Monday, May 9, 2011

Ebonics: the key for an end to the drug war?

By. Kathryn Villaverde

       In August of 2010 the DEA extended their war on drugs to a war over Ebonics.  Well, not exactly a war, however, they did bring the “issue” of Ebonics or AAVE into the social spotlight once again and this time with a more conccrete goal.  As opposed to the debate about Ebonics being incorporated into the educational system, a conflict that dealt with the complicated and often ambiguous topic of minority children’s lacking academic achievement, the more recent social debate regarding Ebonics deals with the ability for federal agents to respond to criminal activity. Their goal: to better understand wiretapped conversations between drug dealers and use those translations to bring justice. In a search for a whole slew of new translators the DEA tagged “Ebonics” onto the list.

What was once a joke:

is now a reality:

        Many voices were raised in response to this simple request of the DEA.  Wolf Wolfram, a linguist who came out as one of the leading analyst of the Education/Ebonics debate in 1996 also came out as a voice in this debate.  In an interview with CNN regarding the topic Wolfram said quite plainly, “why wouldn’t you want experts who can help you understand what people are communicating?” and, quite frankly, why wouldn’t we.  It seems like a perfectly reasonable request and, truth be told, in America much of the communication surrounding illicit activity often incorporates Ebonics particularly in the area where the request initiated, Atlanta.  However, there are many cultural and social implications of this debate that Wolfram overlooks by writing the issue off with a very practical response.  This new situation regarding Ebonics brought the topic of Ebonics into the media spotlight again refreshing many cultural conflicts that arose during the first Ebonics debate, gave an interesting new look at the role of private versus public communication and created some unfortunate identity mapping.

In a response to the 1996 Education/Ebonics debate, Language Ideology and Dialect, Wolfram analyzed larger societies opinions about language revealed by the conflict.  He noted that this debate emphasized “the intensity of people’s beliefs and opinions about language diversity, the persistent and widespread level of public misinformation about issues of language variation and education, and the need for informed knowledge about language diversity and its role in education and in public life” (109).   If anything, it certainly brought the word Ebonics into public conversation and added a new construct to America’s broader understanding of racial differences, “black language”.  Although a differentiation between the way many African American people speak and standard/”White” English existed before the debate, as evidenced by the classic scene in Airplane and the clip from Stanford and Son, it had not been so clearly defined or made into a real issue until the 1996 education debates.  This is why the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart responded to the recent issue concerning the DEA by saying,

“I blame Oakland for introducing the word “Ebonics” -- an etymological gunshot wedding of “ebony” and “phonics.” The school district there set off a national firestorm in late 1996 when it proposed a resolution to recognize “Black English” as a speech pattern and to use it to improve the academic performance of African American students. And now here we are. The federal government is looking for contractors who will find “Ebonics” speakers who listen in on wiretaps and other deep cover work for the DEA”

 Essentially Capehart is pointing to an interesting issue that no other analysts of the DEA/Ebonics controversy took note of: fifteen years ago many Americans eager to move toward equality and linguists eager to put their understanding of language difference to work advocated for the acknowledgement of Ebonics as a working form of communication with it’s own collection of understood rules and contexts.  It was good then.  However, now the full conceptualizations of that form a communication (whether it be language, dialect, or whatever) and its ties to African Americans is actually being used against them.  Ebonics was never effectively incorporated into education or used politically or academically in any positive light but we did make a big deal of it and we (the media, linguists, politicians, etc.) compartmentalized the term and gave it a face, a Black face.  As the DEA searches for an Ebonics translator for wiretaps of drug deals America gets yet another verification African Americans as drug dealers and Ebonics as the language of the criminals and the unfortunate and nothing else.  African Americans were not present enough in education or politics to have to have their speech patterns acknowledged there but, when it comes to criminal activity Ebonics certainly becomes a legitimate language that needs to be identified and tracked.

Now, truth be told, Ebonics in the form of slang (because it is important to acknowledge that there are MANY variations of Ebonics that are not just “slang”) is often the pattern of communication used by drug dealers.  However, this really has nothing to do with their race.  It has to do with the private and ambiguous nature of that form of communication in American society. Because Ebonics has not entered the realm of worthy of incorporation into politics or education and therefore remains an essentially "illegitimate" language practice in America (except in the linguistic studies realm), it maintains the privacy that it was born out of.  In a local news report regarding the DEA's request for Ebonics translators, the newscaster used information from John Baugh, director of the public relations committee in the LSA, to trace the origins of Ebonics to the beginning of slavery in America. According to his research, Ebonics originated when slaves from different areas in Africa who became grouped together in the American slave trade developed a rough version of English to communicate in a uniformed fashion. 

This unique form of English than became it’s own in-group distinguishing factor against the standard English of white masters.  In CNN’s report, Baugh defines AAVE as, “linguistic defiance being reinforced by hip-hop.”  I interpreted this to suggest that, as a form of English that developed through oppression and maintained in that same oppressed group without becoming standardized or widely accepted in American society, it is very much an in-group dialogue that does as much to segregate as it does to include individuals.  This gets us into the interesting issue of private versus public language. In class we talked about AAVE as a private/family language. In Theresa Perry’s “I’on Know why They be Trippin” she references a friend of hers who spoke fondly of their grandfather teaching them the power and beauty of traditional Black language styles and how that represented their history and power as a people.  Jonathan Capehart talks about his own familiarity with both standard English and Ebonics and the role it plays in his life as a private family and friends language, one that signals relaxation and closeness with the one's sharing it.  Everywhere you look when it comes to Ebonics you see the signs of an in-group dialogue, the importance of the community created by the language, which has been able to persist specifically because the language has not been institutionalized. In a way, both the DEA and drug dealers are exploiting inherently private nature of Ebonics in American culture. Drug dealers have exploited the privacy of this language because they can use it get around a legal system that operates with Standard English.  Now the DEA is exploiting or degrading the special privacy of this language by suggesting that they can somehow find an “expert” on Ebonics who has the amazing ability to tap into all of it’s intricacies and constantly changing forms.  I think, by tying Ebonics down to an institution, especially the legal system, it could lose some of the mystery and counter-culture aspects that make it so special.

Finally, the most troubling aspect of this debate has been the way it mapped criminality onto every Ebonics speaker in America.  Boyce Watkins of AOL’s Black Voices hits the nail on the head when he distinguishes between slang and Ebonics and why this is an important part of the debate that is being overlooked and therefore creating a “drug dealer” out of every black person standing on a corner.  Surprisingly, he is one of the only analysts of the DEA/Ebonics debate that I could find who pointed out this issue. I think part of the reason Ebonics was not able to succeed as part of the education system or any institution for that matter is that it is so complex with many variations and constantly changing.  Drug dealer slang typically follows it’s own local rules and exists outside of ANY standardization of communication form, even if that standardization exists outside of wider social recognition as in the case of Ebonics. According to Watkins, drug dealers don’t just follow the regular rules of Ebonics but “structure a variation of language and sophisticated codes that nearly anyone would have trouble translating.”  He insists the DEA would not even benefit from hiring a “trained” Ebonics expert and would really only get what they were looking for by adding former drug dealers from the areas under investigation to the investigation team. Although linguists like Walt Wofram may have spent more than half of their lives learning about and studying Ebonics and AAVE, the DEA is going to gain nothing from that knowledge without knowing the personalized street slang in a certain area.

Essentially, the DEA is looking for this:

but all they will end up with is more misunderstood information and a more confused society with more reasons to think that all black men are drug deals and all AAVE is slang. 

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