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An Analysis of the Media Coverage in the Course of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics

Excerpt

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

1. WHAT IS EBONICS/AFRICAN AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH
1.1 ORIGIN AND BACKGROUND
1.2 EBONICS/AAVE CHARACTERISTICS

2. THE EBONICS CONTROVERSY
2.1 THE OAKLAND CASE
2.2 EXCURSUS: THE BLACK ENGLISH TRIAL AT THE ANN ARBOR SCHOOL

3. MEDIA RESPONSE
3.1 RESEARCH DESIGN
3.2 MAIN POINTS OF CONTROVERSY
ISSUE #1: IS EBONICS A DISTINCT LANGUAGE OR MERELY SLANG? IS EBONICS INCORRECT
ENGLISH?
ISSUE #2: BASIC MISUNDERSTANDING: STUDENTS WILL BE TAUGHT IN EBONICS/AAVE
ISSUE #3: DOES RECOGNIZING MINORITY SPEECH PATTERNS IMPROVE STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE
OR IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM IN GENERAL?
ISSUE #4: FUNDING FOR LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY STUDENTS OR EBONICS SPEAKERS
3.3 OVERALL IMPRESSION

4. LINGUISTS’ RESPONSE TO MEDIA CRITICISM
4.1 RACISM IN THE NEWS
4.2 LESSONS LEARNED FROM OAKLAND
4.3 NEED FOR EDUCATION

CONCLUSION

WORKS CITED

LIST OF TABLES

Table 1: Articles containing the keyword „Ebonics“ from December 19th, 1996 until February 19th, 1997 in The New York Times

Table 2: Articles containing the keyword "Ebonics" from December 19th, 1996 until February 19th, 1997 in the New York Daily News

INTRODUCTION

The United States is characterized by extensive linguistic diversity. One variation of American English has always been at the centre of scholarly research and publications - African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In 1990, the African Americans made up 12 percent of the total population, which corresponds to 39.930.524 people of whom it is estimated that 80-90 percent speak AAVE. Because of its distinctiveness and its omnipresence in music and culture, AAVE has always been of great interest to sociolinguistic scholars. Especially since the “Oakland Ebonics Controversy” in 1996, lively debates about AAVE and the educational crisis facing African American students can be found in public discourses and in the media.

The Oakland School District’s proposal to use Ebonics to help African-American children learn Standard English met with much opposition. Few people supported the Oakland resolution which, backed by the LSA, acknowledged Ebonics as a language variety replete with its own syntax, structure, and grammatical rules. Although the issue of language and educational equity for African American students has been discussed many times before, basic opinions and prejudices of the US American society have not changed.

In the following text, this issue will be examined from two different perspectives. First, an analysis of opinion articles published in two major newspapers will present and argue basic core elements of the media’s critique. Thereafter, the linguists’ response concerning the media debate will be portrayed. Many linguists discussed the subject and critically assessed the way the media dealt with the hotly debated topic and the way it was represented. The crucial question is; why was there such a public outcry, despite the fact that the fundamental issues attending language diversity and education in Oakland differed little from those that language professionals have dealt with for several decades? And secondly, what can be learned from this.

1. WHAT IS EBONICS/AFRICAN AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH

1.1 ORIGIN AND BACKGROUND

Many different labels are used to refer to the English variety of AAVE. In her academic work Green (2002, pp. , 6) lists the best-known starting with “Negro dialect”, “American Negro Speech” and “Black English Vernacular” through to “African American Language”, “African American English” (AAE) and AAVE. The latter terms are most common amongst linguists today and all refer to the same variety.

In recent public discussions, especially after the “Oakland Ebonics Controversy”, the media as well as the general public adopted the term ‘Ebonics’ used synonymously as an umbrella term for all the aforementioned labels, though originally the term was defined different differently. The term ‘Ebonics` was first introduced by the African American psychologist Robert Williams combining ‘ebony’ and ‘phonetics’ in 1973. He defined Ebonics as “the linguistic and paralinguistic features, which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin” (pp. Williams 1975, v; qtd. in Baugh 2001, 708-709). He was looking for a specialized term different to Black English or AAE in order to emphasize the consequences of the African slave trade during the European colonization of North and South America. According to Williams, the Ebonics speaker is an African slave descendant who lives in former slave trading colonies that use European languages such as English, Spanish or Portuguese as their sovereign national language. Therefore, the term has to be viewed as an international construct covering the multitude of languages spoken by black people not only in the United States. Williams considered that the language of African Americans to be rooted in Niger-Congo languages of Africa and not in Indo-European languages and thus distinct from Standard American English (SAE), with set phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical patterns.

Today, Ebonics is the most widely known public term for AAVE and is used frequently in the discussion about the Oakland Ebonics Controversy. Essentially both expressions refer to the same sets of speech forms, albeit with a slightly different connotation than the original term. Hereafter, the terms Ebonics and AAVE will be used synonymously even if both terms are not exactly identical, recognizing that the Oakland School Board and the media used Ebonics instead of AAVE.

Scholars of linguistics and communication (cf. Means Coleman 2003, Smitherman 1977) widely agree on the essential points of how Ebonics was “created” and shaped. It is assumed that “cultural interaction took place cross-linguistically among preslavery and enslaved Africans via ‘bridge-languages’ so that members across African nations could communicate” (Means Coleman, 2003, p. 415). Secondly, because of creolization practices Ebonics is rooted in many African languages such as Bantu, Hausa and Swahili. A further important influence came from slave masters during the times of slave trade and colonialism. For purposes of control and oppression the system of slavery forbade communication between the slaves and even separated those with tribal affiliations. That, subsequently, included the prohibition of learning how to read and write English. In order to overcome those barriers, nonverbal communication, symbols, Christian songs and Bible verses were used to communicate. “Ebonics was born, then, as a language that reflects its African roots, as well as Euro-English, and particularly white Southern influences.” (Means Coleman, 2003, p. 415)

1.2 EBONICS/AAVE CHARACTERISTICS

“If we assume modestly that [Ebonics/AAVE] is learned as the native language variety of 60% of the more than 35 million persons of African American descent in the U.S., then there are probably more than 20 million people for whom this is the ´first dialect`” (Collins, 1999, p. 204). Ebonics/AAVE has distinctive features from other varieties of SAE and its speakers use them consistently, albeit with regional varieties in the United States. In order to show that Ebonics/AAVE is a legitimate language system that is based on rules, several selected characteristics will be presented in the following.

The tendency to reduce final consonant clusters, or more precisely pronouncing words that end in two consonants (‘hand’ or ‘past’) as if there is only one ([han] or [pas]) is a pervasive phonological feature of Ebonics/AAVE. Pronouncing initial dental consonants (‘thin’ or ‘then’) as alveolar stops ([tin] or [ten]) is also prevalent amongst Ebonics speakers. Some American English dialects, however, share these features. Other phonological characteristics are unique to Ebonics like the r-deletion between vowels as in Carol > Ca ’ ol.

“Grammatically, the features that are most distinctive of [Ebonics], and the ones that have been most engaging to linguistics, are in the verb phrase” (Rickford, 2003, p. 42). That is, for example, the absence of the present tense forms of the copula such as You crazy or She working now. Standard English requires are and is in such expressions, respectively. Another typical grammatical features of Ebonics is the double negative construction, as in I didn ’ t see nothing and the absence of possessive -s (the dog’ tail) and of the third person singular -s (she walk a lot).

Certain words or phrases of Ebonics have a specialized or unique meaning but are virtually unknown to white Americans or other ethnic groups, such as “ashy for the appearance of black skin in winter, and kitchen for the especially kinky hair at the nape of ones neck”(Rickford, 2003, p. 42).

To be sure, the rules of Ebonics are just as numerous and detailed as those of SAE and cannot be fully explicated here. It should be emphasized, „that there are substantiated, largely comprehensible variations of standard English across America and around the world, and so too is Ebonics one of those documented, comprehensible variations of standard English“ (Means Coleman, 2003, p. 7).

2. THE EBONICS CONTROVERSY

2.1 THE OAKLAND CASE

On 18 December 1996, a Californian school-board meeting triggered worldwide media frenzy. The Oakland Unified School District issued a statement, known as the Ebonics resolution (Original Oakland Resolution on Ebonics, 1996), announcing that its educational policy would change to reflect the local linguistic situation in Oakland. The city of Oakland is a poor city on the east side of San Francisco where half of the population is African American. The issue was that far too many African American school children, 53 percent of students in the District, were not acquiring the necessary proficiency in Standard English and reading to facilitate academic success and career mobility. According to the Oakland Task Force on the Education of African American Students, a lack of Standard English skills was the reason for African American students performing poorly in school. The task force also uncovered some startling facts about their students, in part: 71 percent of special education students were African American, 67 percent of truant students were African American, and 80 percent of all students suspended were African American.

Due to the low level of student performance in the district, the Oakland School Board (OSB) passed a resolution declaring that Ebonics was the primary language of its black students - not an English dialect, but a separate, legitimate and rich language. It recommended that African American students’ learning achievement could be improved by employing Ebonics as a teaching tool. Since the members of the School Board took the view that Ebonics was a language distinct from Standard English that should be recognized and tolerated, the resolution announced that the financially stricken district would consider the possibility of applying for state funds as a support similar to that available for bilingual programs for Asians and Hispanics.

“A storm of protest and commentary arose in the next few days, and continued for more than two months, in magazines, television shows, newspapers, on email lists, at public forums, and professional conferences” (Collins, 1999, p. 202). Prominent African-American political and cultural figures gave their opinions on the case in numerous television and radio news shows. The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) at its Winter Meeting also discussed the issue in early January 1997. They voted in favour of a resolution in support of the OSB proposal (LSA Resolution on the Oakland "Ebonics" Issue, 1997). Having faced heavy criticism, the School Board modified - only marginally - its original proposal (Amended

Resolution of the Board of Education, 1997) one month after the original resolution was proposed. “The OSB did not change the core proposal that Ebonics be recognized as a legitimate medium of instruction and that resources be allocated for preparing teachers and materials to that end” (Collins, 1999, p. 203). Local and national Newspapers printed editorial comments on the Ebonics issue and interviewed experts on linguistics such as William Labov. In particular, the “Opinion” sections served as a platform for intensive exchange of views and opinions. Throughout February, March and April the high level of public awareness and media attention slowly faded away.

2.2 EXCURSUS: THE BLACK ENGLISH TRIAL AT THE ANN ARBOR SCHOOL

In the 1970s, a legal precedent was set for focusing upon language and educational equity. The widely publicised court case involved parents of African American school children from the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School and the Ann Arbor School District Board. The eleven black students had been a minority in their school. The main issue before the court was whether the School Board had violated a section of Title 20 of the United States Code.

That code prohibits any state from denying equal educational opportunity to an individual on account of his or her race because an educational agency failed to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs. (Jackson, 1997, p. 21)

After testimony from witnesses and linguistic experts on AAVE relying on the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 it was successfully argued that the reason African American students were disproportionally represented in low-ability reading groups and in the district’s special education classes was that their language was unrecognised in the curriculum, instruction and teachers’ assessment. The judge ordered the Ann Arbor School District to present and subsequently implement a structured plan to lessen the gap between AAVE and Standard English. As a result of a 1981 federal regulation that Black English is neither a foreign nor an American Indian language and, therefore, ineligible for federal funding, the Ann Arbor board followed the court’s instructions only for one year, because the resources were exhausted. However, within this year “special resources provided to the plaintiff students substantially improved their reading abilities” (Jackson, 1997, p. 22).

3. MEDIA RESPONSE

3.1 RESEARCH DESIGN

It is estimated that more than 2.500 articles, editorials, columns, and letters have been published in various American newspapers during the first weeks after the board’s resolution (Jackson, 1997, p. 23). The main source of data concerning the media’s response to the issue of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy in this work will be the American daily newspaper “The New York Times” (NYT) and the New York newspaper “Daily News” (DN). NYT is the largest local metropolitan newspaper in the United States with a print run of 1.124.700 on weekdays and is distributed internationally. The DN is also one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the United States with a circulation of 795.000 and is printed in tabloid form. All articles of both newspapers that have been printed are available and free of charge at the newspapers’ websites and are therefore an excellent basis for analysis.

The articles that will be taken into account were published within two months after the Ebonics Resolution was issued - from the December 19th, 1996 until February 19th, 1997. In total, 42 articles containing the keyword “Ebonics” were printed within this period in the NYT - nearly one article every day. The NYT is organized into several sections: World, U.S., Politics, N.Y./Region, Business, Technology, Sports, Science, Health, Opinion, Arts, Movies, Music, Television, Theater, Style and Travel. The following table shows how many articles were printed in which section.

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Table 3: Articles containing the keyword „Ebonics“ from December 19th, 1996 until February 19th, 1997 in The New York Times

It should be noted that some articles can be assigned to more than one section, such as U.S. and Education at the same time. Whereas articles from the “Education” and “New York and Region” section largely reported very impartially and objectively about the Oakland Ebonics issue, a heated debate took place in the “Opinion” section.

Fewer articles covering the Ebonics topic were published in the New York DN, which can be divided into similar sections (table 2). Here, the “Opinion” sections covers eleven articles.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 4: Articles containing the keyword "Ebonics" from December 19th, 1996 until February 19th, 1997 in the New York Daily News

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Details

Pages
22
Year
2010
ISBN (eBook)
9783640646548
ISBN (Book)
9783640646203
File size
587 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v152510
Institution / College
University of Leipzig
Grade
1,3
Tags
Ebonics African American Vernacular Englisch AAVE Oakland Ann Arbor Dialect Racism The New York Times Media Coverage Distinct Language New York Daily News LSA Media Critique Language Variety Funding Language Diversity Language Minority Speakers

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Title: An Analysis of the Media Coverage in the Course of the Oakland Ebonics Controversy