The Ebonics controversy in Oakland, California, took many people by
surprise. Most had never heard of Ebonics before December 18, 1996, and
once they did, few understood what the school district meant when it
expressed its intent to use this new “language” to teach the district’s
African American children.
To understand how Oakland wound up at the eye of this storm, it is
important to recognize the current situation of African American
students in that district, and the political history of Ebonics in
Anatomy of a Controversy
For the past fifteen years, California teachers have had the option
of participating in the Standard English Proficiency (SEP) program,
which was created to educate teachers who work with Black children
about the history of African American language. Once it orients
teachers in the historical and linguistic foundations of African
American communication, the program then provides teachers with
techniques that are said to have been proven to help children who speak
Ebonics learn to “code switch” into standard American English. Code
switching is the mental “translation” process that occurs in people who
are bilingual or bidialectical. Code switching allows a person to both
understand and convey thoughts in either language.
The SEP program emerged after decades of debate, political
struggle, and frustration over the poor academic performance of a
disproportionate number of Black children in the state. Although it is
used by school districts throughout the state, including by the Oakland
Unified School District (OUSD), it is a voluntary program. Despite the
reputed success of the SEP program, California’s African American
students continue to lag behind many of their peers in their mastery of
Black students constitute slightly more than half of the OUSD
student population, yet they represent 80 percent of all suspended
students and have the lowest grade point average (1.8) of any ethnic
group represented in the district. One in four of the district’s
students is not proficient in standard American English and 26 percent
are immigrants. Nearly three in four of the students receiving Special
Education services in the district are African American while only 37
percent of the students participating in the district’s gifted student
programs are Black.
The teaching staff of the Oakland Unified School district is 34
percent African American, 48 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 6 percent
Latino, and 1 percent Native American.
Last summer, the school board formed a task force to investigate
why so many African American children were having trouble. The group
also was charged with devising a system wide strategy for improving the
language proficiency of these children. The Task Force on the Education
of African American Students members included an array of community and
professional interests, including: parents, school administrators,
teachers, scholars, psychologists, and civil rights and community
Several months later, after the task force had completed its
research, it submitted a series of findings and recommendations, a
policy statement, and a resolution for the board to adopt. The
resolution was loaded with controversial language. Nevertheless, it
passed unanimously. At the time it voted on the resolution, the Oakland
School Board consisted of three African Americans, two whites, one
Chinese American and one Latino.
Among the resolution’s more controversial assertions were: the
statement that “African Language Systems are genetically based;” the
implication that the primary language of African American students is
something other than English and that Black students would now be
taught in that language; the requirement that teachers would have to
learn Ebonics; and the suggestion that the district would pursue
bilingual education funds to finance portions of the new program. The
resolution also painted all African American students with one brush
stroke, making no distinctions between those who are proficient in
standard American English and those who are not.
As news about the resolution emerged in the media, criticism began
weighing in from as near as California’s state capital, Sacramento, and
as far away as the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Oakland school
officials moved into a crisis management mode and found themselves in
the uncomfortable position of having to explain their intentions to the
world. People wanted to know if the district was really planning to
teach its students Black English?
Yet even after board spokesperson Toni Cook explained that teaching
children to speak Ebonics was not part of the plan, pundits and media
talk show hosts continued debating the issue. Media satirists and
morning show radio disc jockeys poked fun at the idea of “Ebonics” as a
distinct language and the Oakland school board members found themselves
inundated with media calls and complaints from irate and confused
The Debate Rages
“Among linguists, there is no such thing as a good language or a
bad one,” says linguist and Indiana State University professor C. Aisha
Blackshire-Belay. But from the bitter tone of the criticism received by
the Oakland School Board, it was clear that society in general does not
take such a detached view.
Sherry Willis, Oakland Unified School District’s public information
officer, concedes the wording of the resolution was misleading.
However, she is amazed at how the controversy continued to grow even
after the board members explained their intentions. For example, the
board its use of the term “genetically based was a piece of linguistic
jargon meant to indicate origin rather than genetics.
“I think the dialogue [over Ebonics] is necessary because it speaks
to who we are as Americans and it shows just how profound the
differences are between us,” Willis says. “It touches on issues of
culture, language, race, education. And people have been quite
impassioned in their responses. They have also been very rigid in their
thinking about who ought to be doing this work [of teaching Ebonic
speakers American English]. All I know is, whoever ought to be doing
it, they’re not.”
Cheryl Garrett, principal of an Oakland elementary school also was
perplexed by the national hysteria over the resolution. “We’ve been
doing this all along through the SEP program,” she said a few days
after the resolution was signed. “We don’t necessarily call it Ebonics,
but the goal of teaching children standard English is the same. “
Garrett adds that the issue of compensation for teachers is a
serious one in Oakland. At schools like hers, where a significant
segment of the student population comes to school from homes where
English is not the primary language, bilingual teachers who work with
such students receive additional compensation — as much as $5,000
annually. These teachers are also entitled to have an aide in their
classrooms. There are no such benefits for teachers who work with
African American students lacking American English proficiency.
Willis says the resolution paves a way for the district to
systematize an assessment and service delivery process so that the
language needs of African American children are better met, and
teachers who work with them get the training and support they need.
School was closed for the holidays when the Ebonics furor broke. On
Jan. 12, however, the school board drafted amendments to the original
resolution. If adopted, Oakland’s amended resolution would eliminate
the description of Black English as “genetically based,” and instead
call for the recognition of language differences among Black students.
The revised resolution also eliminates the implication that students
will be taught in Ebonics.
The new school board president, Jean Quan, has said repeatedly that
the intent was never to teach students Ebonics, but to use knowledge of
Ebonics to teach standard English.
On a national radio show, Dr. Fay Vaughn-Cooke, chair of the
department of language and communications disorders at the University
of the District of Columbia, chided the OUSD board for not consulting
the “credible experts” who have been working for thirty years on the
subject of Black English. Had the board done so, Vaughn-Cooke maintains
that the experts would have helped them avoid the firestorm of
controversy that erupted when they adopted a resolution that contained
“inaccurate linguistic statements.”
“I believe the initial misunderstanding over the intent of the
Oakland resolution had some negative overtones,” says Karen Beverly
Ducker, a speech and language pathologist with the American
Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs.
“The positive outcome, however, is that the controversy has brought the
issue to the forefront of discussion.”
The Origin of Ebonics
Many Americans characterize the unique speech habits of many
African Americans as nothing more than “bad” English. In fact, the term
Ebonics was invented to replace such negative labels and to promote a
greater understanding of the origins of African American communication.
The term “Ebonies” was coined in 1973 by Missouri psychologist
Robert L. Williams. With funding from; the National Institute of Mental
Health, Williams hosted a conference on the cognitive and linguistic
development of African American children. The meeting convened in St.
Louis and attracted scholars and practitioners, in six different
disciplines, from around the country. The meeting offered a rare
opportunity for these specialists to exchange research and information
on what was then a relatively new area of research and scholarship.
“One evening, after our sessions, I called a number of the other
Black presenters up to my room,” Williams recalls. “I said, `You know,
the white scholars are still depreciating our language. They’re
negating it. They’re coining the terms and these terms become
acceptable within the broader society…. We need to coin a term.'”
The group agreed that the term should have a positive Black
reference to it, so when Williams suggested “Ebonics,” — a fusion of
the words ebony and phonics — the group responded enthusiastically.
Williams and Southern California linguist Ernie Smith later crafted
a definition of the new term, which was released in Williams’s 1975
book, “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks.” In addition to
defining Ebonics, the book included scholarly papers on the history of
African American language — some of which had been presented by
participants in the 1973 conference — as well as the findings of
Williams’s own research. The book is currently out of print, but a
reprint is expected later this year.
“My findings suggested that children brought certain linguistic
patterns and codes with them to the school, but that the codes that
they were accustomed to were not being used in the school,” says
Williams, who is now a retired professor emeritus at Washington State
University in St. Louis. “There was a discontinuity between the child’s
code and the school’s code, and the child’s code was being denigrated.”
Williams and his colleagues decided to administer two forms of a
standardized test: one in American English, the other recoded in
Ebonics. The test population consisted of kindergartners.
“For example, when we [showed them a picture and] asked them to
point to a squirrel that was beginning to climb a tree, some of them
got it, but many of them did not because they didn’t understand the
Williams then recoded the problem using the words “starting to” and “fixing to” in place of beginning.
“When we used `fixing to,’ they all understood it,” he says. At the
conclusion of the study, it was evident that the African American
students who performed poorly on the American English tests excelled on
the recoded tests.
According to Williams, Ebonics has both a grammatical and
lexicological base. “For example, if I say, `The hawk is not jiving in
St. Louis,’ there is nothing grammatically incorrect [as far as
standard English is concerned] about that sentence. But I’m using an
The translation of Williams’s example is, “In St. Louis, the wind
is very cold.” For Williams, Black slang is part of Ebonics.
The other part of Ebonics involves grammar, sentence structure and
tonal omissions. For instance, failing to conjugate verbs such as “to
be” and leaving the final consonant off words are “classically” Ebonic
— an example being, “The hawk don’t be jivin’ in St. Louis.”
Language or Dialect?
Blackshire-Belay explains that the evolution of Ebonics, as a form
of communication, commenced the moment the first slave ship left Africa.
“Ebonics would never have existed had it not been for slavery,”
Blackshire-Belay says. She and other linguists who have studied the
unique characteristics of African American language reason that the
speech of African Americans differs from what is commonly referred to
as “standard American English” because its speakers have retained
grammatical and other linguistic elements from their West African
“Some African Americans get angry whenever there is the slightest
hint that we have a history of our own that traces back to Africa,”
Blackshire-Belay says. “But you have to start with the linguistic
foundations of the language.” She points to the West African languages
of Ibo, Yoruba, Ewe, Wolof, Fante and Mandinka as relatives of Ebonics.
“You can take examples from those languages today, and you see the
similarities,” Blackshire-Belay says. “Ebonics falls into the African
form of languages. It is not a dialect of English, even though it uses
Vaughn-Cooke says that Blackshire-Belay “is on the wrong track”
when she classifies Ebonics as an African form of language rather than
a dialect of English. She maintains that the research has not been done
to link present-day Black English to West African languages.
“Black English is not a separate language from English,” she says.
“[However] once a statement has been diseminated throughout the
country, it is very hard to retract it.”
According to Ducker, there is no pure distinction between a
language and a dialect. Still, her organization does not recognize
Ebonics as a distinct “language,” but rather as a social dialect of
“If a group of people cannot understand one another, in general, it
is because of a difference in language,” she says. Ducker, Vaughn-Cooke
and Blackshire-Belay agree, however, that Ebonics includes not only the
spoken word, but body language, issues of personal space, eye contact,
narrative sequence and other factors.
“What has too often been left out of this recent discussion on
Ebonics are the modes of discourse,” Blackshire-Belay says. “It’s not
just how you form a sentence, it is how you express it.”
It is unlikely that a consensus will ever be reached about whether
Ebonics is a language or a dialect. However, when it comes to teaching
African American children American English, these experts agree that,
to some degree, the arguement is irrelevant.
The point, Vaughn-Cooke says, is to be able to speak the language
of wider communication and yet “to be able to talk to your mom, and not
be embarrassed by your mom or to embarrass your mom.”
There is evidence to support the suggestion that Ebonics can be
used, as Oakland intends, to help provide a transition for students who
speak it into speaking and writing standard American English.
“Based upon my understanding of what Oakland’s intent was, they’re
helping to explain to people that this [manner of speaking] is not a
disorder,” Ducker says. “[The Oakland Unified School District] is not
advocating teaching Ebonics. These children already have Ebonics. What
they’re trying to do is help teach the teachers who do not have
Ebonics, to give them an understanding of what the children are saying.”
An important component of this process is teaching the teachers not
to devalue whatever language the students bring with them when they
first arrive at school.
“The language a parent uses with their child is often referred to
as the language of love,” Ducker says. “If you criticize that home
language, then what you’re telling me [as a child] is that the way my
mommy talks to me is bad and sub-standard.” Such criticism can
undermine a child’s self esteem and hinder the learning process.
Blackshire-Belay and Ducker say that Ebonics should not be
validated just as a bridge to American English. It must be embraced on
its own merit.
“It doesn’t matter what whites say about Ebonics, but it does
matter what we [African Americans] say,” Blackshire-Belay says.
“Ebonics simply expresses the common variety of sights and sounds of
the African American language. It is the extension of the oral
tradition of African people, it is used among African people to
communicate, and it serves a very useful purpose.”
“I think it’s good that this controversy has arisen,” Williams
says. “It can bring a level of awareness that is needed. School
districts around the country are hurting. The traditional approaches
are not working for too many Black children. Certainly there are
strengths and weakness in the Oakland approach, but I think this is the
direction in which we need to go.”
The Role of Higher Education
“It is criminal to graduate African American students who cannot
speak and write standard English,” says Orlando L. Taylor, Dean of the
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Howard University. “If we do,
we are setting them up for failure. We, in higher education, must find
a way to effectively teach Black children and then, we must prepare a
teaching force to do it.”
The lack of understanding about the language systems of African
Americans is, in Taylor’s mind, something that can be remedied by a
greater focus of attention on the issue by higher education
“Most colleges and universities claim to have three roles in
society: research, teaching, and service,” Taylor says, adding that
higher education institutions can do more in each of these areas when
it comes to fields of research concerning African Americans.
“There is an incomplete body of research on the many ways that
African Americans communicate,” he says. “Another thing I think the
academic community needs to do is help inform the public better.
“The public has been manipulated by not having the full benefit of
thoughtful information on these topics. I think colleges and
universities can do a better job of articulating — not just about the
language of African Americans, but about how language operates in
Taylor adds that scholars can help explain how communication,
though related to language, is different. They also can remind people
about the rich linguistic heritages of the United States, and about the
survival of other languages in present day American English.
Institutions can achieve this by using campus radio stations, sending
faculty members out into the community to speak to civic groups about
the nature of language, and engaging the media on the subject.
“The rhetoric has got to be lowered and thoughtful conversation has got to emerge,” Taylor says.
On the subject of teaching, the dean says there are materials
available that help teachers learn how to “bridge” students from a
command of their home language to a command of English, but that these
materials should be more widely distributed.
“We need to make sure than our colleges and universities do a
better job of training the next generation of classroom teachers to be
able to teach standard English skills to culturally and linguistically
diverse students,” he says.
Colleges and universities also must encourage new research in the
field of education to discover new and innovative teaching methods.
They must also sustain their commitment to diversity — with respect to
students, faculty and course content; and must help society to define
and understand what it means to have a truly multi-cultural society
where the languages of all cultural, gender and racial groups are
valued — a society where the ability to code switch between American
English and Ebonics is held in esteem.
“I’d like to see us call together a national conference on Ebonics
and invite the critics among school superintendents, politicians,
educators, the media and others so we can educate them,” Williams says.
“What we need to say to those who criticize Oakland is, `Do you have a
RELATED ARTICLE: Recent Developments in the Public Life of Ebonics
1969 The American Speech Language-Hearing Association forms an
office of Urban and Ethnic Affairs — which today is known as the
office of Multicultural Affairs — to focus on the unique speech and
language therapeutic needs of communities of color and to address
professional development issues relating to African American speech and
language service providers.
1971 The Center for Applied Linguistics, based in Washington, D.C.,
develops a series of “dialect readers” crafted in “Black English” as
part of a program aimed at teaching Black children to read. The
strategy is met with much public criticism both within and outside of
the Black community, Black linguists among them, and eventually the
primers go out of print.
1973 Psychologist Robert L. Williams, Ph.D., wins a grant from the
National Institute of Mental Health to study the cognitive and
linguistic development of African American children. He convenes a
conference in St. Louis of psychologists, linguists and professionals
from four other disciplines to discuss research on the subject. He
coins the term Ebonics during a brainstorming session at the workshop.
Southern California linguist Ernie A. Smith, Ph.D., later joins
Williams in crafting a technical definition of the term,
1974 Several Black parents in San Francisco win their suit (Larry P.
V. Riles) against California superintendent of schools Wilson Riles in
which they charged that their children were inappropriately placed in
special education programs on the basis of performance on a racially
biased Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test.
1975 Williams publishes “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks,”
a record of his research and findings on the subject of Ebonics.
1979 A federal judge orders some schools in the city of Ann Arbor,
Mich., to train its teachers in an appreciation of Black English. The
program is discontinued after two years.
1981 California adopts the Standard English Proficiency program
(SEP), aimed at improving the language skills of African American
students by offering teachers an opportunity to attend voluntary
workshops on the subject of Black English. The SEP program acknowledges
Black English as a dialect of African Americans and defines it as
“Black language.” Several school districts throughout the state,
including Oakland and Los Angeles, embrace the program.
1983 The legislative council of the American Speech Language-Hearing
Association (ASHA) unanimously approves a position paper prepared by
the Committee on the Status of Racial Minorities that recognizes Black
English as a social dialect. The paper emphasizes that Black English is
not a communication disorder, as it had sometimes been classified.
July In response to the poor academic performance scores of African
American students, Toni Cook, who was then chair of the Oakland School
Board, orders the development of a Task Force on the Education of
African American Students. The group’s mandate was to develop a
strategy for improving the performance of Black students.
Nov. 28 The findings and recommendations of the Oakland Task Force
on the Education of African American Students appear in a few
newspapers around the country. The news passes virtually unnoticed.
Dec. 18 Oakland School Board hears the findings and recommendations
of the Task Force on the Education of African American Students and
unanimously adopts a controversially worded resolution that recognizes
Ebonics as a distinct language of African American students. The
recommendations call for a system wide program of intervention to help
Black students become proficient in Standard English using Ebonics as
Dec. 19 News of the Oakland School Board action appears in a variety
of local and national newspapers and on radio and television newscasts.
Dec. 22 Rev. Jesse Jackson, denounces the Oakland resolution on
“Meet the Press.” His criticism is soon echoed by Maya Angelou, Kweisi
Mfume, Mario Cuomo and California Superintendent of Public Instruction
Delaine Eastin, among others. References to Ebonics and the growing
debate about it begin to appear on the Internet.
Dec. 24 U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley announces the
Federal Government does not recognize Ebonics as a separate language
and that programs using Ebonics will not be considered eligible for
federal bilingual education funds. Ebonics becomes a favorite subject
of public discourse and is repeatedly debated on television and radio
Dec. 26 Upon meeting with Oakland School officials, Jackson retracts
his previous denouncement of the resolution. Other African American
leaders soon follow.
Dec. 30 Jackson asks Education Secretary Riley to reconsider his
position on funding programs like Oakland’s that aim to improving the
educational performance of Black children.
Jan. 3 The Linguistics Society of America adopts a resolution
validating Ebonics as an a acceptable derivation of English and backing
the Oakland school board’s intentions to use it to help students learn
Jan. 14 Oakland school board is scheduled to vote on amendments to its original resolution on Ebonics.
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