Date: Sun, 22 Dec 1996 08:12:08 +0900
From: (John McCreery)
Subject: Re: Black English
Sender: To: Ronald Kephart Cc:
MIME-version: 1.0
Precedence: bulk

The relationship of "Black" to "standard" English--as language to language, dialect to dialect, sign of class or (God forbid) racial difference--is one of those topics that generates more heat than light. The issue I raise here is this: Do we not, in our characteristic rhetorical move of focusing on our "professional" knowledge (whose value we wish to enhance), what "we" know about language,divert attention from core social/educational issues at stake in the Oakland schoolboard's decision. Does it strike noone but me that in deciding to teach "standard" English as a "second" language, the schoolboard has stereotyped its children as the functional equivalent of unassimilated immigrants? Not a bad thing, perhaps, if the second-language teaching AND THE ATTITUDES THAT SURROUND IT are geared to giving the kids a fair shake in the highly imperfect world in which they grow up. Not a good thing, perhaps, if the second-language teaching means what it usually does in the rest of the country--i.e., a fragmentary grasp of a few words or phrases that leaves the speaker still wholly "other" to any native speaker of the "standard dialect," i.e., still targeted for discrimination, prejudice, and substantially lower life chances. A ha! you say, they will still be in no worse position than they started, and now they can take pride in what they know. But isn't giving them better options what education is supposed to be about? Is this not simply reproducing the class position to which they are now condemned?

Please note that nothing said here has anything to do with the inherent linguistic properties of Black English, which I take to be a language like any other. Nor does it have anything to do with claims related to genetic difference in black kids, which I reject as totally spurious. It does have to do with my sense that the schoolboard is making a tough call and its motives are clear. Its kids have not been getting a good education. More resources are needed. Getting the kids recognized as in need of bilingual education is a way of tapping the Feds for extra cash. Still, I question the wisdom of their decision.

I agree totally with Ron Kephart when he writes,

>It really pisses me off to hear radio talk jockies saying "it's not a language."
>What qualifies them to say so?? Because it has to do with language, and because
>they speak a language, apparently they think they're supremely qualified to make
>scientifically valid judgements. They also walk, but does this qualify them to
>talk about biomechanics? Let's not let them get away with it unchallenged. We
>also have to be firm with speakers of BE, many of whom harbor the same sorts of
>ideas about (one of) their language(s)

>And, at the same time, we have to continuously remind people that the fact that
>someone is "black" does not imply that they are inevitably speakers of BE, any more than being "white" implies speaking "standard" English.

>There are lots of issues percolating out of this debate; we have a responsibility to speak and write on the issues whenever we can, I think.

If I knew of no alternative to either the school board's decision or to leaving the current mess a mess, I could only hold my breath and hope that the school board's decision turns out to be a good one for the kids. Maybe they will get the extra money, maybe they will use it wisely, maybe some of the kids will learn "standard" English well enough to improve their life chances while continuing to enjoy what ever communitas is generated by speaking BE at home and among themselves.

I would, however, call your attention to the following article from US News & World Report, which reaches us via H-MINERVA.


The martial melting pot

How the military encourages and promotes blacks without lowering its standards


Get links and poll data

When I joined the Air Force in 1980, my eyes were not on the wild blue yonder. All I wanted was a steady job and an escape route out of the inner city. In north St. Louis, black kids like me--the daughter of former Southern sharecroppers--weren't raised to think big. I was a timid, aimless, underachieving 20-year-old who tried hard not to make eye contact.

When I was discharged 12 years later, I was a captain in intelligence too confident and too ambitious to be contained by the organization that had made me that way. I had served two tours of duty overseas, earned a college degree and a master's and was on my way to Harvard Law School.

My experience in the military gives me some insight into the national debate about affirmative action. As the choice is often framed, America picks between two losing propositions: lowering standards so blacks can have a chance to prove themselves, and pretending that most blacks have had the same opportunities as most whites,

keeping the status quo. I propose Plan C, the military way.[LINK]

No standards were lowered for me as I climbed the Air Force ladder. I had to best one white male after another. But military leaders had designed a system that didn't let me flounder. The system zeroed in on strengths in me I was years from seeing in myself. Skillfully, it drew those out--partly, no doubt, because of my race and gender.

Beginning in basic training, I had leadership positions thrust upon me. If two trainees are sent to pull weeds, one will be placed in charge and held accountable. I was always the one. Soon, to my tearful distress, I was promoted to dorm chief, the trainee responsible for everyone else in the flight (the Air Force version of a platoon). I begged to be passed over, but Tech Sergeant Harris--in training, you would never call a superior by his first name--tossed the dorm chief badge at me and threw me out of his office. He spent the next few weeks berating or praising me, each at the right moment. When the flight graduated first in the squadron, I began thinking that maybe the Air Force was right. Maybe I could compete and win.

I did, and so do many other minorities. Consider the Army, the most integrated service and the subject of a new book, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, by two military sociologists, Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler (one white, one black, both veterans). The authors note that the Army is the only American institution where blacks routinely boss around whites. Of its generals, 7.3 percent are black, a critical mass of leadership approached nowhere else in society.

The services succeed by putting a premium on achievement. They find a way to measure everything; in order to progress, soldiers navigate an endless stream of standardized tests and comprehensive performance evaluations. I'm a natural test taker (I just needed backbone), but many other blacks struggle with exams. A "colorblind" military would leave too many black soldiers trapped in undemanding jobs while crucial positions went understaffed. [LINK]

The military prepares all its soldiers to face the hurdles of competition. If a soldier fails an exam, he is usually offered a makeover or a remedial course and "encouraged" to attend. If he doesn't, and continues to fail, he'll end up a civilian again. If he makes the attempt, his commander will support him fully. No one, black or white, is stigmatized for initial failure or remedial effort. Only a failure to try counts against you.

The U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School is the Army's ultimate commitment to its mission. Begun 80 years ago to help enlisted men pass the West Point entrance exam, it now also prepares high school grads who have no enlisted service. It is closely modeled on West Point, where two thirds of the "prepsters" end up. The course work stresses basics: "Our curriculum is simple," said its commandant in 1994. "We got English. We got math."

Blacks constitute 20 percent of the enrollees, and their accomplishments are formidable. According to Moskos and Butler, only 6.8 percent of cadets entering West Point in 1993 were black: Forty percent of those entered via the prep school. Recently, 94 percent of prepsters graduated with their West Point class in four years; only 79 percent of the entire student body did.

The 10-month course isn't cheap for taxpayers; estimates range from $40,000 to $60,000 per student annually. Without that investment, though, there would be far fewer black Army officers and fewer blacks competing at the highest levels.[LINK]

Secrets of success. Military leaders face the same pressure that some of their civilian counterparts do to meet affirmative action goals. But the military sets itself apart by practicing "supply side" affirmative action. Rather than basing plans on the total number of available minorities, it develops the largest possible pool of qualified applicants and then sets goals.

There is another secret of the military's success: taking credit for the accomplishments of subordinates. The military, long intensely competitive, has become more so as it downsizes and has fewer accolades like promotions to award. So if Eagle Squadron produces the airman of the quarter, everyone above him in the chain of command can claim leadership points on his own evaluation. When a unit produces no standouts, soldiers conclude there is a lack of leadership in the squadron. The hunt for talent in that kind of environment can't afford to get sidetracked by race.

Five years after my epiphany in basic training, this military quest changed my life again. With the ink still wet on my college degree (earned via an Air Force "Bootstrap" fellowship), I stood at attention before my flight commander at Officers' Training School while I received my first evaluation. Captain Lowery wanted me to compete for wing commander, the top spot among the 900 in training. Déją vu--I begged to be passed over.

No way out. Lowery cut me off, slammed a pad on his desk and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Narrating ominously, he scrawled, "Despite her enormous leadership abilities and her duty of loyalty to her comrades, Dickerson feels her personal comfort and abundant free time is more important than national security . . . ."

So I reconsidered. Given no way out, I located every competitive bone in my body and, with the captain's support, became wing commander. Lowery took full credit. That Midwestern white boy wanted to win: The only way to do that was through his troops. Whether my race and gender were a plus or minus to him (and those who selected me) I don't know. I do know that I went toe-to-toe with a bunch of white males, the best in their own flights, and won. The military knows that, while talent can't be manufactured, it must be molded. No one can be wasted if an organization is to be all that it can.

While far from perfect, the military handles race relations more deftly than any civilian institution I've experienced. For one thing, soldiers know why good relations matter: Without them, there's no unit cohesion; without unit cohesion, soldiers die. For another, the military doesn't try to change hearts and minds. Racism is not cast as an evil to be erased, but as a fact of life that has no use in the military. Yes, everyone must attend "sensitivity training," but the services eschew the "Kumbaya" quality typical of mainstream "diversity management."

Unlike many universities, the military doesn't punish all hate speech, only the kind that "upsets order and discipline or provokes a breach of the peace." In 1992, it declined to discipline a drunken airman who called an arresting MP a "nigger." The military standard is that the MP, trained to handle far worse, could live with such booze-induced abuse. But flaunting racist beliefs is a career buster; your evaluations will likely reflect that those views don't square with leading or following in a multiracial organization. Uniformed racists survive in clandestine cells, shunned as losers and forced underground. But everyone is required to stow his racial baggage for the duration of the duty day. Because everyone understands the rules, soldiers take risks about race that can have a surprising payoff in unit cohesion.

In South Korea, I served under a daredevil Mexican-American, Lieutenant Salas, in Charlie Flight. One Sunday, several hours before dawn, we got bored. The reports were typed and filed, the Stars and Stripes crossword solved. There was nothing to do but wait for the Communist horde to swarm over the DMZ.

We were bantering about the upcoming squadron Halloween party and making lewd suggestions about what each person should wear. Nonchalantly, Lieutenant Salas changed the game. He suggested I tie a rag around my head and come as Aunt Jemima. Every keyboard, every phone, every conversation in the room fell silent.

The only woman and the only black in the room, I scanned the faces of my flight mates for clues about how to process this radioactive taunt. Salas became fascinated with the coffee in his cup. Then the snickering began. Though still wide-eyed with shock, my buddies couldn't stifle guffaws. Now Salas looked up, proud of himself. He threw me a challenging look.

"All right, sir," I said. "I'll wear a head rag and come as Aunt Jemima if you'll dry your back off and come as an American." I put my hands on my hips and stared him down.

Pandemonium erupted. Charlie Flight rolled on the floor in Caucasian delight.

Salas turned beet red but was man enough to laugh. He extended his hand. I shook it. When our shift ended at 6 a.m., we all went out drinking. And Lieutenant Salas taught me to two-step.



Now, I know and you know that this piece was published in a conservative magazine at a time when the U.S. Military has been getting a lot of bad press in re sex and other scandals. I will add that my daughter, who is now in her third year at Annapolis, finds it misleading. She points out that Ms.Dickerson is naive if she thinks that she didn't get many of her chances precisely because the military is under pressure to assimilate non-Caucasions and women and, thus, that her superiors scored more points for themselves by promoting her as opposed to what may have been equally qualified white males.

Still, as I read her story and think about the places in which I have lived and worked--Taiwan and Japan, where education is, like in the military, regimented, hierarchical, test-driven and totally committed to teaching a standard, national language regardless of the hometalk (Hokkien, Hakka, Korean, Ainu...) of many of its students--I find a good deal to think about.

Yes, we are talking about systems dedicated, among other things, to turning out good capitalist tools, systems where the "examination hell" is, in fact, hellish, which are, nonetheless, pretty good at giving all the children who go through them a fair shot at the opportunities their societies offer. Will Oakland's school system do the same for its kids?


Date: Sun, 22 Dec 1996 10:19:39 +0900 From: (John McCreery) Subject: Re: Black English Sender: To: (Leanne Hinton) Cc: MIME-version: 1.0 Precedence: bulk

>When I attended the school board meeting where the Ebonics resolution was adopted, all discussion in support of the resolution, by board members, parents, and teachers, was centered around the importance of teaching standard English to children. This resolution is not about teaching Black English, but about the best way of teaching standard English.

>We should applaud the Oakland School Board for a sensible decision, and stop bothering them with all this bad-mouthing, jive, guff, and hullaballoo (four calques and loanwords that come to American English from African languages via Black English); and let them get on with the task of implementing their new policy.
>Leanne Hinton >Professor of Linguistics >University of California at Berkeley When I wrote my own thoughts "Re: Black English," I had not yet read Leanne Hinton's wise and persuasive editorial whose stance I would like to second. I would only add that, speaking personally, I would do more than "let them [the Oakland School Board] get on with the task of implementing their new policy." I will would to my congressman, senators, officials in the Dept. of Education, applauding the initiative and expressing support for its funding. I would also suggest to my colleagues who are in a position to do so that they keep a close scholarly eye on what is, in fact, an important social experiment.

As described by Dr. Hinton, the School Board is acting in what it sees as the best interest of its children. The prima facie case is strong. It does seem more reasonable to start with "Here is what you are doing....There is what they are doing...Let's see if we can do both" that "What you are doing is wrong...we're going to try to make you do it right" as an approach to adding command of "standard" English to command of "Black" English. Will it work? Under what circumstances? With what institutional and community support? It is time to wait, watch and reserve judgment until some results are in.

Happy Holidays.

John McCreery