December 28, 1996 in City

The Language Gap Pro/Con Does Oakland Schools’ Recognition Of Black English Remove Barriers Or Reinforce Them?

Gregory Kane The Baltimore Sun
 

Just when you think it’s safe to pick up a newspaper again comes this: “California school system accepts black English,” the headline read. So right away I’m figuring Californians do stuff like this to torment the rest of us. California is, after all, California. We expect a certain degree of weirdness.

“Acknowledging that many African-American students do not speak standard English, the Oakland school board has approved a program - the nation’s first - that recognizes a distinctive language spoken by some American blacks as a primary language.

“The decision describes black English as not merely a dialect of standard English, but a separate language, with roots in Africa, which the district and some linguists call ‘Ebonics,’ a combination of the words ‘ebony’ and ‘phonics.”’

Ebonics indeed! The Oakland school system is indeed in dire straits if its leaders have to resort to such nonsense.

School officials in Oakland are desperate. Black students make up 53 percent of the 52,000 students in Oakland’s schools. Some 71 percent of students enrolled in special education courses are black. The percentage of black students in the gifted and talented classes is 37 percent. The grade point average of black students is a dismal 1.8.

It is with chagrin that I say black students bring up the rear, lagging behind every ethnic group in Oakland. That includes whites, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians and the obscure category of ethnics known as “other.”

Some excuse has to be made for why black students are not doing well. So why not a linguistic one? We can put it right up there with the curriculum excuse that spawned the demand for an Afrocentric curriculum. If only the curriculum were African-centered enough, the argument went, black students would miraculously improve their reading and math skills. Of course, Afrocentrists didn’t realize they were in essence admitting that black students were simply incapable of learning a Eurocentric curriculum - the same one Asian students learn with dazzling proficiency. And actually, they were conceding black inferiority too.

So now, we have the Ebonics excuse. Black students can’t learn standard English, so just add Ebonics to the regular curriculum to help them do it. That approach sure beats holding black students to the same rigorous standards their elders were held to a generation ago in those much maligned segregated schools. All we did was learn standard English, math, science, reading and a couple of foreign languages to boot.

We need to stop looking at curriculum and language and look at the students.

It has been documented that blacks as a group watch more television than other ethnic groups. Black parents need to grab their “youngstas” by the ears and steer them to some study material.

If a black youth is below average in reading and math skills, has no books in his home but has a $200 pair of athletic shoes on his feet, his educational deficiencies are caused by his and his parents’ priorities, not the system.

If black students who lag behind in reading and math skills really believe in their hearts that education is a white thing, the problem is with their attitudes, not the system.

There is a long list of black Americans - some famous, most not - who mastered education without Ebonics or an Afrocentric curriculum. Scholar and educator W.E.B. DuBois, singer and actor Paul Robeson and rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. come immediately to mind. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass had no formal education but learned to read and write on his own. He taught himself five languages, despite the “affliction” of growing up among slaves who didn’t speak standard English.

There exist in every nook and cranny of the nation highly educated blacks. In my day, they were held in high esteem as the ultimate role models. That was in the day before blacks came to dominate basketball and football. Today the black who scores the touchdown or dunks the basketball is held in higher esteem than the black with an engineering degree or a doctorate.

As long as blacks hold their educated elite in lower regard than black athletes, poor black students will continue to do poorly. And no amount of finagling or gimmickry with the educational system will change that.

xxxx

For opposing view, see column by Robert Steinback under the headline: The language gap


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