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A local school district's decision to recognize "black English" as a language has created a national firestorm.

By Andrew Ross
Published December 20, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

last Wednesday night, the Oakland, Calif. school board voted unanimously in support of a policy that would incorporate "ebonics" into English teaching in the local schools. The policy's advocates said that recognizing black English as a separate language, which the advocates claim has roots in west Africa, would help improve the poor academic performance of the African-American children who make up more than half of Oakland's public school students.

Both the state and the federal government have expressed serious reservations about the district's policy, and a number of educators have questioned the validity and worth of ebonics. (The word is derived by combining the words "ebony" and "phonics.")

The controversy has spilled far beyond Oakland. The local school board has been flooded with phone calls from all over the country, and national radio and television talk shows have taken up the subject, as has the Internet.

We talked Friday with Micheal Bazely, the education reporter for the Oakland Tribune about the mushrooming controversy.

How did this issue erupt so dramatically?

I'm reluctant to inject myself into the debate, partly because I'm still trying to sort through it myself. At the core of this debate there are very valid issues about the education of African-American students and about the need to get them to better understand, to read and write and speak and to be proficient in standard English. For whatever reason, the school board has to some extent politicized this issue by deciding to state that ebonics, or Black English, or whatever you want to call it, is a legitimate language. That has vaulted the issue into another realm, away from what really needs to be done to get these kids to speak English.

The issue of Black English in schools is not new.

The Oakland school district has had a program in existence for more than 10 years where they explain to students that the language or the dialect or whatever they bring from home is legitimate, that they're not doing anything wrong. But they are also told that they need to understand that in the larger society they need to speak standard English. Nothing controversial about that program. It's in many other school districts and there hasn't been a peep about it. Then the Oakland school board decides very publicly to say, "Well, we're going to declare that this is another language."

Why did the school board politicize it in that way?

There are one or two people on the board who are very Afrocentric, have a very nationalistic point of view, and I think they were interested in making a social and political statement. They've been frustrated at all the attention that Asian students get, the money that they and other non-English speaking students get for bilingual education, and felt that now was the time to make a power play. So to some extent, I think it was very intentional. They knew what they were doing. They knew it was going to be controversial.

Not everybody on the board felt that way. I just got off the phone with a couple of school board members who are completely flabbergasted at all this. They are going to go back and try to change some of the wording of the original resolution. I dont know if they'll get a majority of the board to go along.

But they all voted for it in the first place. Didn't they know what they were voting for?

I'll tell you why I think that happened: First of all, this all came out of a task force report put together by a select group of African-American educators and community people in the school district. The report went straight to the board. Normally such policy changes go through a very convoluted, labyrninthine process. Various staff people look at it, it goes through various committees, then the board hashes out all the wording and the details. That didn't happen this time. The task force report landed on the school board members desks Friday, and the following Wednesday they're voting on it.

I think a lot of them saw it as a benign action, a simple policy statement, a concept they're endorsing but which doesn't start any new concrete programs. They didn't really understand the impact of what they were doing. Now, some of them at least are saying, "we need to clarify what we're trying to do here, and maybe not back off, but re-word the resolution."

What is the reaction in Oakland's black community?

They're very divided. I just got off the phone with one parent who said, straight up, "I don't want my kid talking that way in school. I don't want him talking that way at home, and I don't want anybody telling him that that's the right way to talk. That's not how I was raised." There are other parents who are like, "right on, it's about time that we acknowledge that there is a separate language or dialect here, a separate culture, and that teachers need to understand that and they need to respect that."

Where do you think this controversy is going?

I really don't know. I don't think anybody does at this point. The school district is reeling and trying to figure out what their next steps are going to be.

Should black English be taught as a language? Speak up in Table Talk.

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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