Ebonics, Language, and Power
Modern education not only corrupts the heart of our youth by the rigid slavery to which it condemns them, it also undermines their reason by the unintelligible jargon with which they are overwhelmed in the first instance, and the little attention that is given to accommodating their pursuits to their capacities in the second.
-- William Godwin, An Account of the Seminary ( 1783), p. 31
The current furor and confusion in the United States over the role of "Ebonics" in education is but a recent skirmish in a long-running struggle. It is not new, not confined to "Black English" or to English in general, not confined to education, and certainly not confined to the United States. It is a controversy that surfaces in North America and around the world time and time again. On all five continents, coercive power relationships between socioeconomic elites wielding state power and oppressed groups wielding little or none find linguistic reflexes. The elites speak the "official" state language or the "standard" variety of a language--in the present case, "Standard English" (SE)--which they made official or standard; the oppressed groups (not necessarily minorities, as in the present case) are decreed by the same elites to speak a less acceptable or unacceptable language or a socially stigmatized variety of the same language, such as "Black English." Very real objective linguistic differences thus provide yet another excuse for discrimination in many areas of public life, including education, (so-called) criminal justice systems, employment, media access, and even labor unions. The public policy decisions in different countries that result from these periodic convulsions, often enshrined in statute and case law, concern linguistic human rights, and they have wide-ranging social consequences for hundreds of millions of people. The rhetorical barrage surrounding the present struggle serves to confuse the real issues, or to ensure that they are not discussed at all, which benefits only one side in the status quo.
For these reasons and because the role of language in education is but one of several examples of the critical nexus of language and state power, the Ebonics issue is a vital one for working people everywhere. The radical right in the United States recognizes its importance and is all over the mass media using it to push its own domestic agenda, that is, a relentless attack on the burgeoning U.S. under