The Oakland, California Ebonics Resolution:
The most publicized debate regarding Ebonics resulted from an event that occurred on December 18, 1996, in Oakland, California. The Oakland Board of Education declared Ebonics to be a valid language, based upon a number of studies demonstrating that
African-American students as a part of their culture and history as African people possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches as “Ebonics”… Be it resolved that the Board of Education officially recognizes the existence, and the cultural and historic bases of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems, and each language as the predominantly primary language of African-American students (Perry 143).
As a result, the Board established a policy that would begin to “devise and implement” a way to teach African-American students in their native tongue, for the sake of preserving Ebonics’ “legitimacy and richness.” Furthermore, this was said to aid African-American students in their “acquisition and mastery of English language skills” (Smitherman, Talkin that Talk xi). The Board thought that the decision – dubbed by the media as “Black English vs. White America” (Walsh 2) – could utilize Ebonics in teaching as a way to “raise the tragically low educational-achievement level of their black students” (Smitherman, Talkin that Talk 13). The ruling seemed to be an initial step in the direction of truly legitimizing Ebonics as an appropriate language in the sphere of public academia.
However, many contend that the Oakland decision was all just “a ploy to snare bilingual dollars” (Walsh 2). With Ebonics education placed on the same playing field with Latino and Asian bilingual programs, public schools could continue to enlarge their stockpile of government funding. Oakland educators of course denied these allegations; they asserted that they knew from the plan’s birth that it would be unsuccessful. Other critics of the resolution saw this as just another handout to the black community. This seemed to them a way to appease the growing tensions of minorities, to alleviate some of their worries, and to satisfy the world’s ever-increasing concern with “political correctness.” Dr. John McWhorter, “a linguists professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the controversial book, Losing the Race,” spoke out against the resolution in a 2001 interview. McWhorter said that African-Americans must disregard the affirmative action policies that hinder their achievements. “He urges black people to stop seeing themselves as victims, stop espousing separatist visions, and stop seeing intellectual achievement as the province of white people” (Burdman 2).
Still, it seemed that these programs worked, at least in the beginning stages. In January 1997, Joan Walsh wrote that Ebonics speakers were helped to “translate” the speech they heard at home into Standard English in the classroom, “much the way Spanish speakers think in their native tongue and translate to English as a first step to bilingualism” (Walsh 2). Although Ebonics is widely recognized as a language encompassing phonological rules and regulations, the simple fact is that it is difficult to succeed in the professional world without the ability to speak Standard English. The resolution thus seemed to be a beneficial plan, but problems arose in the way it was understood by the public.
In the original document, the resolution stated that Ebonics was “genetically based”. This was misinterpreted by many “to mean that African-Americans have a biological predisposition to a particular language, while in fact it was referring to genetic in the linguistic sense” (Applebome A18). As a result, the Board drafted a second manuscript stating that African-American language systems “have origins in West and Niger-Congo languages and are not merely dialects of English” (Perry 146). Amidst the ongoing battle of context and semantics, Joan Walsh states, “Why not amend the resolution to say what the Board insists it meant – that it wants to expand the successful language programs, without teaching Ebonics” (Walsh 3). In this light, it seems that the Board did not attempt to expand the use of Ebonics in education. Rather, they wished to calm the growing African-American resentment of other bilingual programs; what was created instead was “a maelstrom of media criticism” and “a hotly discussed national debate” (Applebome A18).
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The Skin that We Speak by Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgur Dowdy