Mike tells Sarah how a simple idea in a single school district became a nationwide racial panic. Digressions include slasher movies, Space Invaders and homeschooling. The taglines are becoming more esoteric.Support the show
Sarah: You're really my Scully. And I'm just like sauntering around the FBI like, “Aliens, aliens. It’s probably aliens. I'm going to go watch some porn.”
Welcome to You're Wrong About, where what is, must be. I think that a lot of our stories are about disasters that were recorded through compounded human error. And through the failures of maintenance and control for future misbehavior that worked their way into human schemes of order and hierarchy. You know, like rust. This is a show about rust. How about that? Two in comprehensible taglines. What do you think of that?
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. And I'm a writer working on a book about the Satanic Panic.
Mike: Today we are talking about the 1996 Ebonics controversy.
Mike: Yes. Which I have been obsessed with for years. Because a lot of the things we do on the show are trying to look at things from a different perspective, or trying to tell the story in a more complete way, but this one, we're fucking wrong. This is the purest form of the ‘you’re wrong about’ narrative that we're maybe ever going to get. It is unbelievable how wrong America got this one.
Sarah: I’m excited, because of what I remember as a child growing up in the homes and the schools of white America in the 1990s is that it was supposed to be some sort of initiative where children would be able to take standardized tests in dialects that contained grammars that they would be able to understand. And that this was something that people got really hysterical and up in arms about. There was this idea on behalf of pearl clutching white America, that Ebonics was going to become a language and that there was going to be this sort of cultural legitimacy given to black Americans in a way that was fundamentally upsetting. I remember there being all these jokes and sort of fretful headlines and op-eds and Saturday Night Live weekend update jokes, which is where I got my entire sense of what happened in the nineties. And I just think there were a lot of jokes about it. I think this was the thing that launched a thousand Letterman’s or something like that. That is my sense. Tell me what happened. That's really all I know.
Mike: So, like most of these episodes, we completely forget immediately upon their resolution how big of a deal they were. So in 1997, the American media published 2,500 articles about this controversy. It was huge. I feel like this is such a time capsule of where we were in America, that at the end of the decade, America Online did a survey of the biggest news events that people wanted to weigh in on, chat rooms, whatever to weigh in on.
Mike: And more people commented on the entry about Ebonics then commented on the entry about OJ Simpson. This was massive. People lost their minds. The thing that I still cannot get over is that there was a congressional hearing about this. So the actual resolution itself was basically one school district in Oakland was proposing recognizing quote unquote Ebonics as a distinct language. That was it. And Congress dropped everything else that was doing and brought all of the people from that school district and a bunch of other random people basically to testify for an entire day about what was really going on and put them under the microscope. It is unbelievable now.
Sarah: And yet, so very believable.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, every time I say unbelievable, now I want to put in brackets very believable.
Sarah: We just need a Ron Howard aside here. Okay. And so I guess , will you tell me the story from the beginning?
Mike: Yes. So, I mean like so many of these stories, it begins with a real problem. So in the 1950s and the 1960s, there was much more attention paid to the racial achievement gap, which is something that's still with us, that African-American kids have lower scores on IQ tests and reading and language and math and all of these ways that we've decided to measure student achievement. And there were various competing theories for what explained it. The dominant explanation, at the time, in the 1960s, was something that we now know of as the cultural deficit explanation. So basically, the reason why black kids are not doing as well in school is because they come to school without the capacity for language. So essentially, they are blank slates that have not been exposed to very many words in the home. There was this theory that black parents speak shorter sentences than white parents.
Mike: So black children are getting less complicated messages.
Sarah: This theory was invented by wasps one imagines.
Mike: Yes. You’re a smart enough person to know that like we're going to get a twist. This is not accurate.
Sarah: Well this show is just like a slasher movie. And by this point we're like, okay, maybe don't split up at this point.
Mike: And some of these quotes, you just can't believe. This is a real quote from a study that came out of 1964. “The language of culturally deprived children is not an underdeveloped version of English. It is a non-logical mode of expressive behavior.” So they're basically saying these children are not capable of complex sentences or even complex thoughts. So one of them was, “their communication is primarily through gestures, single words, and a series of badly connected words and phrases ,such as ‘they mine’ or ‘me got juice’.”
Sarah: This is terrible.
Mike: I know. The same researcher also says, “Without exaggerating, these four year old’s could make no statements of any kind.”
Sarah: You know, I would be scandalized as this for written in 1927.
Mike: What's happening to you right now with what has been happening to me for the last two weeks of you're reading these articles and steam just starts pumping out of your ears. And what's really interesting about this cultural deficit explanation is that it's all being done from a place of pity, right? It's, look, these kids are basically just exhibiting words and emotions at random. And what we have to do is guide them to somehow try to get some semblance of intelligence or even imitate intelligence because, you know, we all know they're not really capable of any more complex speech. So there's of course, a lot of genetic explanations that come out of this.
Sarah: That's terrible.
Mike: You know, it's our duty as people to help these kids that are just genetically incapable of complex thought. There's also my favorite one is, you know, as we all know now, all the standardized tests were completely just middle-class behavior back then. And so one of the ways that they're saying these kids are deficient is on one of the IQ tests. They show you a bunch of little drawings. And so one of them depicts a squirrel sitting in a nest in a tree, and they ask the kids, where is the squirrel? And the African-American kids say in the tree, but then the judges are marking that as wrong because they didn't answer in a complete sentence. They didn't say the squirrel is in the tree.
Sarah: Oh, for fuck's sake.
Mike: If you go back, there's a lot of these sorts of tests that to our eyes now are, you're just measuring how middle-class and white these kids are. But back then, this was seen as, you know, the language is degrading. They're answering in incomplete sentences. Right. That's what is seen as the problem, that their structures of language are broken. Yeah. I think the most important thing that happens in this period is there's all these methods that come out of it. What we really need to drill these kids and get them speaking like everybody else is we need to punish them. We need to get them into a sort of no tolerance kind of classroom where anytime they say anything is incorrect English, anytime they say a fragment of a sentence, you stop what you're doing. And you say, repeat it, repeat the correct version. This becomes the solution.
Sarah: That's how you train someone to believe that their culture is inferior and undeserving of replication. And, and by some nature dangerous
Mike: Yeah. This is the methodology from one of these studies that I found in 1968, that was trying out these methods of really drilling the kids and being really authoritarian of trying to get kids to fit into this standard English framework. First of all, the study refers to the kids as ‘linguistically retarded’. Which was the way that they talked about it. So this is from the methodology section “disciplined strictly and related directly to the task being done, the emphasis was on positive rewards. For several months, cookies were used as a supporting reward until the children got to the point of reacting directly to the giving or withholding of praise by the teachers. Mistakes were pointed out explicitly and not glossed over in ambiguous terms.” So there's this idea that you have to drill them. You have to slap them on the hand every single time, so that they're delivering these responses to you in standard English. You know, the squirrel is in the tree. That's what you want out of them. And so this horrible chapter of this story starts to end in the early 1970s, when a couple of linguists start to investigate and ask the basic question: hey, wait a minute. Are kids coming to school with no capacity for language?
And so there's a white linguist, whose name is William Labov, who In 1972 wrote an extremely good Atlantic article where he discusses all of this research that he's been doing. He's been going into children's homes in Harlem for years. And first of all, segregation is so bad in America at that point that a lot of the children, four or five-year-old children, have never interacted with a white adult before. And so a lot of these kids are being around white people, white researchers, for the first time in their lives. And so he talked about how some of the same kids that sort of on his first visit, these kids that are answering questions monosyllabically, once he comes to them and they get comfortable and he importantly brings a black researcher with him, or just has a black researcher do it themselves, these kids that are monosyllabic come to school with no language blah-blah-blah, these kids won't shut up.
Sarah: Well, yeah.
Mike: The minute they feel comfortable, they're having complex thoughts. They're having complex reasoning. They're speaking in long sentences. Their parents are also a lot more comfortable. So basically as soon as you're putting both of them in a frame where they can say anything to a researcher and not have repercussions, that's the biggest thing is that both the parent and the child are afraid that if they say something wrong, something will be taken away from them because that's how they're used to interacting with white people at that time. So he lets them curse into the microphone. He'll be like, “Do you take big dookies?” That's one of the things that he asks them. And so once the kids can make sort of dooky jokes, basically, all of a sudden everything opens up.
And so this guy, William Labov, spends the next couple of years mapping out the structures of what comes to be known as African-American English, but at that time basically has no name. So he just calls it black English. And so one of the things that he says in this terrific Atlantic article is, “The concept of verbal deprivation has no basis in social return. In fact, black children in urban ghettos receive a great deal of verbal stimulation and participate fully in a highly verbal culture. The myth of verbal deprivation is particularly dangerous because it diverts attention from the real defects of our educational system to imaginary defects of the child”.
Sarah: We’re literally saying, no, it's the children who are wrong. Yeah. Because this is what happens over and over there again, because the system is faulty and white people love to play space invaders, and then pretend that the results that we get when we scoop up citizens of communities that we routinely terrorized and do research on them are indicative of who they are essentially as human beings.
Mike: Another thing that William points out in a lot of his articles that I think is awesome is that he also talks, well, wait a minute. Some of these middle-class kids also have verbal deficiencies. Part of what we do in education is we teach kids all this extra verbiage. So we'll ask kids, do you believe in God, or tell me about the last dream you had. And kids will answer. And then Labov, like in italics underneath, will write, “This is not someone who seems to be capable of complex thought. They're just using a bunch of words. They're not conveying any particular meaning.” But because they're using words of more than three or four syllables and they have things like ‘I suppose’, and these other sort of middle-class coded phrases, that they must be saying something intelligent, even if we don't actually know what the informational content it is.
Sarah: Right. We're just like, oh, this child seems very white indeed. Good job.
Mike: So all of this changed in 1973, when a psychologist named Robert L. Williams coins the term Ebonics. And because most of the sort of ‘you're wrong about’ style academic linguistics at this point on black English is being done by white people, Robert Williams decides to call a conference and he basically says to all of the linguists and to especially African-American linguists and academics in the room, he says, look, if we don't define this, someone else is going to define this for us. So we need to take control of this narrative and take control of what is being said about the language that is spoken by African-Americans and turn it into something really positive. So through this brainstorming all day thing, they come up with the combination of Ebony and phonics.
Sarah: Oh Ebony phonics. That's really nice.
Mike: And so it does begin. An entire academic field dedicated to understanding the contours of African-American speech. So it's not called Ebonics anymore, it's now called either African-American English or African-American language, because there's still a debate among linguists whether it's a dialect of English or a language unto itself. And this became really important in the 1990s for the Oakland controversy, but it will turn out to be completely irrelevant. It's interesting in an academic way. The line between a language and a dialect is really difficult to draw, and it's often much more about political power than the actual features of the speech, but it doesn't really matter for our purposes.
What happens is it basically gets identified as a thing. And then researchers start being like, well, wait a minute, maybe this has rules. Maybe this has form. Maybe it's not that it's broken English, maybe it's actually a perfectly legitimate language slash dialect on its own. And maybe we should learn more about it. And so I have been working on this for almost two years because I made a video about it like a million years ago. And for the last year, I've been chatting to a speech pathologist in Dallas named Dionna Latimer Hearn, who does this for a living. She works with African-American kids in the public school system. So I've been sort of bouncing things off of her back and forth for the last year. And because she's taught me everything that I know about this, I thought that I should just record one of our conversations. So I interviewed her a couple of days ago and I recorded it. And so I'm going to play you a snippet of my conversation with her talking about the ways in which it is different from standard English.
Dionna: You know, I grew up in a situation where I was taught to speak in two different manners. So prior to school I was taught at home never to speak in African-American English at school.
Mike: Oh really?
Dionna: Yes. It was very much an explicit statement. Very much a reminder that was given to us frequently. We were not to speak that way because of the stigma attached to it. Now at home we were able to code switch and discuss things and whatever code was appropriate at the time. And obviously our family had their own rules as to when to speak which code. It was very evident to me if I were being reprimanded to answer in mainstream English. If we were having a social gathering, everyone's having a good time and joking, maybe having barbecue or something like that, then it was okay to use non-mainstream. But in school, I could say that I noticed it pretty early on because some students were treated differently because they use the dialect. It stood out to me because I knew better than to, you know, so to speak. I also noticed difficulty for certain things like spelling. Early in grade school, I had trouble spelling ‘hafta’. And I was an excellent speller, I was an excellent student, but I could not figure out why, why can't I spell this? Because I was speaking in one dialect and trying to write in another.
Mike: Right. Can you, I mean, this is going to sound like a really dumb question. But can you just walk me through, like why isn't A A V E incorrect English?
Dionna: It’s not incorrect because it actually follows patterns. There is a grammatical structure to it. So just as in mainstream English, things can be ungrammatical. They can also be ungrammatical in African-American English and there's tons and tons of research that validates the structure of it across the different domains of language. So you're looking at syntax or word order semantics, word meaning phonology, the sound system, and the way the sounds work together, pragmatics, the way that we interact socially on that. And I think I left out one, morphology. So the meaning of segments of words and how those are used to convey information. There actually is a structure. There's a way that it is set up. There's a rule bound system. And so when we say, oh, it's broken English or it's less than, or it's not effective, we’re really stigmatizing the group that uses it. You know, my question is, does it do what language is meant to do? Does it convey information from one person to another? And if it does that in a systematic way, then it's valid. And it also reflects identity. If we look at it from the standpoint of individuals, they were taken from actors, put into groups that were linguistically diverse in order to prevent them from conversing, and they still established a language and a form and a code in that and were able to convey information without being understood, I don't think that's such a bad thing to do. I don't think that's less than.
Mike: It’s pretty innovative, actually. I mean you mentioned these sorts of five categories of ways in which A A V E is distinct, and it has its own set of rules. Can you give an example of each one of those?
Dionna: Okay. So I would say in terms of syntax, the use of negotiation is different. So we're able to use multiple negatives in a way that is similar to maybe Spanish. So ‘he ain't never gotten no money’ would be, ‘he doesn't ever have any money’. The use of every word being negative, just reaffirms the idea that this is not happening.
Mike: So it's an emphasis, it's not a binary distinction. It doesn't sort of flip the switch from yes to no, it just means he really doesn't have any money.
Dionna: The more grammatical features are the ones that are pretty prominent that we identify and associate with African-American English. So in mainstream English, the third person singular changes. So I cook, you cook, he cooks. In African-American English, it doesn't have that distinction on that third person singular they're all the same form. Also the habitual B, a lot of times it was misunderstood by non-African American English individuals. So B means that it's something that happens repeatedly or consistently. If I say, ‘He be early to work every week’, you know, I don't need the every week part. In mainstream English, I do because there's no equivalent to be. IN mainstream, he is early to work often, every week, and African-American English, I can say ‘he be early’ and that means that nine times out of 10 or the majority of the time he is early.
Mike: Okay. So it's actually adding extra meaning. It’s not just messing up, ‘he is early’ because he is early and ‘he be early’, have two different meanings.
Dionna: Two different things. He could be late today. He could be absent today, but ‘he be early’ means that typically he is early. So word meaning changes pretty quickly. So ‘been’ actually, is a form that looks like it's the same in mainstream and non-mainstream, but it's not. So if I say like ‘he'd been married’, that means where have you been? He has been married for a long time. Almost, why don't, you know?
Mike: So it's like the verb, but saltier.
Dionna: Yeah, yeah. I like that. And that one and also the word ‘come’, that's the same way. So, ‘come’ suggests some sort of indignation or some sort of, there's a problem with the situation. So ‘come’ doesn't necessarily denote movement so much as a person doing something. For instance, ‘he come in here talking about’. So he really didn't have any business approaching me about that particular topic or speaking about that topic maybe. And then I'd say a feature phonologically, we would drop certain sounds. A lot of the dialect is consonant, vowel, consonant, vowel. CPCV. So a word such as desk may come out as ‘des’. And then when I do the plural of desk, then it becomes ‘desses’. Because that extra vowel is needed to keep that CV V pattern. So the word ‘ask’, a lot of times people get really frustrated with ‘acks’.
Mike: Yeah. That's one that Republican politicians are always complaining about.
Dionna: I know, this one is a mainstream feature, I believe. Also, I would say syntactically present progressive doesn't need the auxiliary in a lot of cases.
Mike: What does that mean?
Other: I know right. When I say, ‘he cooking dinner’, I don't need to say, ‘he is cooking dinner’.
Mike: Oh, interesting. Okay. This is going to sound like another dumb question, but why is it important for kids to not have the deficiency viewpoint on this?
Dionna: It’s damaging to not just them, but to their entire family or their culture where they came from. So it's not just coming into the environment that they're in and saying here in school, you know, I'm in the school in the middle of your community and your whole community is wrong about this thing, or your community has done this incorrectly. That's a hard situation to be in, especially if students are being brought up in communities or in a family where they don't code switch. My situation, I like two dialects at once. For an individual who learns one dialect because that's the dialogue, then you basically invalidate their voice. They say, oh, well, your voice doesn't count. Your expression, your thoughts, nothing that comes from you really counts because it's just in this unwanted dialect.
Mike: Okay. So it's us again. It's now. What did you think of that, Sarah?
Sarah: Well, it was really great, and it reminds me of just the way that mainstream white American forces have treated other forms of language generally. So, you know, like Hawaiian pigeons and various creoles and any kind of, you know, native American schools and schools for the deaf that punish students if they caught them signing to each other, I mean, this is one of the ways that you can control a population.
Mike: Yeah. So one thing I didn't know, until I watched the congressional hearing for the robotics controversy.
Sarah: You love watching congressional hearings. So you just want topics that give you an excuse to watch congressional hearings. Just want everyone to know that.
Mike: Obviously the origin of African-American English is because slaves from different parts of Africa who did not speak the same languages were taken to America and deliberately separated so that you wouldn't have two or three people who could speak the same language on one plantation, because that gives them power. Right? As soon as people can communicate, they start to get power. And so what you want to do is separate them. So that's sort of the origin of African-American English, that this language is being imposed on them. But then what's really interesting is that African-American English actually became more distinct during segregation than it did during slavery. So it's more different from English in 1970 than it was in 1870.
And one of the reasons for that is the huge Northern migration of African-Americans to cities like Chicago and Seattle and New York. There were theaters, there were newspapers, there were all of these cultural institutions that were completely separate from white America. And so all of those cultural institutions started spreading and standardizing African-American English in a way that simply wasn't possible when there wasn't African-American mass media. And so all of this actually accelerates, and it becomes more distinct.
But what started happening in the 1970s as this language is being mapped more is a couple of researchers, including Robert Williams, who coined the term Ebonics, started creating standardized tests. They flip the wording into African-American English. And what happens is most of them reproduce the racial achievement gap, but opposite. So white kids start to do really bad and black kids start to do really well. So the example that he gives is in the previous test, it had said ‘point to the toy that is behind the sofa’. And he changes that to ‘point to the toy that is in back of the couch’. And there's also one that says ’point to the squirrel that is starting to climb the tree’. And he changes that to ‘point to the squirrel that is fixing to climb the tree’. And immediately all of these African-American kids who, you know, their IQs are so low that they're being put into special ed, basically, all of a sudden, their IQ jumped 20 points. And all of a sudden, these white kids that are in the gifted programs, all of a sudden, they are reproducing these really low IQ.
Sarah: Oh my goodness. Could it be that they're all normal kids?
Mike: So another thing that starts happening that's really important is that as all of this is developing within linguistics, teachers start saying, this might actually be a better way to teach kids. There were these really pioneering studies in Sweden and Norway in the 1960s. Those are both countries that have a lot of dialects and they did the same thing, where they had like a no tolerance policy for these weird, you know, elk speaking, dialects, whatever. They thought, oh, if we just drill the kids and shout at them for you speaking in their dialect, eventually they will comply, and they'll speak BBC Norwegian and BBC Swedish.
Sarah: Why don’t we reach them all through the power of music and thus ABBA was born.
Mike: What they start doing is they start thinking, why don't we use their dialect to bridge to the standard language that we want them to speak. So rather than just saying no, no, no, we're saying at home you might put the adjective after the noun, but when we're at school, we put the adjective before the noun and it's fine that you speak that way at home, but you know, you're in the school and when we write essays for school, we do things a little bit different.
Sarah: Well, isn't it interesting how, if you offer someone respect, they're more amenable to learning the manners that you're interested in teaching them.
Mike: This comes to be known as the bridge approach or the bridge program where it's, instead of being super shitty to these kids that speak differently, why don't we just say, it's not that the way we speak here is superior, it's just, it's different. And we adjust things a little bit. So another person that I interviewed for this, talks about if somebody knows how to throw a football and you want to teach them to throw a baseball, you don't start all over again. Lift your arm, grab the ball. No, you already know how to throw a football. So you actually just need to rotate your hand a little bit, and you do this with your fingers. You make adjustments and you let them keep throwing a football, but you say, well, you know, when we throw a baseball, it's a little bit different.
Sarah: And you don’t insult them for throwing a football.
Mike: And so on the backs of these Norwegian and Swedish studies, a couple of teachers and school districts in the United States start doing this with African-American English. They start just telling the kids, hey, you know, you say that differently at home, but when we're at school, we say this a little bit differently. And why don't you tell me how to translate back and forth? And is that how your parents say it? Normal, nice stuff. And of course they start getting really good results and much better results then, they ever got from these ‘shout at the kids’, no tolerance types of approaches. And a reason for that is that oftentimes when the kids are being corrected over and over again, no one is telling them why. When a kid says, ‘he be early’, in Dionna’s example, they're being corrected to no, no, you mean he is early. And the kid is like, well, no I don’t because that means something different. I'm saying something specific here and it's the teacher that doesn't understand.
Sarah: Yeah. And also, you know, as someone who has profound problems with authority, it's just a fundamentally different philosophy. Right? Because if you're telling someone, no, you can't say that. I'm not telling you why. Just appreciate that it's inferior and learn our way. That just sets up this power structure of you have to buy in or you'll never be recognized. And you cannot remain as you are, and I cannot validate you or your culture. It's a huge power play and it's a power play that we enact with kids when they're five and six years old. And so turning that to, I will respect you, and in return, I'll ask you to agree to learn this other way of communicating. And of course I can imagine that this was seen at the time by centrist America as the worst thing that had ever happened.
Mike: It gets so much more infuriating, Sarah, this is the preamble. This is not even the anger making stuff. This is like the little teaspoon of anger before we get to the nineties and then it gets so bad.
Sarah: All right, well, I'll continue. The only way out is through.
Mike: So one of the school districts that tries implementing this very quietly is LA. So starting in the early eighties, LA started doing what's called ‘a standard English proficiency’ course where they're essentially trying to map the Norwegian dialect stuff onto kids who speak African-American English. So I'm going to play one more clip. There's another person that got in touch with me named Daniel Russell. He was a teacher in LA while the Ebonics controversy was happening. So he was actually one of the teachers that was doing this. And so he talked me through what these procedures actually look like in real life.
Mike: In one of the clips of you that I saw, you're doing a Jeopardy game where you're helping kids translate from standard English to African-American language. What are other classroom exercises that you did that sort of make this real for kids?
Daniel Russell: Okay. So for example, I'd want my students to be able to learn how pluralization is different in African American language and standard English. And then we would explore it. It may look like me playing clips of people talking in both African-American language and standard English using pluralization features. And then giving them specific examples, you know, saying, okay, what do you see is similar and different? And having them engage in dialogue and connecting it, saying what we're talking about is how we show more than one. And then I say, ‘Awesome. So what did we see that is different, right? Between African-American American language and standard English?’ And they would point out like, well, standard English, we're adding these markers to the end, such as S or ES right. And we will take a look at how that occurs in English. And then we take a look at, what do you notice about African American language? And they were like, there are no plural marks for S’s or ES on the ins and outs. Oh, then how do we know that these nouns are more than one then? And they would notice that prior to each one, there was a number. So instead of 50 cents with an S, the plural marker S, they would see 50 cent, right. And they say, so in African American language, you don't need to have a plural marker to show pluralization. The lesson may be, why do you think that is? And more likely they're not going to know because most kids don't know and most adults don't know why that exists. That's when I'll say, okay, that's when I may come in with direct instruction and tap it to everything they've been learning about different languages and say, in this case, in the Niger Congo region, from which African-American language derived, plural markers were unnecessary when quantity is already shown. So once you say 25, you don't need a plural marker on the end of the noun, because you've already said there's more than one. It’s considered redundant in African-American language to do that and so you don't need to. And so then the kids understand. And then from that, we derive a rule. So what's the rule for the African-American language. When you've put in a quantity, you don't need to add a plural marker to show that there's more than one. Okay, perfect. That's a rule.
So what's the rule for standard English? In standard English on these types of words, you have to add S or ES to show that there's more than one, even if quantity is already shown prior to the noun. And then I would have them practice exercises with that, that way the students were learning to translate in both directions instead of just one direction. Because if you only translate from African-American language to standard English, and that's the only direction you go, you can’t implicitly say that standard English is better. Because we're using an additive approach and not a deficit approach or subtractive approach or corrective approach where we're trying to add to them, by being bi-directional with the translation, it negates any sense of one is better than the other.
Mike: Okay. It's us again. We're back. Hi. What did you think?
Sarah: Yeah, that all makes sense to me. Right? And if you're asked to identify features of your own language, then it also means that you're being asked to cultivate appreciation for the way that you communicate. Being like, it is more efficient to not have an s if you're already specifying quantity, why would you bother with that?
Mike: So at this point in the story, this is when we finally meet Oakland. In 1981, an elementary school in Oakland called Prescott Elementary, started doing this. Again, nobody noticed.
Sarah: Because nobody pays attention to the public schools in Oakland when they're like, please give us money, please. Oh, please God, please. Like do-do-do, can't hear you. What public schools.
Mike: So what happens is this one experiment at this one school works really well. The administrators of the school district are increasingly concerned about the African-American kids in the district, that the district is 52% African-American and 71% of the kids in special education are African-American. And two thirds of the kids who get expelled every year are African-American and they have higher dropout rates, they have lower tests. I mean, all of this stuff that was the concern of educators in the 1960s is all still around. And so what the Oakland school board does is they take 18 months, they appoint a task force, they put all kinds of experts on it, they consult people around the country, they read everything they can, and they come up with nine recommendations for the school of what they need to do to close the racial achievement gap. And there's nine recommendations. A lot of them are things like smaller class sizes and paying the teachers more and these things that essentially are impossible for this, for the district, because they simply cannot do that with the resources that they have.
So one of the recommendations, it's actually the number one recommendation of the task force, is something that the school district actually can do because it doesn't require all that much extra resources. They can recognize African-American English as a language and shift to these much more effective teaching methods because they're watching what LA is doing. They're watching what this one elementary school is doing, and they're saying, well, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it seems like a more effective way to teach. And so we are going to do it.
Sarah: So when did some crumb bum ruin this for everyone?
Mike: So basically really what happens is in December of 1996, the Oakland school board puts out a resolution that's of course mostly meant for parents and other teachers just like a guiding document that the district is going to use as they implement this plan, but just a resolution about their new strategy on African-American English. And so this includes two passages that are the entire basis of this controversy. One of their resolutions, one of the bullet points in their resolution, was “African-American students as part of their culture and history possess and utilize a language described as Ebonics”. It then goes on to say, “African language systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English”. And that's basically it, this one tiny phrase, because they used the term ‘genetically based’. And because they said that Ebonics is not a dialect, that's what sets off this entire controversy.
Sarah: That part seemed unnecessary to their point.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, there's lots of other stuff in this resolution too, as we see so many times, the actual resolution is like a page long, and yet it's quite clear that nobody read it. Nobody at CNN or any of the newspapers actually read the whole thing. But what they mean by ‘genetically based’ is that the language is genetically based in Congo, Delta languages. They don't mean that kids are genetically predisposed to speaking Ebonics. Right. They mean it like a linguistic term. This is a term that linguists use. English is genetically based in Indo-European. Right. It's just, it's technically an academic term.
Sarah: They also couldn't reasonably expect national scrutiny.
Mike: Yeah, nobody ever does, right. And so very shortly afterwards, weirdly the first media story is in the Times of London. The Times of London article contains two pieces of information that will become hugely important for the next year of this controversy. First of all, African-American English is a language. People lose their minds. Secondly, the Oakland school board is doing this so that they can get federal bilingual education funds. There's this huge pot of something like $130 million that is given out in grants every year to school districts for bilingual education. And so by trying to put their entire African-American population into this category, it's a money grab by the teachers and they're all trying to get all of this funding from the federal government.
Sarah: Okay, but if that were true, who cares? Whether something is classified as a dialect, or a language is a fairly academic distinction. And how does it affect you, Susie home-wife? And also, schools desperately need money and so if they're doing something in a bid for federal funding, that's neither surprising nor reprehensible.
Mike: Exactly. I mean the poor teachers and administrators show up on CNN, they try to rebut this narrative over and over again. And they keep saying, first of all, we actually weren't trying to get federal funds. This wasn't part of the conversation. It was about closing the racial gap. Secondly, teachers in this district get paid like $32,000 a year. The average turnover rate of teachers in Oakland at this time is five months. Teachers don't last very long because the classes are huge, and they're underfunded and everyone else feels comfortable being like these inner city teachers trying to steal money. And it’s, if we're trying to steal money, we're trying to steal money to give it to the kids. Right. We're trying to buy textbooks and do classroom stuff.
Sarah: How dare they try to misappropriate some federal funds that could have gone toward research and development for some new human obliterating missile for textbooks for kids in Oakland. How dare they?
Mike: Yes. And so what's amazing is around the country, as this becomes a massive issue, three different states pass laws saying no school can apply for federal funds for using Ebonics.
Sarah: Oh my fucking God. So there's a legal panic.
Mike: Oh yeah, It's completely insane.
Sarah: Ah, you know how we're confronted with information about things like wrongful convictions all the time and state legislatures are just like, and this affects us how, exactly? And then someone tries to validate a black child's way of communicating in a classroom in California. And they're like, what's that you say? Time to pass laws! What's happening?
Mike: And California, actually, this doesn't pass, but it's introduced, a bill that says any school that applies for federal language funds that teaches Ebonics, then gets its entire federal funding cut off. So not just its bilingual funding, but the schools are actually being punished for trying. There's one in Oklahoma where they declare an emergency. So the actual resolution says, “This resolution is immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety and an emergency is hereby declared to exist.” Another argument that the media starts making is that there's some sort of black nationalist or separatist agenda. So a lot of the op-eds describe the school administrators as separatists.
Sarah: Oh are they saying it's the return of the black Panthers?
Mike: Yeah, there's one in a smaller California newspaper that calls the administrators in Oakland “poverty pimps in Kinta cloth”.
Sarah: What? That's like something that a character on Law and Order would say about Shambala green, public defender.
Mike: And there’s also a huge thing, and this is actually my memory of the controversy, that I was 14 and I remember reading a lot of newspaper articles saying that the purpose of recognizing Ebonics as a language was to teach it so that they were going to teach Ebonics on the same level as standard English. So instead of reading Shakespeare, we're just getting to listen to rap lyrics.
Sarah: Oh no, not rap.
Mike: Almost all of the op eds completely misunderstand the purpose of this. And they all say, every kid needs to speak standard English. So what this school district is doing is offensive because they're giving up on standard English and they're teaching the kids to speak Ebonics. This is what almost everybody says. Of course, it doesn't make sense if you think about it for two seconds, because these kids already speak Ebonics, right? You're not teaching African-American kids to speak African-American English because they speak it and that's what you've been saying is a problem for 30 years. So no one is proposing teaching it. Secondly, the resolution in which they recognize African-American English as a language explicitly says the purpose of recognizing this is to teach standard English. This is a better method of teaching standard English.
Sarah: Are you asking that these people, that these lawmakers and leaders of society read an entire fucking sentence, Michael? Are you? Because that’s too much!
Mike: And also, I mean, one of the really frustrating things about this is also the progressive press, right? You can find a million right-wingers saying a million right-wing things about this, but the progressive press goes out of its way to basically say, this might be blown out of proportion, but what Oakland did is terrible. So there's a Frank Rich column called the Ebonic plague. He basically says, “there isn't a public person of stature, white or black left, or right, who doesn't say that the Oakland, California school board was wrong, if not deranged, to portray black English as genetically based and a primary language equivalent to English.” So he's basically saying, look, I want to make sure, you know, Oakland fucked up, Oakland is the problem. Oakland did something completely indefensible, but maybe we don't need 2500 articles about this coming out. Maybe we can do 300 articles about it.
Sarah:] Right. He's like, obviously we can all agree that this was an absolutely invalid and ridiculous thing to do, but don't be too mean about it.
Mike: Exactly. That's basically it, let's all relax a little bit. There's a full page ad that runs in the New York Times in the middle of this controversy where it shows a man in a suit and a hat like Martin Luther King always used to wear, facing away from the camera and over it, it says, “I has a dream”.
Sarah: Oh Lord.
Mike: And it's by the National Head Start Association. It also comes with the following text. “We've spent 400 years for the right to have a voice. Is this how we'll use it? More importantly, is this how we'll teach our children to use it?” So again, no one is teaching anyone Ebonics. And what's totally amazing and what I didn't know until I read John Rickford’s book, John Rickford is one of the linguists who was on the task force in Oakland. He's awesome. I also interviewed him for this, like a year ago. He points out the New York Times ran this for free because it was a nonprofit organization.
So the New York Times ran a full-page ad worth tens of thousands of dollars for free. And then he says, so he's a linguist at Stanford. He organizes 200 linguists to sign an open letter saying, hello, linguists do not take this view at all. This is not the linguist's view. We understand the academic research. He was going to put in all these bullet points about the Swedish studies and the Norwegian studies, 200 linguists signed it. The New York Times refused to run it. The entire discourse was being shaped around what was acceptable and what was unacceptable to say. And it was completely unacceptable to defend Oakland. I mean, I couldn't find anybody really defending Oakland on the merits.
My favorite thing, so in his book, which everybody should read, it's called Spoken Soul. He also points out that “I has a dream” is bad Ebonics. So people might replace has with have, they might say ‘he have a car’, but he has a linguist has a huge Corpus of written and spoken African-American English because he's researching this. He has hundreds of hours of transcripts of interviews. He has zero instances of somebody in those interviews saying I has.
Sarah: That’s what the lol cats say. I can has cheezburger.
Mike: So the New York Times is essentially proving the opposite of the point they think they're making, right? They're saying, oh, well it's just broken English and anything goes, and you know, no matter what you say, that's incorrect we'll just call it Ebonics. And it's Ebonics and it's fine.
Sarah: If it's incorrect, that's the definition of Ebonics.
Mike: Exactly. And so Rickford is saying, if there is such a thing as bad Ebonics, then it is a language. Rickford also points out, I think this is really interesting, that it split the black community too. A lot of the most prominent voices against the Ebonics resolution, where people like Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Oprah, Spike Lee, Arsenio Hall, I mean, almost every famous African-American in American life at that point, what Rickford points out. And I think this is really important is that all of the African-American celebrities who were speaking out about this were getting the same garbage information that the rest of the country was.
So he points to a CNN interview where Jesse Jackson is asked by the host, so how do you feel about this school district in Oakland teaching Ebonics to the kids? And then Jesse Jackson, because that's the information that he has, he's like, well, I think it's crazy to teach Ebonics to kids. Which it would be, given the information that he has.
Sarah: It would be crazy to teach them to speak it.
Mike: Yeah. So a lot of the other celebrities are like that too, where they are not linguists. These are not people who know what's going on in Oakland, because what Oakland was doing did not appear in newspapers in 1997. So they do not know like, oh, well they've done this 18 month process and they've appointed a task force. They didn't have any of this information. The only information they had was that these black nationalists teachers were doing a money grab to get federal funds. And we're going to teach you Ebonics to a bunch of white kids. That was the primary information that was bouncing around the United States. So when you present it to African-Americans in that way, they're like, well, yeah, that's dumb. We shouldn't do that. And so a lot of these articles seem like they just called up random black celebrities, whatever black celebrity they could get on the phone.
Sarah: Connie Chung called her black friends.
Mike: There's one where they call Jerry Rice, who's the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. What does a quarterback on a football team know about pedagogy?
Sarah: So escalate to become a congruent matter for Congress to dip its dirty little fingers into?
Mike: Basically the controversy crescendos around three months later. This has already become such a big controversy that President Clinton has weighed in on it. The secretary of education has also put out a statement saying that no federal funds can ever be used for Ebonics. So it's already this huge thing. And there's a sense that Congress has to do something. And so Congress essentially asks all of these teachers and administrators and linguists to come out to DC and they basically grill them about, were you doing this for federal funds?
Sarah: Surely Congress had a lot to do in 1997. At any time, Congress has a full plate. So why this? Is that to make a show of suppressing attempts to communicate in languages other than those approved up by white America? Who can say.
Mike: So the opening statement is by a Senator named Lauch Faircloth, which I'm probably mispronouncing. And he sets the entire tone by demonstrating that he has read nothing and learned nothing. So his opening statement says “nobody should be passed from grade to grade unless they can master the basic R's of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I think we've left that. We need greater teacher control in the classroom. We should allow the teachers to discipline the children.”
Sarah: Okay. What do you mean by that, old man?
Mike: Exactly. He also has this other big idea, school uniforms. But he's like, you know, if you really want to raise the self-esteem of students, you need to get school uniforms into the classroom. And later on in the hearing, one of the teachers points out that they've had school uniforms in Oakland for years. It's one of the only districts in California where they have the school uniforms.
Sarah: It's what you get for bringing up something irrelevant.
Mike: Exactly. They also, weirdly, they call random black people. So one of the people that they called to a congressional hearing on linguistics, his title in the congressional record is “Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and TV talk show host”. And so it's essentially this random dude and he says, well, you know, when I learned French, we did it as immersion. That the teacher just spoke French with all the time. It worked fine for me. And to his credit, Arlen Specter is like, did it work? It actually seems like a weird way to teach French, to just bark gibberish at the children all the time and never tell them what you're saying.
Sarah: Why don't you speak some Frank for me, buddy.
Mike: Exactly. And it's also, this is his level of expertise. This is what happened to me. And I turned out fine.
Sarah: The idea of like, I was abused and therefore all subsequent generations must be abused to at least the same degree or greater. And yeah, I don't agree with that.
Mike: And so this guy, his name is Armstrong Williams. He comes in and he says, teachers don't have to learn slang to teach students just like doctors don't have to get the illnesses of their patients to treat them. Not great.
Sarah: Wow! Also the idea of comparing a dialect or language, however you see it, to a disease and this idea that America is failing if we're not abusing students in this way and what will become of us and this real sense of panic, and just at this teeny, little initiative at this one school, that's like, we're going to try and enrich students on their own terms, mind your own business and live your lives. This only affects a few thousand people, and everyone just lost their minds. It's amazing.
Mike: What's frustrating with the hearing is you can see the senators starting to thaw a little bit and you can see, like everyone, once you learn what the school board is actually proposing, you're like, oh, this actually doesn't sound like that big of a deal. But then if you read the coverage of it from the next day, the Washington Post had a story where their lead quote is one of the administrators saying “African-American English is a language” and it goes right back into the framing.
Sarah: And into the panic. It has to be a racial panic, right? The black people are taking over, and we must fight it and stop it right now. That's the story that's being sold.
Mike: Yeah. The lesson that Americans got from the congressional hearing, which is supposed to be fact finding and nuanced, and all this information coming out is basically just another ‘both sides’ story. These radical teachers come, and they think that African-Americans speak their own separate language. And the senators think that they should all learn standard English and it's not clear if the administrators in Oakland really want the kids to learn standard English or not.
Sarah: Surely if you watched it, you would learn that they do want to do it and this is the way they want to do it.
Mike: Yeah exactly. John Rickford puts in a document that lists all of the studies showing this is a better way to teach standard English. I couldn't find any article that refers to that. So all of this information is in the public record, but it just ends up being, oh, there was some tension, there was a heated debate on Capitol hill yesterday.
Sarah: This is one of the basic tenets of you're wrong about-dom, which is that if people are acting really confused about something as if there's no possible way of resolving a question, the very information that they're acting as if does not exist is probably somewhere in the record at that very moment that they could find if they did minimal work. Right. But we have these things where we're like, well, who can say, and it's, I can say, but like we have to enforce factual ignorance in order to defend our social anxieties.
Mike: Yeah. And so this is basically the apogee of the crisis, that nothing gets resolved, right? Because the articles that come out after the congressional hearing are essentially the same as the ones that came out before it. But what's really interesting about the legacy of this. And I cannot get over this, is, first of all, the Oakland school board releases an updated resolution with much softer language. They completely give up on their plan because there's so many eyes on them. They remove the word Ebonics from the resolution. They remove the recognition of it as a language, they remove all of this stuff and basically go back to the status quo. But then the much bigger thing is that no school board has ever tried this since.
Sarah: Because they saw what happened because Oakland was made an example of the same way Michael Dukakis was made an example of.
Mike: So Daniel Russell, the guy that we heard from earlier, he goes around the country trying to talk school districts into doing this. And he's like, look, by 1996, we had a bunch of studies showing this was a better way to do this, by now we have even more. And he says he gets huge resistance from school boards, partly because they remember Ebonics. They remember this story of this one school board that stuck its neck out.
Sarah: I had no idea that the story was so tragic.
Mike: It's really bad. And so the reason why Dionna actually got in touch with me in the first place was to tell me that a lot of the kids that she sees are classified as special ed, because the teacher will ask, so on an IQ test or a language proficiency test? They'll say, give me a sentence in past tense. And the kids will say, ‘my mama walk yesterday’. And they're like, well, this kid doesn't understand past tense because he's saying walk and not walked. But what he's giving is African-American English.
And so Dionna says, what Dionna’s trying to get other teachers to do is explain that you can't just say that he missed the ‘ed’, you have to say, when did this happen? Did it happen yesterday, today or tomorrow? You have to actually ask follow-ups to the kids to figure out if they understand the concepts, rather than just saying, there's not an S at the end of that word, he doesn't know how to pluralize things. One thing that Dionna says is African-American speakers fall into this netherworld between disabled kids, which get extra funding from the federal government and English as a second language kids, which also get extra funding from the federal government. There's all these African-American kids that speak African-American English, but they don't count as either one of those things. They can't get individual tutors, they can't get special time, or longer time to take tests.
Sarah: Right. Because they're just seen as delinquent. They know what the rules are, but they refuse to follow them. They're just being thuggish and bad. Right. That's the narrative.
Mike: Partly because of Oakland, I think, it just has never ended up in the teacher education curriculum. And to me it feels like the legacy of Oakland is not trying this again because people just lose their minds. And one of the things that William lab actually points out in the congressional hearings, Oakland was the fourth freak out of this exact same issue. There was also a case in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1979, where literally the same thing happened. A bunch of African-American parents sued the district and said that their children were being discriminated against because the teachers weren't using African-American English to teach them. What Labov says is that the same thing plays out in exactly the same way, where people are not capable of listening to what the districts are actually doing. They just hear black English recognizes a language and they freak out and they shut down all of their faculties.
Sarah: White people just hear about white supremacy being challenged in some way. There's some sort of dog whistle in there and white supremacy defends itself. To me, that's really all this is. It's white supremacy defending the stranglehold that it has on so many aspects of American life. And the idea that if you do something other than systematically disempowered black children in American schools, then they're going to grow up more dangerous to you. I don't think that most people are consciously doing it that way, but you can see that that drives a lot of policy because clearly there's no logic there at all. And people are not even not responding even to the actual ideas that they're claiming to be putting on trial.
Mike: This is why I want to end with this quote from the Oakland Tribune during this controversy. And I think this might be the most insightful thing that was written about it at the time. By the standards of the time, this is the best argument you could get. This editorial says, “We hope good news eventually comes out of this controversy, because Oakland school children need and deserve success. If, as the district tells us, the program is one way we can raise the achievement level of African-American students, we have to say, go for it.” And to me, it's almost like you don't really need to have the argument about, is it a language? Is it a dialect? Is this good? Is there a research base for it? It’s almost enough that the teachers have thought about this for 18 months and they want to do it. These are teachers that really care about the kids and administrators that really care about the district. And they've thought about the racial achievement gap way longer than you have, way more than you have. They know way more about Oakland and the kids than you do.
Sarah: So why can't you guys fucking listen to them?
Mike: Exactly. Schools do experimental shit all the time, but as soon as an African-American school wants to do it, we're like, oh, I don't know. This seems really bad for the kids. And I have to write an op-ed against it. Have you looked into homeschooling lately? There’s some fucked up shit that goes into homeschooling.
Sarah: Oh my god. The state of homeschooling.
Mike: I'm still genuinely livid about how wrong my impression of this was two years ago. And how really just this entire field of linguistics and this entire study of African-American English has been completely misrepresented to me.
Sarah: And therefore slowed down because it's become stigmatized, and people won’t allocate funding money to it anymore because of the fear of federal backlash and so forth.
Mike: I’m against the idea of silver bullets and the problems of American education are obviously far larger than just linguistics, but we know a better way to do this and study after study continues to show that being nice to kids is a pretty great way to teach them stuff.
Sarah: Are you saying that jail is not the answer for everything? Are you questioning one of our few thriving industries?
Mike: Do you have any closing thoughts? I have a closing thought, but I want to wait until yours.
Sarah: Yeah. My closing thought is that this was all fucking bullshit and Jesus Christ. Okay. Yeah. That's pretty much it. You go.
Mike: I just think that when in doubt, imagine it's Norwegian kids.
Sarah: Oh, that's really unfortunately useful, don’t you think?
Mike: Yeah. I mean, if only somebody at the New York Times has said, hang on, what if it was Norwegians? Everybody would have stopped freaking out immediately.