Double Standards

Geoffrey Nunberg

Xerox PARC and Stanford University

To appear in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory

One of the curious things about the great Ebonics flap was that the story was actually reported very well. By way of example, here is the first paragraph of the article from The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story in the page one lead position on December 19, 1996:

The Oakland school board approved a landmark policy last night that recognizes Ebonics, or Black English, as a primary language of its African American students....The district's resolution, passed unanimously, declares that all teachers in the Oakland Unified School District should be trained to respect the Ebonics language of their students as distinct from standard American English -- not a dialect that is "wrong."

That's a more than fair summary of the rather confused school board resolution, and the article went on to explain that teachers would be "trained to teach students to 'decode' or translate their home language, Ebonics, into the standard English they need to succeed in school and function in America's workplaces." And the coverage from other major news sources like the New York Times , USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Reuters was roughly comparable. For the most part, reporters went to considerable lengths to get the story right and to seek out the relevant experts. Every time I turned on the radio during the first few months of 1997, it seemed, I heard the lilt of John Rickford's voice or the anti-lilt of Bill Labov's. Indeed, a search of the Dialog newspapers database a couple of months after the story broke turned up 85 articles containing the word "ebonics" that cited one or more of Rickford, Labov, John McWhorter, Geneva Smitherman, or John Baugh. The networks even sent cameras to cover the LSA meetings in Chicago in early January -- certainly the only time that's likely to happen -- and the Los Angeles Times gave a first-page story to the passage of the Society's resolution describing the Oakland program as "linguistically and pedagogically sound."

If you read only the news stories about the Oakland program, in short, you might be at a loss to understand why linguists are always complaining about the way the press deals with linguistic issues. In the end, though, all that careful reporting went for nothing. From the first it was foreordained that the Oakland program would be misinterpreted, attacked, and ridiculed in an astonishing torrent of commentary. In the thirteen days following the school board declaration, the New York Times ran seven news stories, one editorial, two op-ed pieces, and three letters to the editor on the subject; and front-page stories were still appearing in major newspapers two months later. An Alta Vista search turned up almost 5000 Web sites containing the word "ebonics," some helpful, but more with titles like "The Ebonics translator (Patent Pending)," "Ebonics: Spue News Cuts Through 'Da' Crap."[1] And then there were the parodies that seemed to be circulating everywhere: Hebonics, Dweebonics, Bubba-onics, Lake Woebegonics, and even C++onics. The country couldn't get enough of it.

THERE'S NO DENYING THAT that the Oakland School Board brought much of this down on their own heads. The language of the board's declaration seemed calculated to play to all the worst stereotypes of education jargon and afrocentric twaddle. It began by claiming that "numerous validated scholarly studies" have demonstrated that African-American students "possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches as 'Ebonics' or 'Pan African Communication Behaviors'' or 'African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English." And it proceeded to declare that the Board of Education "officially recognizes the existence...of West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems," and instructed the Superintendent to "implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills."

This was asking for trouble. It wasn't just that the resolution made it sound as if the schools would be instructing inner-city students in how to speak their own variety (which was not in fact what the program was aimed at). There was also that claim that the variety was a distinct language, and moreover one with the silly name "Ebonics," which sounded like the name of a brand of sneaker or 50s Doo-Wop group. And matters were made worse by that singularly ill-chosen description of the varieties as "genetically based." I suspect the word "genetically" must have been lifted from some linguist's assertion that African American Vernacular English is "genetically related" to Niger-Congo languages (whatever might have been meant by that). But the phrase "genetically based" suggests that the writers were, as they say, Unclear on the Concept, and the impression of confusion was not dispelled when the board issued a clarifying statement that explained that "in the clause, 'African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English,' the term 'genetically based' is used according to the standard dictionary definition of 'has its origins in.' It is not used to refer to human biology." Well, I have no way of saying what was at the back of the writers' minds, but they certainly ought to have anticipated the way the term would be construed by both critics and supporters.

Still, the reporters' descriptions of the actual programs did dispel many of the misapprehensions that the declaration might have given rise to, and in any case it was a pretty slight pretext for the ensuing national brouhaha -- as a friend of mine remarked in frustration as the furor mounted, "For God's sake, we're talking about a school board." In the end it was the press that puffed on the spark until it caught fire. It scarcely mattered that their own reporters were covering the Oakland program more or less accurately; the very fact that papers gave the story the play they did ensured that it would be received according to the script that familiar over the past ten years or so as "PC outrage of the week." On its own merits, after all, a story about a local school board's decision to adopt a new approach to teaching standard English would scarcely warrant bumping Bosnia or the ballpark bond issue from the top right slot on page one -- not even in the slow news season around Christmas. The story could only have deserved such coverage if there was some monkey business going on.

The headline writers stood ready to provide the missing link. That largely accurate Chronicle story reporting the board's resolution, for example, was headed "Oakland Schools OK Black English," which suggested that the schools were bailing out on their responsibility to teach the standard language. The headlines in other papers were similar: "Oakland Schools Sanction 'Ebonics'" (Chicago Tribune); "Black English Recognized for Schools " (Philadelphia Inquirer); "Oakland Schools to Teach Black English" (Miami Herald). If you read the accompanying stories carefully, it's true, you would have learned that those verbs "okay," "sanction," and "recognize" applied only to the acknowledgment of AAVE as a systematic variety that could be a point of departure for instruction in the standard language. But it takes an uncommonly critical point of view to discount the newspaper's own headline in interpreting a story.

The pattern persisted over the following weeks, as headline writers repeatedly spun reporters' stories to fit the PC-outrage template. My own nominee for the Friendly Fire Award was the headline over an article by Pamela Burdman that ran in the Chronicle shortly after the story broke. It was as good a piece of language reporting as you are likely to encounter in the general press. Burdman quoted Susan Ervin-Tripp, Wayne O'Neil, John McWhorter, and Berkeley historian Martin Jay; described the standard cases of the mutually incomprehensible Chinese "dialects" and the mutually comprehensible Scandinavian "languages"; and duly repeated the famous quip that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But with one swoop the headline writer turned all those scholarly scruples into mere disquietude: "Ebonics Tests Linguistic Definition; Politics Tempers Rules, Scholars Say." The implication was clear: Ebonics lies beyond the pale of linguistic classification, and political agendas were being allowed to compromise scholarly standards.[2]

The spate of editorials, columns, and op-ed pieces that followed assumed almost uniformly that interpretation of the story. The editorials in the liberal establishment papers generally allowed that the Oakland program might have been well-intentioned, but went on to say that it was sadly, even tragically misconceived. The editorial in the New York Times, for example, began: "The school board in Oakland, Calif., blundered badly last week when it declared that black slang is a distinct language that warrants a place of respect in the classroom. The new policy... will actually stigmatize African-American children -- while validating habits of speech that bar them from the cultural mainstream and decent jobs." Editorials in other papers took the same line, under headings like "Teach English, Not 'Ebonics'" (Allentown Morning Call); "Street Slang Abandons Good Sense and Kids' Futures" (Cleveland Plain Dealer); and "Wrong Priorities in Ebonics Program" (St. Louis Post Dispatch).

Conservatives, by contrast, treated the Oakland program as just one more multiculturalist scam. The most egregious example of this lot was Jacob Heilbrunn's extended pontification in the New Republic. Unlike columnists who simply took the headlines at face value, Heilbrun did go to the trouble of interviewing linguists like Rickford, but then proceeded to misrepresent their views in tendentious and often unintentionally comic ways. As Heilbrunn told the story, the characterization of Black English as a legitimate language was the work of the "professional crackpotism" of a collection of academic "Ebonologists" -- among whose number Heilbrun listed not just Labov, Rickford, Ralph Fasold, and Walt Wolfram, but also those well-known sociolinguists Peter Sells and Tom Wasow (whose sole involvement in the subject, in reality, was as co-authors with Rickford of a paper on AAVE syntax in NLLT 14,3). Acting out of a political agenda, Heilbrun explained, these linguists set about overturning the theories of linguists like George Philip Krapp (whose 1925 work on American English was described as "still standard" ) to the effect that English had an exclusively English origin. Instead, they postulated that it stemmed from "the language... known among linguists as Creole," whose origins they traced to African languages such as Yoruba, Ewe, and Fula. These claims in turn became the basis for the new instructional programs, which are vaunted as providing a sounder introduction to the standard language, but which in fact are "little more than a means to allow black youngsters to pass through the school system without ever mastering the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation." Heilbrunn's justification for this last assertion consisted of a statement by a teacher in one such program who explained that she responds to writing assignments handed in the "home language" by saying "This is good. How would it look otherwise?," rather than by saying "This is incorrect."

Heilbrunn's article was exceptional for the sheer breadth of its confusions and misrepresentations, but its basic sentiments were echoed pretty much across the board: the unforgivable offense of the Oakland program was that it did not propose to tell its students that Black English was wrong. The indignation at the idea that Black English might have any legitimacy as a form of speech was so widespread and intense that it was hard to avoid the impression that there was some unconscious mechanism at work, particularly when you listened to the violent revulsion with which writers described the variety itself. It was "this appalling English dialect"; "a mutant language"; "gutter slang"; "the patois of America's meanest streets"; "the dialect of the pimp, the idiom of the gang-banger and the street thug, the jargon of the public-school dropout, a form of pidgin English indicative of African-American failures."

There was undoubtedly a current of displaced racism in many of these characterizations: it was striking how many of the words that writers were applying to the dialect in the press were the same as the ones that many whites apply in private to the people who speak it. But prominent African Americans, too, were quick to condemn the school board -- not just conservatives like Shelby Steele, but a range of figures that ran from to Maya Angelou and Kweisi Mfume to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck D. Jesse Jackson described the Oakland policy as "an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace," and writing in The Nation, novelist A. J. Verdelle equated the school board declaration with "the language of the Dred Scott decision: that the Negro should be 'reduced for his own benefit.'"

In part, it's true, these reactions were based on a misconception of what the program was about, and Jackson for one retracted his comments when its actual goals were explained to him. But it was clear that apart from a few linguists and educators, most African Americans were unwilling to acknowledge that the inner-city variety might be a separate language, or even a legitimate form of speech. William Raspberry of the Washington Post described the inner-city variety "a language that has no right or wrong expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible rules." And the Oakland parents and students sought out by enterprising reporters were eager to deliver themselves of similar opinions. (From the New York Times: "'What's black English?' asked Mr. Andrews, a 16-year-old sophomore who said he found the decision somewhat insulting. 'You mean slang?'") Other African-American writers had a high time with the kind of Amos n' Andy burlesques that white commentators other than radio talk-show hosts were presumably diffident about airing in public. Detroit Free Press columnist Walter Williams began his column: "Y'awl might be axin me why Ah be writin dis way. Y'awl might tink ma fambly didn't gib me a gud upbringin." (John Rickford pointed out to me that Williams Williams got the dialect wrong, as did most of the other African-American writers who tried their hand at this: that be in the first sentence is ungrammatical. It's a telling demonstration of Labov's observation that most of the middle-class African Americans who maintain they speak "Black English" really have an imperfect grasp of the grammar of the inner-city variety.)

YOU COULD ARGUE OF COURSE THAT the attitudes of African-Americans are simply the internalizations of the dominant linguistic ideology. But whatever their source, when you take them in concert with white reactions confirms the status of AAVE as a dialect of English. In the end, after all, that isn't a question that can be resolved by comparative grammatical analysis or by weaving stories of an independent African genesis, a claim that everyone in the affair seemed to understand only in the traditional Sprachbaum sense of the term. The scope of the English language is fixed in the conscious action of the collective will that Heinz Kloss described as Ausbau (this in his neglected 1950 classic Die Entwicklung Neuer Germanischer Kultursprachen, still the best work I know of on what it means to say we speak "the same language"). And in this regard it is clear that whites and inner-city African Americans do speak the same language, which is to say that we share the same linguistic values and models.

But the same attitudes that set AAVE within the sphere of English also function to relegate it to the margins, through mechanisms that were evident in tropes that kept recurring in the press discussions. One of the most revealing of these was the maneuver made by a number of critics who tried to absolve themselves from any charge of racial bias by citing the many African-American writers who have mastered the standard language. A San Francisco Chronicle editorial taxed tOakland district with having "failed in its charge to teach youngsters their own language -- epitomized by Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the writings of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou." A columnist in the Los Angeles News opined, "What would have happened to the standard of excellence, if writers like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison had been told that all they needed to learn was black English?" Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman reminded the school board that "Black English is not the language of Maya Angelou or Jesse Jackson." It seemed as if you couldn't open a newspaper without running into someone saying, "Why can't they learn to talk like that nice Ms Angelou does?"

What was telling about all these invocations of black writers (apart from their "credit-to-their-race" condescension, I mean) was the way they elided the ambiguous status of that notion of "standard English" -- the second, uninterrogated term in all of these discussions. Just what variety was it that people were calling on the Oakland schools to teach their inner-city students? It would certainly be wonderful if they could graduate from high school capable of describing their experience in "the language... of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou," but the odds of that are as slim as of white kids from Beverly Hills with fluent competence in the language of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Besides, it would be hard to argue that there are material or social advantages for either group in mastering the literary variety. In today's America, after all, the ability to write literate English has a market value about one-third as great as the ability to install Windows on a PC. The "standard language" that inner-city students really need to master is that brutal semigrammatical clatter that permeates corporate conference rooms, government agencies, and school board meetings. It's not important that inner-city kids learn to talk like James Baldwin, but it is clearly to their advantage to be able to give a passable imitation of George Bush.

The conflation of those two models of the "standard language," Baldwin's and Bush's, was evident everywhere. You could see it, for example, in the wording of a bill introduced into the Virginia General Assembly that would change the currently designated official language of the state from "English" to "standard English," a variety defined as follows:

Standard English includes the written and spoken language which is accepted by generally recognized authorities as grammatically correct in the United States and shall not include any dialect, patois, or jargon based on the English language.

You might wonder how the authors of the bill can be so confident that their own spoken English would pass grammatical muster with those "generally recognized authorities," whoever they might be (William Safire, call your office). But the point of this conflation of the two notions of the "standard language" is precisely to make such questions impossible to pose, and in the course of things to validate the speech of the white middle class, not simply as a common medium of communication -- which would be reason enough to want everyone to master it -- but also as morally and aesthetically superior in virtue of its identification with literary models.

This is all factitious, of course. The syntactic and morphological features that the literary language shares with middle-class speech have no bearing on its claims to special merit, nor do they entail that that variety "belongs" to whites to any greater degree than to blacks -- indeed, the language of Maya Angelou owes quite as much to the underlying patterns of black speech as to the grammatical structures of middle-class speech that she usually, but not invariably, draws on. But these were the unexamined assumptions that licensed all the moralistic fulminations of the critics, black and white. (It recalls the way the English like to think of Shakespeare as having spoken "their" language" -- a judgment that Americans readily to accede to -- as if the closeness of linguistic varieties were measured in kilometers.) Even the authors of the school board resolution presumed this point of view. However well-intentioned it may be, the urge to declare that AAVE is a separate language has its roots in a perception that the linguistic culture of English is a white birthright that inner-city African Americans can never legitimately claim as their own. But "culture is ordinary," as Raymond Williams put it; and we should resist the attempts of any one sector to appropriate it as their own.

This is the point that we linguists kept trying to make throughout the dispute, in our own quiet way -- obliquely demurring from endorsing the claim that AAVE is a separate language while at the same time defending its legitimacy as a form of speech and voicing support for the Oakland program and others like it. On the whole, I think, we came off pretty well in the business, even if no one was particularly disposed to listen. The only reservation you might have was over linguists' refusal to address the language-dialect business head on. I think of that Chronicle piece on the difference between a language and a dialect, and how unsatisfying the linguists' equivocal answers must have sounded to a public that was looking to the experts to sort things out for them. That's the trouble with that "dialect with an army" joke: what it comes down to is simply saying that the question is not our pidgin. Well, maybe strictly speaking it isn't, at least in our capacity as grammarians. But if linguists don't speak to that question, who will? The Ebonics flap made the answer to that question depressingly clear. The next time this language-dialect question comes up we really ought to try be ready with something more than a shrug.


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2 A close runner-up for the Friendly Fire award was the Washington Times headline that ran over an interview with Joseph Greenberg. Greenberg said that there was no genetic relationship between AAVE and the Niger-Congo family, but he also noted that the variety was structurally different from the standard language in important ways, and that it should be respected as "not inherently better or worse than the standard language." The headline over the piece ran, "Scholar disputes Ebonics link to African dialects [sic]; No genetic tie, he says, just lang."

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