When the headlines appeared this week that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had issued a request to hire up to nine linguists proficient in Ebonics, it appeared it might be yet another cruel joke about the language of African-Americans. After all, who can forget the onslaught of racist “humor” and the angry vitriolic comments that circulated internationally after the “Oakland Ebonics controversy” a little over a decade ago.
The DEA may not have known the full ramifications of its decision to label the language of many African-Americans, “Ebonics,” but we bet they know now. The word itself is a controversy. The truth is, very few people would have even realized that the DEA was hiring over two thousand linguistic experts fluent in over one hundred different language varieties had “Ebonics” not been on the list. But what is causing this uproar? What can we learn from this moment? What does this highlight about the relationships between language, race, and power in America? As a linguist and a legal scholar we hope to offer an analysis that will allow us to learn from this moment.
The firestorm due to the DEA’s request to hire experts in “Ebonics” highlights several educational, social, and linguistic ironies, each of which can help us understand issues of language and race in the United States and globally. First, from a linguistic perspective it is upsetting — and quite frankly, frustrating — that after decades of linguistic evidence and research trying to convince the larger public that the language variety of African-Americans (known by linguists as “African-American Language” or “African-American Vernacular English”, AAVE) is systematic and rule-governed, the only people we have managed to convince is the DEA.
As evidenced by the spate of caustic, hateful responses on Internet websites, so many Americans continue to believe that the language variety of African-Americans is nothing but “substandard,” a “bastardization of English,” or “just plain ignorant.” The irony here is, of course, that those who continue to make such comments are only highlighting their own ignorance about language, as these statements cannot be supported by scientific evidence, nor are they given any credence by the Linguistic Society of America. In fact, linguists note that such comments represent mere social judgments based in classist, racist views of black people (even if made by black folks themselves).
In the DEA’s list of languages, it is both interesting and instructive that “Ebonics” falls right in between “Ebo,” a Nigerian language often referred to as Igbo, and “English.” What many do not know is that much of the distinctiveness of the language of African-Americans is due to the language contact situation created by slavery, where African languages (with Igbo being one of them) came into contact with European languages (in this case, English). The language variety developed in a unique manner due to centuries of de jure and de facto segregation and is now the most widely studied variety in the United States.
African-Americans continue to develop the language variety, as it has become an important symbol of ethnic identity, political solidarity, and cultural pride. What the uninformed refer to as a “bastardization of English” is actually not unlike the many varieties of Creole that have grown out of similar language contact situations around the world. In short, “Ebonics” which is is the linguistic legacy of the African slave trade, decades of legal and social segregation, and the denial of formal education to generations of African-Americans. It is, in part, the linguistic result of white supremacist, state-sponsored oppression and neglect.
The truth is that the language variety spoken by many African-Americans is distinct enough from Standard English to be terribly misinterpreted. It is of particular importance that it is understood to be a language and treated as such in the judicial system. African-Americans are grotesquely overrepresented at every stage in the criminal justice system. And African-Americans are the most likely Americans to be subject to crime of various sorts. The effectiveness of criminal investigations depends upon an ability to interpret evidence. Despite the fact that African American vernacular is often mimicked and is popular on the nation’s airwaves, fluency in this language is not the norm.
And despite the fact that it is a language that is denigrated by being characterized as “broken” or “ignorant,” it is in fact, a language and as such, any given person may or may not be competent in it. Not all African-Americans are fluent in it, and it is not exclusively spoken by African-Americans. Many of its speakers are also fluent in standard English and “switch codes” depending upon context and audience. Like any other language, it is learned and there are varying level of competence among speakers. AAVE remains a primary language in poor and working class African-American communities across the country. If our criminal justice system is to more effectively protect the residents of communities that are most likely to be the victims of crime, then knowledge of the languages spoken by perpetrators, witnesses, and victims is key.
Moreover, in every language community in which investigations of criminal activity are taking place, investigators seek translators. They seek speakers of Korean, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. African-American language is no outlier in this respect. What is different is that ignorance and bigotry have clouded judgment in this instance.
The risks of having DEA and other criminal investigators who are not competent in African-American language might be even greater than in other instances. There is abundant evidence of discriminatory treatment of black suspects in every aspect of the criminal justice system. There is also a great deal of research which reveals widespread unconscious discriminatory bias in U.S. culture. A misunderstanding of words in the law enforcement context is a recipe for disaster in such a context. When there is uncertainty about the content of speech, the presence of racial bias increases the possibility that investigators will presume a meaning to words or phrases that confirm negative stereotypes about Black criminality.
In this instance Ebonics experts are being hired for DEA investigations. But language experts can and do serve an important role in various kinds of legal processes. For example, housing discrimination cases often rely upon the evidence of what John Baugh calls, “linguistic profiling,” or the use of speech markers as a basis of discriminatory treatment. It is essential that we understand how proxies for race, like speech and style, are used to discriminate.
In the 1999 Clifford v. Commonwealth case, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that a witness could testify that a person speaking on the telephone “sounded Black” without violating the rules of evidence. The problem the court faced in it’s opinion was that because there is such little knowledge about black English as a language, the testimony and the courts affirmation of that testimony came across sounding like speaking AAVE was somehow inborn or inherent to black people. It is not. However, courts can and should be attuned to the appropriate assessment of language as a source of evidence and identification.
There is a serious educational point to be made here and it is perhaps the most tragic irony highlighted by the DEA’s decision to hire experts in “Ebonics.” For decades, linguists and educators, including their leading national organizations, have maintained the position that the language of African-Americans (as well as “Chicano English,” “Puerto Rican English,” varieties of Spanish and indigenous varieties), can be a powerful and effective tool be used in classrooms in order teach students how to transition between “African-American language” and “standard English.” Globally, we have research that supports this fact: Wherever you have students who speak marginalized language varieties that are different from the “standard,” it is actually beneficial to use the language of the students as a resource to learn the “standard.”
So, the tragic irony is that while schools and educational policy-makers continue to deny the legitimacy of African-American language, the DEA has no problem doing so. Rather than waiting until youth turn to criminal activity as a way out of poverty, we first need to recognize the pedagogical value of African-American language in schools as a way to stop America’s “school-to-prison” pipeline before it begins. In short, the legitimacy of African-American language is needed from the educational arm of the federal government, not the enforcement arm.
For over three decades educators and linguists have diligently been making this point in the classroom and in the courts. In 1979 the case of Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children et al. v. Ann Arbor School District was decided in a federal district court in Michigan. The suit was brought on behalf of African-American students who suffered academically because the Ann Arbor school system did not take the fact that they were AAVE speakers into account as a matter to be addressed in instruction. The court ruled on behalf of the students in that case, and yet 31 years later we have not instituted a means of addressing the role of language in sustaining educational inequality and nurturing this society’s opportunity gap.
Finally, the DEA’s Ebonics can of worms exposes the ugly underbelly of anti-Black racism in the United States (just check the long list of Internet comments, and those that will surely follow this article). Rather than spouting off ugly comments that expose our ignorance, readers should take the time to inform themselves. University libraries are filled with linguistic studies of the language of African-Americans that point out that the variety is systematic and rule-governed like all language varieties. In inserting “Ebonics” in its list of languages, the DEA has infuriated many Americans because the mere inclusion of the variety by a governmental body legitimizes it to some extent (despite the negative and unhelpful link to the criminalization of African-Americans). We should ask ourselves: Why am I so infuriated by the legitimization of the language of African-Americans? Are my feelings based in scientific analysis or social prejudice? African-Americans who immediately decry the the existence or recognition of Ebonics must ask themselves if they are motivated by shame or legitimate concerns.
If the response to this moment devolves into ridicule and shame, we lose an important opportunity to improve a deeply flawed and unequal system. Instead of making this about bigoted and classist jokes about “drug dealers,” let’s use it as an opportunity to learn more about the people who live in this society, and do a better job of protecting them.
As part of this opportunity, we must recognize that, since all language varieties, including “Ebonics,” Igbo and English, are deemed equal by linguists (folks who devote their lives to studying language), it is only our prejudice and the lack of political will that prevents us from valuing and legitimizing a given language. Standard English is not the standard because it is superior, but because it was and is the language of the powerful. Sharing power in a multi-ethnic democracy requires both making standard English accessible to all of the nation’s children, and valuing all of the nation’s languages. After all, how we feel about a particular language is a strong indicator of how we feel about its speakers. Check yourself.