Black English becomes magnet for misunderstandings

By issuing its now infamous resolution on "ebonics," the Oakland Unified School District triggered the biggest education news story in recent memory. "In a sense, it was the linguistic Million Man March," says Dr. Manning Marable, professor of history and director of African-American studies at Columbia. The resolution defined ebonics as a "genetically based language system," not a dialect of English, and classified its speakers as having limited English proficiency. Learned perspectives on the dialect and its cultural circumstances were often the last thing the media took into account.

According to OUSD board president Jean Quan, board members didn't have a chance to read the resolution's final draft before voting. By rushing to approve an unread, imprecisely worded document, the board drowned its good intentions -- helping Oakland's black students, who have an average GPA of 1.8 -- in a sea of obfuscation. Further muddying the waters, Quan initially told reporters that the phrase "genetically based" was not used in the resolution. "Then I looked at the actual draft," she says, "and was very embarrassed." OUSD legal counsel Steve Royston also told the Oakland Tribune that classes would be taught in ebonics-a widely reported statement later retracted.

"There were real problems at the outset with definition and intent," says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, a non-profit foundation that monitors freedom of the press and supports journalism education through programs such as its Media Studies Center, founded at Columbia in 1985. Dr. Joe Malone of Barnard's linguistics department points out that linguists "do use the term 'genetic' sometimes to mean 'transmitted historically' from one generation to another; every language in the world has a genetic basis of that type. You can push the metaphor too far. But that's very different from saying that human beings might contain genes that would transmit the language of their ancestors, which is not something that's done." The Linguistic Society of America, noting that black English is as systematic as other forms of speech, passed a resolution supporting its use as a tool for teaching standard English.

The story quickly attracted coast-to-coast attention, perhaps in part because it broke the week before Christmas, a slow news time. Quan recalls, "Some sarcastic guy from CNN made a comment, 'Oh, you made our Christmas.'" Ebonics became a one-size-fits-all topic for punditry, from U.S. News & World Report's "Ebonics? No thonics" to the New Yorker's "Johnny Be Good" to a humor piece by Lonnae O'Neal Parker in the Washington Post, complete with ebonics-to-standard-English translations. A Yahoo search for "ebonics" turns up thousands of listings, with a choice of three main categories: "Society and Culture," "News and Media," or "Entertainment" -- typical of the coverage across the board.

The reportage has provoked criticism from some educators, linguists, and publishing professionals, who say the media overlooked the resolution's educational concerns and focused on more sensational aspects, especially the not-so-subtle racial subtext. "The mainstream press seemed to argue that the board of education in Oakland had turned its back on educational excellence and that it was catering to the worst aspects of ghetto culture," says Marable. "The subtext was how black people are responsible for their own repression. Case in point: their language. They haven't learned how to speak standard English; that's how come they don't get jobs."

Oakland's Felix Gutierrez, senior vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum's Pacific Coast Center, says the media seized the issue because it fits his city's tough stereotype. "I don't think [the reports] were unfair, but I don't think they were complete. They went off on the key phrases and flashpoints and reworked those rather than looking at what's behind this, why is this happening here."

Professor Stephen D. Isaacs of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism comments: "It was a convenient way to talk about race without talking about race. The real issue was, of course, what are we going to do about a whole generation of ghetto kids who speak a language that others in society don't understand. The news media tend to jump on stories that hit buzz words, and they can get away with it without being accused themselves of being racists."

Columbia historian Barbara Fields agrees, classifying much of the coverage as "another Negro curiosity story." Professor Fields says the media erred by focusing on rhetoric rather than the bigger issues raised by the OUSD. "The task of genuine journalism is to address the serious topic and not to play games with the preposterous formulations. I don't think we need to waste 10 minutes on the nonsense about ebonics. What to do about our big city schools and why they're in the state they're in, what are effective ways to train our children -- that's a serious subject, and it doesn't seem to me that was played to the same extent." She says that instead of taking the high road, many news broadcasts used a short, humorous piece on ebonics as a wrap-up: "'Here's something to chuckle about: The school board out in Oakland has said Afro-American children speak a foreign language.' They can laugh at the school board or the children. Nothing's been invested, nothing's been discussed in a serious way, and then they can move on to the next silly-season feature."

That's par for the course on education coverage, according to Maggie Balough, editor of Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists. Without a crisis, she says, education rarely attracts media attention. "We've whittled education down to a dollars-and-cents issue. We've failed to place any value on education per se, other than how it facilitates a contribution to the national and global economy -- how it relates to Wall Street." She thinks the Oakland story attained its 15 minutes of fame by assembling "all the elements of a news story -- there seemed to be conflict, crisis, people at odds with each other, and a different topic. Nobody had had a fight about this before."

In mid-January, the OUSD issued an amended resolution, clarifying that black English would be a teaching tool, not a course of study in itself. While the amended resolution got some attention, for the most part the media had tired of the topic and moved on. Some say a nationwide focus on education -- for any reason -- may end up having beneficial results. McMasters is guardedly optimistic: "The coverage of this issue refocuses our attention on something that may seem a little shopworn as far as the news is concerned; it's sort of a side-door way into a reinvigorated discussion of education in general. We need these kinds of things periodically." But troubled schools remain, in Oakland and beyond, requiring serious debate in everyone's dialect. --Elzy Kolb

Related links...

  • W. Wayt Gibbs, "A Matter of Language," Scientific American, "Science and the Citizen" column, March 1997

  • Michael Casserly, "Understanding Ebonics," Oakland Tribune editorial, December 29, 1996

  • Charles J. Fillmore, "A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate," UC Berkeley Parents Network

  • Center for Applied Linguistics Statement to the Media on Ebonics

    ELZY KOLB is a free-lance journalist based in Manhattan.

    ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Howard Roberts.