Ebonics II

Oakland students' test scores are among the lowest in the state, but Oakland teachers press ahead with Mumia Abu Jamal teach-in.


Lee Hubbard
January 14, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

City Councilman Larry Reid calls it "Ebonics II."

Two years after the Ebonics debacle made the Oakland Unified School District a national laughingstock, district leaders announced plans to sponsor a "teach-in" on the case of Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal. Spearheaded by the teachers union, the teach-in was endorsed by Superintendent Carole Quan and key School Board members. Storm clouds of controversy gathered -- NAACP President Shannon Reeves blasted the plan -- and the district seemed ready to reprise its Ebonics debacle of two years ago.

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Then on Sunday, tragedy struck, and it seemed like it might knock sense into district leadership. An Oakland police officer, James Williams Jr., was killed by a sniper, and the city came together in sorrow. New Mayor Jerry Brown renewed his commitment to crime reduction, and Oakland School Board President Noel Gallo asked that the Jamal teach-in be canceled, in respect for the family of Williams (Jamal was convicted for killing a police officer). Even Superintendent Quan agreed the Jamal teach-in should at least be postponed.

But Monday night, the Oakland Education Association voted to go ahead with the planned events, although they may have to be held after school hours, pending further discussion with the district. Once again, the decision shines an unflattering spotlight on this district, where two-thirds of students perform below grade level in math and reading, but where district leaders have never met a politically correct publicity stunt they didn't like.

The facts of the Jamal case are complex. He is on death row for the 1981 murder of Daniel Faulkner, a 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer. Jamal, an award-winning journalist and former Black Panther, was also a part-time cab driver who, while driving his cab late at night, by coincidence, came across Faulkner arresting William Cook, Jamal's brother. Faulkner was subsequently shot five times in the back. Jamal was also shot, but the gun that fired the shots at Faulkner had Jamal's fingerprints on it. He was subsequently sentenced to death for Faulkner's murder.

Several years later, some witnesses changed their testimony and disputed the Philadelphia police account of Jamal's involvement in Faulkner's death. Jamal was recently denied an appeal for a new trial by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He is set to be executed as soon as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge signs his death warrant, in the next 30 to 60 days.

No doubt the Jamal case raises important issues. But when the overall grade-point average for Oakland students is 2.17, and the average for black students is below 2.0, it seems to me that the No. 1 issue for the district should be improving students' education.

The political reasoning behind the teach-in is also damaging to Oakland students. According to Bob Mandel, an adult education teacher who is the ringleader of the teach-in, it is being held because "many of our students will be in the penal system." In a television interview, Mandel said the teach-in is particularly relevant to black students, who make up more than 50 percent of the Oakland student population, because "one of every four African-American males in this country is in jail or on probation." But this often-uttered statistic regarding blacks in the criminal system is false. One in four black males between the ages of 18 and 29 is in the criminal system, not one in four overall. (Mandel used a lower figure in a recent op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.) And whatever the actual statistic, the mentality focuses attention on the 25 percent of black men involved in the criminal justice system, instead of the three out of four who aren't.

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Where the Ebonics mess was championed by black ideologues, the Jamal case has become a cause cilhbre mainly for white leftists, who preach that capitalism is evil and that there is no hope in America. Over and over again, white sectarians advance a view of black people as incarcerated, drug-addled welfare dependents to prove this country's evils. This chatter also gets mimicked by certain black intellectuals, who make six-figure salaries, preaching this bleak stuff at white capitalist institutions.

One of the underlying assumptions of this teach-in is that "they're going to jail anyway, so we might as well teach them to know about it." This is on a continuum with the logic that led a white counselor to tell my father to avoid college-prep classes and just learn a trade to get a job.

In today's society, education is the only route out of poverty and crime. Instead of spending days preparing lesson plans on Mumia Abu Jamal, the public school establishment in Oakland should be focused on preparing lesson plans to increase the learning of students. "Too many times you get liberals who aren't looking out for the growth and empowerment of the community, and they push their own political agenda," said the NAACP's Reeves, a former Jesse Jackson for President staffer who is now a registered Republican.

To their credit, district leaders are now opposing the teach-in, but they should have nipped it in the bud before it became a power play for a union that never misses an opportunity to flex its political muscle. Two years after Ebonics, camera crews are back in Oakland, and they are seeing a political sideshow that is overshadowing the key issues facing the district. While the teachers union is chanting, "Free Mumia," I'm waiting for someone to start a movement to "Free Oakland Students," from teachers and district leaders who consistently put ideology before education.

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Lee Hubbard

Lee Hubbard is a San Francisco writer who covers hip-hop culture as well as urban and national affairs.

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