Volume , Number 0
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Congress Privatizes the Net
Microradio Broadcasting Aguascalientes of the â€¦
Pulp Non Fiction: The Ecologist â€¦
Death to the MIA
Bootstraps Literacy And Racist Schooling â€¦
Bombing A La Mode
Interview with Martxedn Espada
Mark k. Anderson
Editorial: What Lies Ahead
Anatomy of a Victory
The Oscar Wilde Fad
"New Global Architecture" Poses Questions â€¦
title("Fraud In Oakland's Garbage Sweatshop")
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Bootstraps Literacy And Racist Schooling In The U.S.
In December 1996 the school board in Oakland, California passed a resolution meant to change the current racist schooling of African-American students. The media coverage of the resolution resulted in a national spectacle dubbed, "Ebonics." The Ebonics controversy focused on whether African-American speech patterns constitute a dialect of English or another language. The national consensus seemed to be that Ebonics is not a distinct language. This conclusion was arrived at through editorials, articles and commentaries which distorted the debate. For example, the New York Times called Ebonics "black slang" on December 24, but later, on December 30, used the phrase "patois of many low-income blacks." Richard Riley, the Education Secretary, weighed in to say that African-American speech patterns constitute a dialect, not a language.
It all started on Christmas eve of 1996 when a New York Times editorial piece, titled "Linguistic Confusion," denounced the Oakland School Board. After this, local and national news almost unanimously dismissed the idea that African-American speech patterns are linguistically distinct from English. Intellectuals were sought for their responses. Patricia Williams, a law professor, writing on the Op-ed page of the New York Times, feared that "teachers who speak standard classroom English will be "flailing about in some really bad version of a standardized black English." She wrote that if Ebonics were taken seriously, it would look like "standard English speakers...who, encountering any black person, start 'dude'-ing and 'I be'-ing up a storm, high and low-fiving to beat the band." In a speech given at my university, Maya Angelou got the entire University of North Florida arena laughing with a quip about the "ebonic plague." This same phrase was used as a title for a New York Times Op-ed piece that described the Oakland school board as "wrong, if not deranged."
When speaking of this project to colleagues and friends, I've been offered examples of other kinds of linguistic differences which would be, apparently, as equally ridiculous as Ebonics. I've been told about "hebonics" which would chart Yiddish speech patterns. I read on the Internet that "the language folks who brought us Ebonics have decided to pursue some of the seemingly endless taxpayer pipeline...by designating Southern slang, or 'hickphonics'." Garrison Keillor made fun of the idea of Ebonics in a radio sketch about "wobegonics"-- taken from his series "The News from Lake Wobegone."
The one-sided debate over language and social difference couldn't hold the national attention long because a one-sided debate is pretty boring. The national uneasiness around the idea that African-Americans speak differently because of a long history of cultural and political segregation abated, and all that is left are stupid jokes about accent.
But in looking back to what was said in the news, one point appears frequently: the real issue, the newsmakers kept saying, is that U.S. schools are failing. Frequently, a writer would opine that the education of African-American students is lacking, but "institutionalizing black English would severely handicap...students in their efforts to compete in the job market" (Rodgers). The Times wrote that because of the so-called mistakes of the Oakland School Board that "for the last ten days the country has focused on the problem of educating inner city black youths, an issue...too often ignored." Patricia Williams, again, wrote that "this controversy boils down to the old familiar ingredients of struggle for respect, resources, opportunity and jobs." The real problem, according to this consensus, is that African-American students are segregated into schools that are run-down and therefore they do not have the same opportunities to learn as other students. All these intellectuals and opinion-makers decided that the firestorm of attention on the Oakland School Board must be directed to the schooling of African-Americans. But to say that the debate about Ebonics is just "carrying water" for debates around school vouchers is an irresponsible dismissal of an important linguistic development. Ebonics must be looked as an important discussion in and of itself.
The Oakland School Board's position on African-American speech patterns is difficult to articulate in sound-bite form, but progressives must start articulating it. Henry Louis Gates told the New York Times that the School Board's statement was "obviously stupid and ridiculous." Ebonics and the Oakland resolution are neither stupid nor ridiculous, and we, as socially-committed intellectuals have the responsibility of disagreeing loud and clear with Henry Louis Gates. Books such as The Real Ebonics Debate and articles such as "Suite for Ebony and Phonics" begin this kind of work.
There are two kinds of dismissals. One of the dismissals emerges from the assumption that Ebonics is nothing more than an accent. The pronunciation of words and slang is what Ebonics has come to mean. Secondly, the Oakland School Board is imagined to have used a specious argument about language as a way to get their hands on federal money. Again, Patricia Williams, declared in the Times that "the Oakland school board's action has been [a] rather transparent strategy of categorizing Ebonics as a distinct language in order to gain access to extra financing for the education of bilingual students." Ebonics is more than a category game; it is "one of the most distinctive varieties of American English, differing from Standard English...in several ways (Rickford 84).
Ebonics was a chance to roll out what I call the myth of bootstraps literacy. The U.S. sells more books, newspapers, magazines, and advertising based on this myth of raising one's self up through hard work in school than we know. The effects of this myth are devastating. When the myth is represented to us, the African-Americans who have overcome obstacles (the Ward Connerlys, the Judge Thomases) are needed. In the Newsweek article on Ebonics, Rachel Jones, says condescendingly, "Frankly, I'm still longing for a day when more young blacks born in poverty will subscribe to my personal philosophy....my mastery of standard English gave me a power that no one can take away from me."
School, according to this myth, exposes all students equally to the conventions of spoken and written English, and students soak in these conventions through practice, practice, practice. Also, "poking through The Canterbury Tales by age 8" helps--or so says Rachel Jones in Newsweek magazine. The child who looked at the classics from an early age grows up to be an academic hero. These tales of academic heroism are common: Richard Rodriguez's "scholarship boy" in Hunger of Memory is another story of asserting one's ambition to excel in school.
But this image of a bicultural Horatio Alger needs to be looked at more closely. Identity and language may appear fluid, and we may marvel at individual's ability to move between cultures. The individual who is able to move between Ebonics and standard English seems to choose to learn the conventions of standard English or seems to choose to retain their earlier speech patterns.
The bootstraps literacy myth assumes that African-Americans choose to be literate by identifying with the dominant culture or, they opt out, and resist U.S. culture. This is a cruel joke. Literacy is an activity structured in racist society, and an individual does not merely choose speech patterns.
Other assumptions of the myth of bootstraps literacy can be seen in the many accounts (often offered by African-Americans and Latino/as) of the power of learning good English. These features of the myth include: (l) writers refer to their own experience in school; (2) the individual chooses between a dialect and standard forms of expression; (3) mastery of Standard English is the most powerful tool for entering mainstream U.S. society; (4) African-American youth "drop out" of mainstream U.S. society; (5) resources available to marginalized students are enough. This fifth assumption leads intellectuals to claim that Great Books in school and Standard English in the home constitute an "environment for learning."
This myth of bootstraps literacy totally erases what actually happens and has happened. Before the emancipation of slaves, the uprisings in the South prompted local ordinances which forbade the teaching of reading and writing. In other words, the U.S. withheld literacy from African-Americans through legislation, and now withhold it through unequal funding of schools, and through tracking and other mechanisms. In her a chapter titled, "Slaves, Religion and Reading," Janet Duitsman Cornelius writes that in the 19th century white Southerners enacted "a wave of repressive legislation" that banned literacy activities of slaves. "Laws banning the teaching of slaves were...in effect in four states...[during] the period from the 1830s to 1865: Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia." She writes that "the impact of these laws is debatable" because "they were seldom taken seriously by the courts." However, "the distinctive aspect of the southern reaction from 1829-1834 was the stress on religion and literacy as major cause for the revolts" such as the Turner rebellion and an uprising in Jamaica known as the Baptist War. The revolts, feared by Northerners and Southerners, were supposedly led by "preachers" who wrote pamphlets against slavery. "As a South Carolinian put it, there could be no mass literacy in the South 'until man can eat of the tree of knowledge and not know evil.' He insisted that bans on black literacy would have to continue 'until those of our Negroes who are taught to read the Bible shall be unable to read [David] Walker's pamphlet'."
This same fear of the literate African-American who will use his or her knowledge in order to change their conditions of life is with us today, and one can see it in the histrionic calls for Great Books and "the basics." What would happen if African Americans read slave narratives instead of Shakespeare? What would happen if students recognized their own speech patterns as valid expressions which have a place in social discourse?
The media, and casual discussions of Ebonics, repeatedly entertain the stereotype of the anti-social and dangerous African American who will flout the dominant culture and not assimilate. James Shaw compares Ebonics to black-on-black crime. He writes in the Los Angeles Times, "The Oakland plan is nothing more than inverted racism. Like drive-by gang shootings and riot-inspired community turndowns, it is one more example of how black people can commit acts of racism against themselves." It is as the use of Ebonics is a resistance to the dominant culture, and is a doomed language. This picture of the anti-social African American who will opt out, (and only speak Ebonics) frightens white Americans, and is just titillating enough to sell copy. Frank Rich, in the New York Times, opines that "inner-city children...are already prone to rejecting mainstream speech and academic achievement as too 'white.'" "Young people who embrace [Ebonies] too fully" are not part of the mainstream, and will become criminals apparently. Ebonics will confuse "the minds of disadvantaged young blacks" further, according to Rachel Jones in Newsweek. She writes that "young blacks...perceive clear speech as a Caucasian trait" and if the differences between Ebonics and standard English were highlighted in classrooms, then students would succumb "to a dangerous form of self-abnegation that rejects success as a 'white thing'." What could be more frightening than an African American refusing to participate in mainstream culture? A slave uprising? The burning of Los Angeles? At the same time that U.S. society segregates and vilifies African Americans, it drums into everybody's head the myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps by studying the Standard English of white people. This painful contradiction between what we believe to be true, and what actually is, has to be addressed. The U.S. has a long history of isolating African Americans, and this cultural segregation has shaped speech patterns which must be validated and explained in classrooms.
John Rickford explains how Ebonics, the language of African Americans, has developed over the centuries. He writes: "The genesis of Ebonics lies in the distinctive cultural background and relative isolation of African Americans, which originated in the slaveholding South. Many African slaves, in acquiring English, developed a pidgin language--a simplified fusion of English and African languages--from which Ebonics evolved....A pidgin language emerges to facilitate communication between speakers who do not share a language; it becomes a creole language when it takes root and becomes the primary tongue among its users."
Ebonics is a creole language. This is the linguistic point that was most egregiously misinterpreted by the media. On December 30, 1997 Stephen Holden wrote that "the resolution contains emotionally charged words and phrases that smack of a black separatist ideology. For example, the resolution says that Ebonics is 'genetically based and not a dialect of English.'" In response to Holden, Ernie Smith explains how the phrase "genetically based" was meant to operate metaphorically within the resolution. But School Board's resolution was misconstrued by powerful media megaphones. "The metaphorical use of terms from biology [such as 'genetically based'] is common in historical linguistics; there is nothing unusual about their useThus we speak,
for example, of the genetic relationship that exists between English and German: that there is [an] 'ancestor' language from which the 'daughter' languages are descended in a somewhat different way. Ebonics is historically derived from certain West African languages as well as from English."
Linguists also use this creole account to describe the development of languages on Caribbean and Pacific islands. Rickford explains that these islands had "large plantations [which] brought together huge groups of
slaves or indentured laborers. The native languages of these workers were radically different from the native tongues of the small groups of European colonizers and setters, andwith minimal access to European speakers, new, restructured varieties like Haitian Creole French and Jamaican Creole English arose. "
Slavers in the South also brought together huge numbers of laborers whose languages differed radically from their European slave owners. Sixty-one percent of the population of South Carolina was African-American before slavery was abolished (Rickford). But this "creole account" of languages in the U.S. didn't make it into Newsweek or The New York Times. And why not? Whose interests are served by this distortion of the Ebonics debate? The answer is very clear: white people. By dismissing new educational initiatives that emerge from viable linguistic research, the nation has effectively shut the classroom door to African-American students. In Duval County, the school district labeled 1,900 students as Educable Mentally Handicapped last year. If they graduate, these students will earn a special diploma that neither the military nor community colleges will recognize: 1,369 of those labeled Educably Mentally Handicapped are African American. "From California to Texas to Florida, blacks far outnumber whites in these programs." The post-civil rights era mechanisms for determining African-American students' so-called linguistic deviance rob millions of an education. These mechanisms include standardized tests and teams of psychologists and teachers who decide the needs of students. Some of the concepts that frame the schools' decisions about who is educably mentally handicapped and who is not, are socialization and readiness to learn. When mostly white people are determining who is socialized, and who is ready to learn, then schooling becomes a racist sleight-of-hand trick.
"One reason for the high ratio of African-American EMH children is that classroom teachers refer more black than white students for special testing." In other words, before the child is even tested by psychologists or their IQ is determined, a teacher's impression of the child identifies his or her needs. Thomas Serwatka, Associate Dean of Education at University of North Florida, "reasons that white teachers are less likely to refer white students [to the EMH program] because they don't behave like EMH kids." In other words, the kid who is not like the white teacher is different. Serwatka continues, "If you act as the culture of the school asks you to act you don't get referred."
Special education in the U.S. constitutes a racist deskilling of African-American youth. If the Oakland School Board wants to change this situation by preparing their teachers for the linguistic differences that exist in their classrooms already, then leftist educators better listen.