Inadvertent Racism and Black English

Difference is often looked down upon by the majority rather than cherished. Inadvertent racism rears its head occasionally too. An example of accidental genetic racism is the Ebonics fiasco of the Oakland school board. It came on the tail end of a paper I wrote on Ebonics in December 1996 for my African American Consciousness class at City College of San Francisco so I remember it well.

Crayon colored map I made for Ebonics Paper (no computer  needed, can you believe it!)

Crayon colored map I made for my paper titled Black English (no computer needed in the old days, can you believe it!)

Ebonics is somewhat unique among dialects in America as it is spoken among individuals of the same race rather than geographically based.  It is alternatively called Black English or African-American Vernacular English. It was legitimatized in a 1979 district court case Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children et al. v. Ann Arbor School District. It was determined that the home language of most low-income black children was a distinct dialect referred to as Black English.  Under the equal protection clause, in order to best educate these American children, teachers could not ignore this reality. Today Ebonics continues to be a source of disdain, pride, suffering and survival; depends who you ask.

Jump forward to 1996, the Oakland School Board recognizes the legitimacy of Ebonics, nothing new. It then went on to mandate instruction in the dialect, as a means to teaching Standard English. This is interesting, as it requires a normative system of instruction for the dialect. What shocked everyone at the time was that they also said the inclination to speak Ebonics was genetically based. It passed unanimously.

According to SF Gate articles, school board members stated that the poor black children they pictured were “biologically predisposed toward a particular language through heredity.” Of course national political figures were furious and the newspapers had articles about this daily. Some were worried of the racist implications; others used it to enforce a colorblind hegemony, which would deny considering a home language at all.

In 1997 the school board amended the resolution to remove the accidental racist undertones of tying the children and their families’ inability to speak Standard English to genetics. They accurately noted in their clarification that it was linguistically genetic, meaning the genealogy of language development over time created the dialect. Unfortunately that wasn’t clear the first time.

If the majority of the Oakland School Board, led at the time by Jean Quan, were white, there may have been serious consequences for these local politicians. Fortunately, the focus remained on correcting what could be wielded as legalized racism, even if enacted by accident.

Here is a portion of the text of the resolution passed on December 18, 1996. Full text can be found here thanks to SF Gate:

WHEREAS, numerous validated scholarly studies demonstrate 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” (literally “Black sounds”) or “Pan-African Communication Behavior” or “African Language Systems”; and

WHEREAS, these studies have also demonstrated that African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English; and

WHEREAS, the interests of the Oakland Unified School District in providing equal opportunities for all of its students dictate limited English proficient educational programs recognizing the English language acquisition and improvement skills of African-American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual education principles for others whose primary languages are other than English; and…

I remember it sounding worse back in 1996. What can we learn from this? It was a big fat faux pas at best. I think I was more aligned with the colorblind approach then. At worst it was scientific racism making a comeback. They practically proved the need for the resolution by passing it. Words are so important. It is ironic that the resolution was about teaching Standard English and fighting racism yet it was subject to such broad interpretation and accusations of racism.


About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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2 Responses to Inadvertent Racism and Black English

  1. Vincent G says:

    Interesting post.

    I recently mentioned the term “Ebonics” at work and was told that the term itself is racist. It reminded me of when I first started college and all incoming freshmen were required to attend a day-long course on political correctness and racial sensitivity. As part of the course, we were required to break up into small discussion groups. All I remember is that many in my group came to the conclusion that it is impossible to be politically correct.

    • Thanks for sharing. That’s a really important comment. Back when this was occurring, I heard both “Black English” and “Ebonics” used by those considered authorities on the subject, as well as code switching, another important aspect of all this. I believe that political correctness can stifle discourse if the concept is taken to extremes. That said, I hope my intent makes the use of the term acceptable here.

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