In 1996 the Oakland Unified School District introduced a resolution to incorporate Ebonics, the language spoken by the large population of African American students, in the classroom. The African American students accounted for over half of the district’s population and as a group had just below a “C” grade point average and made up 71 percent of the special education population. The Ebonics resolution was thus proposed to improve this group’s progress by easing the students’ transition to learning and speaking standardized English. By recognizing the students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds they would validate the language the students had spoken all their lives, creating an environment better equipped for learning Standard English language skills.
The proposal was met by immediate media backlash. Both African Americans and whites spoke out vehemently against the resolution but their criticism was fundamentally based on the mistaken belief that Ebonics, and not Standard English, would be taught to the students. The problem was that the resolution was written from a linguistic viewpoint and so included vocabulary that was interpreted much differently by the general public. In “Language Ideology and Dialect: Understanding the Oakland Ebonics Controversy,” Walt Wolfram outlines several points made in the Oakland resolution that were significantly misinterpreted by the media and public. These issues notwithstanding, the biggest roadblock in the popular understanding of the Ebonics resolution was the refusal to consider AAVE a language. To most, it was slang and a lesser form of English.
Even after a second resolution changed some wording and the Oakland Unified School District clarified to certain media outlets (as in this transcript from a PBS NewsHour segment) that they would not be “teaching” Ebonics, the backlash and misconceptions about the proposal lingered. Why? And what does race have to do with this?
Around ten years after the Oakland Ebonics controversy, the television station VH1 aired the series “I Love the 90s.” The episode “I Love 1996” includes a segment on the controversy. During this two-minute clip, comedians and other entertainers comment on the Oakland School Board’s resolution and Ebonics in general. Godfrey asks why there was no conflict over “white Ebonics,” a joke that equates Ebonics with slang. Alfonso Ribeiro calls Ebonics the “dumbest idea ever” (it is unclear whether he is referring to the resolution or the very existence of Ebonics) and the tone of all of the commentators tends toward bemused incredulity. It is apparent that they think the resolution was ridiculous.
While Michael Ian Black references the notion that there is a structure to Ebonics, on the whole, there is little recognition of Ebonics’ linguistic traits. Though the etymology of the word “Ebonics” is discussed, the roots of the language are not, and more importantly, the reasons for the proposal to include Ebonics in Oakland schools is not mentioned at all. Ten years after the Oakland School Board attempted to validate the speech of 52 percent of the district’s students, it is still seen as slang, a bastardized form of English and even “dumb.” Can these perceptions of a language spoken by many for centuries stand apart from perceptions of the race that speaks it? In other words, is Ebonics lesser because of the social position of the group of people the language belongs to?
In the VH1 clip, Godfrey touches on this question when he asks about hypothetical controversy over “white Ebonics.” Although he fails to recognize that Ebonics is more than just English slang, he does hint at the idea that if it were a linguistic phenomenon belonging to white people, the reaction might have been different. Ebonics, like the group that speaks it, is marginalized. It is looked down upon by whites because it is viewed as an unintelligent form of expression. In “I ‘on Know why They be Trippin,” Theresa Perry says that “most teachers have little, if any, accurate knowledge about Black Language, and are likely to harbor negative attitudes about the language and its speakers, primarily because of their socio-political location.” These attitudes can extend to the wider white, anti-Ebonics population.
The African American population spoke out against the resolution because they, as a race, did not want to be perceived negatively by the larger white society, a fear mentioned in the text of the “I Has a Dream” ad that ran in the New York Times in 1996 with the authors’ assertions that “White America couldn’t care less what we do to segregate ourselves” and “language is power.” The supporters of this ad believe that whites see Ebonics as a separate and inferior language and because of this, perhaps, it has no power.
What is considered incorrect speech by many becomes the fodder for jokes as seen above and in Zach Galifianakis’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live from March of this year. In it (at about 1:57 in the clip below), he says that he wears “Axe” body spray but lives in a predominantly African American neighborhood where it is more commonly known as “Ask.” He follows the laughs with “If you don’t get that joke then you are not racist.” Of course he is not completely serious about this last part of the joke but his mention of racism is telling nonetheless. By accusing those who get the joke of racism Galifianakis is asserting that if you notice the difference between certain African American speech and Standard English you may be racist. There is an assumption that noticing a difference is equivalent to presuming African American speech’s inferiority. In 1996 it was this presumed inferiority that fueled media backlash.
Though the 1996 Oakland Unified School District’s Ebonics resolution clearly stated and explained the legitimacy of Ebonics, this is not what caught the media’s attention. Instead, the language was viewed as illegitimate and inferior. Race is tied inextricably to the perceptions of Ebonics and the resolution. How an affirmation of Ebonics in Oakland would reflect on African Americans as a whole was a primary concern of African Americans and white people alike. If African Americans were removed from worry about where they stand in relation to the rest of society, the controversy over including Ebonics in schools might not have occurred. Or at least, the public would have been able to focus some on the possible benefits of such an initiative as opposed to focusing solely on what many saw as inevitable downfalls. Because of African Americans’ historic disadvantages, the public saw Ebonics as a burden to escape from, not as a language with a richness and legitimacy all its own.