh has done in his book.
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