The Ebonic Plague is a natural outbreak of the malodorous condition of education. But when the Oakland, Calif., School Board declared black English, or “Ebonics,” as a distinct language, the only CDC they got was the Centers for Damage Control.
At this CDC, a hilarious range of African-Americans, some of whom cannot stand each other, say Ebonics is a shame on the race. It ranges from Ward Connerly, a leader against affirmative action in California and conservative Shelby Steele to Jesse Jackson, the NAACP and Maya Angelou. Jackson is backpedaling now, but his early calling of Ebonics as “unacceptable surrender” opened the door for the White House and many white commentators to jump on Oakland’s throat.
This is a beating on someone whose windpipe is already choked off. James Baldwin long ago recognized that the debate about black English is more telling of those who criticize it than of its actual users. In 1979, he cited several instances where white Americans have borrowed from black English to suit their culture, then trashed black people themselves as ignorant.
“The bulk of the white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes,” Baldwin wrote. “It is not the black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience.”
That experience is one of disparate education. In its new State and National Data Book, the Education Trust found that the money spent on schools with high concentrations of low-income students is 77 percent of the money spent on schools that have low numbers of students in poverty. White students are dramatically pulling away from African-American and Latino students in measures of achievement, after two decades when African-American students significantly narrowed the gap.
Oakland said it wants to recognize Ebonics as a way of helping youths bridge the gap to mainstream English. This is a source of outrage? White people have no problem bridging the gap to black English when they make money off it, like sneaker and insurance companies that borrow “You go girl,” like white editors of rap magazines, like John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd parading as “Blues Brothers” or like white college basketball and football recruiters who talk more jive than Cab Calloway to get black men to come to their school to play ball.
What is outrageous about black English is that it is a symptom of an America that continues to jive around with African-American and Latino children. It is sick to jump on Oakland kids who say “We be goin’ home,” when 59 percent of teachers in schools with high percentages of low-income students say they lack textbooks. Only 16 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools issue the same complaint.
It is worse when low-income and students of color often get poor teachers. In largely white schools, 86 percent of science teachers are certified. In schools predominately of color, only 54 percent of science teachers are certified. While 69 percent of mathematics classes in mainly white schools are taught by math majors, only 42 percent of such classes in schools mainly of color are taught by math majors. More than 80 percent of English classes in low-poverty schools are taught by someone who at least minored in English. Only 67 percent of English classes in high-poverty schools are taught by someone so qualified.
Black folks, whether in Brooklyn or Barbados, speak with all kinds of patois as a response to the destruction of African culture in slavery and segregation. We also have long understood the necessity of speaking the language of the dominant white culture, in ways that white culture has failed to reciprocate.
That is nothing new. What should be Page 1 is that the combination of continuing segregation in education and divestment in public schools has maintained separate universes, if not languages.
Some teachers say they have succeeded in using the slang of African-American youth to help them bridge the gap to mainstream English. Unless the critics have any new resources for, say, an Oakland where African-American students have a 1.8 gradepoint average, you might as well let the teachers try.
African-American children speak the language of children whose lingo and hairstyles are exploited by shoe, soft-drink and fast-food companies. Once exploited, their intellects are left naked, thirsty and hungry. Sensible people, and I am sure this includes the Oakland School Board, know that these children ultimately must speak over-thecounter English for service jobs and computer English for high-tech jobs.
But if we have already condemned these children by our lack of investment, who is talking slang, here? Inner-city African-American children talk the way they do and act the way they do because they are, as Baldwin wrote, refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize them. The problem is not the Ebonic Plague. The problem is that we keep telling these children, “We be there tomorrow,” when we have no intention of showing up at all.