Black English May Create Yet Another Wall Around the Ghetto

By Michael Fumento

The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 29, 1996
Copyright 1996 the San Diego Union-Tribune

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If I be startin out a column like this, you be wondrin wus up. You be thinking I’m dissin you and go on to da sports page.

Which is why I write in standard English. I want people to understand me. But now it appears that black public school students — already with a strike or two against them in life — will now be told this is a perfectly proper way to speak.

The Oakland school board has voted to recognize the lingo of blacks in inner-cities — which they haughtily label Ebonics (a combination of "ebony" and "phonics") — as a second language. They are now going to apply for federal funds to set up a bilingual education program of English and "Ebonics."

Some educators laugh at this claim — or tear their hair. "I don’t call it Ebonics; I call it incorrect English," Joan Davis Rattary, president of the Institute for Independent Education, told the Washington Times in November. Her group is an alliance of nearly 400 private black schools.

If it is a language, then I learned a "language" when I joined the Army. Every sentence had to contain at least one swear word and no word could contain more than two syllables.

Actually, Ebonics is merely an advanced form of pidgin, called a creole. Some Afro-centrist linguists claim to have traced Ebonics’ origins, especially its lack of verb tenses, to African languages, such as Uruba. But that’s jive.

"Black English has the same simplified verb structure as creole tongues around the world," explains Dr. David Murray, an anthropological linguist who now works with the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C. "You hear the same sort of thing in Hawaii, in areas settled by the French, and elsewhere."

"In England there are dialects that more closely resemble Black English than does Uruba," told me. "To see this as an expression of blackness is completely an invention."

But even calling it a language doesn’t satisfy the original purpose of bilingual education, which was to teach children both in their native tongue and in English until they are proficient enough in English to deal with other subject matter.

Sure, a lot of black Oakland children might say something like, "Afta school, I be goin’ to da stoe." But that hardly means they’re incapable of understanding it when their teacher says, "After school, I am going to the store."

In any case, numerous studies have shown that bilingual education is a sham. The best way for anybody — child or adult — to learn a language is complete immersion. Berlitz will charge you for an immersion language course, but until bilingual education came along children in the United States got English immersion for free. They quickly learned the new tongue, thus becoming truly bilingual.

But under what’s called "bilingual education," all too often the outcome is that kids continue to stumble along for years with a poor grasp of English. That’s why Hispanic parents in Los Angeles rallied last March to protest their children being put in separate classes that don’t teach in English.

So why do Oakland administrators want to inflict this upon black kids?

First, Ebonics is seen as a way of promoting Afro-centricism. It’s not enough to teach black children the accomplishments of ancient blacks, blame their setbacks on the European "white devils" who came along and destroyed their culture. You’ve got to reject whitey’s way of talking, too.

Second, it’s easier to let Johnny speak improperly than to try to teach him proper English. "It’s the latest in the sorry excuses for the education establishment not being able to do the job and being unwilling to do the job," Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, told me. Williams is black and specializes in economic issues affecting minorities.

Third, bilingual education means bucks. Just tell the kids it’s OK to say "deez, dem, and doze," and the federal government will toss money at you which can be used to boost teacher and administrator salaries. In Los Angeles, teachers can earn as much as $7,000 extra a year for qualifying to teach in bilingual programs.

So the big people will gain, but how about the little ones?

"I think this would be amusing if it weren’t so damaging," says Murray.

He maintains it’s not a matter of saying one way of speaking being inherently superior to another. Rather, "language is the coin of the realm," he says. "The peso is a fine coin in Mexico, but you cannot buy a cup of coffee with a peso in Washington, D.C.

"You can speak in whatever lingo you want when you hang out with the home boys," says Murray. "But when you interview with Pfizer," the better you can speak standard English, the better your prospects.

Until the death of his wife, O.J. Simpson built a tremendous post-athletic career in broadcasting and acting. He did not do it by speaking the tongue he learned as a child in Oakland. Instead, he sought tutoring to replace his Ebonics with impeccable standard English. But it’s a fair bet that most black kids in Oakland and elsewhere will never have the resources to do that.

A good education, including standard English, is the ticket out of the slums. Doing what Oakland wants to do, says Murray, is "just building a ghetto wall around the students."


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on race issues.