Media botches Ebonics debate

Media pundits and political commentators throughout the nation continue to blast a barrage of ill-informed, racially charged assaults on the Oakland School Board’s decision to legitimize Ebonics, a vernacular of English that 80 percent of black Americans say they sometimes speak. Poorly reported news stories and shoddily researched editorial analyses are largely responsible for the widespread misrepresentation of the board’s principal intent to cultivate higher reading and writing scores among Oakland’s economically disadvantaged black students. In fact, our own newspaper has contributed to the misinformation. Last week, the Daily published two syndicated cartoons and a column that were not only vacuous attacks on the Oakland initiative but, worse, ridiculed a common form of black vernacular spoken among many African Americans.
Certainly, the Oakland School Board is partially to blame for the explosive controversy. Board officials initially failed to clearly articulate their fundamental resolution to train teachers in their district to better communicate with inner-city blacks students who are dropping out at alarming rates because of, in large part, poor grades. Nevertheless, the media as well as the federal government’s predominantly angry and racially arrogant response to the proposition is shameful testimony to the enduring denigration of African American heritage and culture.
Even before the board submitted its proposal for using federal bilingual education dollars to train its teachers to understand what sociolinguists refer to as African American Vernacular English in the classroom, the Clinton Administration hastily exacerbated the embroiling debate. Education Secretary Richard Riley denied Oakland the opportunity to even make a formal request for funding, announcing beforehand that the government considers Ebonics a nonstandard form of English and not a foreign language. What the government and many subsequent media reports have failed to grasp, however, is that all the board is trying to do is to develop programs for helping teachers provide a better education to their struggling and disaffected black students. Nobody disagrees that all students, regardless of race or class, must learn to speak standard English, the language of education, business and government.
Oakland’s determination to grant legitimacy to African American vernacular is energized by a commitment to get more teachers to recognize and acknowledge that students who speak black vernacular are no less capable of learning and excelling as their counterparts who grew up in families and communities speaking only standard English. Oakland is only one of a number of school districts in California that have programs in place to help inner-city blacks improve their communication skills in preparation for a job market that demands standard English. Rather than perpetuating a public school system that is biased against culture and class, districts across the country should follow Oakland’s lead in acknowledging that there are substantial distinctions in language use and dialect that shape and constrain how people read and write. Unfortunately, the media and the government’s irresponsible response has undermined the possibility that such an acknowledgement will come any time soon.