Friday, February 7, 2014

Losing the Race 6: Ebonics

In my latest reading of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, John McWhorter talks about the issue of Ebonics, which is an African-American dialect.  Specifically, McWhorter is addressing a 1996 resolution by the Oakland school board to treat Ebonics as a language, thereby requiring public schools to pursue the sort of bilingual educational approach for African-American students that they use for Spanish-speaking students.

McWhorter, a linguist, emphatically does NOT believe that Ebonics is slang or poor grammar, but he argues that it is a structured, long-standing dialect of American English.  At the same time, he does not agree with the Oakland school board’s resolution.  For one, he argues that bilingual Ebonics programs have not worked in helping African-American children improve their reading skills.  Second, he contends that the language gap is not responsible for the poor academic performance of a number of African-American children, for their problems in reading do not relate to the differences between Ebonics and standard English (the English of Americans in power).  Third, McWhorter argues that immersion in standard English is the way for African-American students to learn it, and he touts the success of a phonics program for African-American participants.  Fourth, McWhorter disagrees with the Oakland school board’s claim that Ebonics is somehow related to African language, and he also has issues with the label “Ebonics” itself.  The term “Ebonics” is a combination of “ebony” and “phonics,” and McWhorter notes on page 201 that “languages and dialects are not designated with the suffix -ics, nor do language names usually refer to the hue of their speakers’ skins.”  McWhorter may prefer other terms, such as “Black English Vernacular, Black English, or African-American Vernacular English” (page 201).

McWhorter appears to be open, however, to African-American students “bringing Black English stories and poems into the classroom alongside standard English ones”, as this “can be a harmless way of lessening the sense of alienation from school that black children tend to have while allowing standard English to prevail so that they can assimilate it thoroughly” (page 193).

I’d like to highlight two points:

First, McWhorter refers on page 195 to “Black journalist Tucker Carlson” in making the point that even some African-Americans wrongfully regard African-American dialect as poor grammar.  This puzzled me, for Tucker Carlson is not black.

Second, McWhorter states on page 204:

“What Ebonics advocates rarely consider is that to argue that black children are barred from reading by their home dialect while children around the world sail effortlessly over similar and larger dialect gaps implies that black children are not very bright.  Just how much of a burden is it, really, to internalize that on paper you say She is my boss instead of She my boss, or that the word you usually pronounce as bes is best on paper?”

McWhorter actually makes a similar point throughout the book: that African-American victimology does not exactly give a lot of credit to African-Americans.  He may be right about that, and yet I can vaguely understand that there is a tension: a number of African-Americans may want to celebrate the achievements and strides that African-Americans have made, and yet they do not desire to give the impression that there are no more problems that they face, that everything is hunky-dory for them.

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