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Black opportunity destruction

Walter Williams's picture

“Do you mean he is taller than me am?” sarcastically barked Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, to one of the students in our class.

The student actually said, “He is taller than me,” but Rosenberg was ridiculing the student’s grammar. The subject of the elliptical (or understood) verb “am” must be in the subjective case. Thus, the correct form of the sentence is: He is taller than I.

This correction/dressing down of a student, that occasionally included me, occurred during my attendance at North Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin High School in the early ‘50s.

Franklin was predominantly black; its students were poor or low middle class. On top of that, Franklin had just about the lowest academic standing in the city. All of our teachers, except two or three, were white. Despite the fact that we were poor, most of Franklin’s teachers held fairly high standards and expectations.

Today, high standards and expectations, at some schools, would mean trouble for a teacher. Teachers, as pointed out in one teaching program, are encouraged to “Recognize and understand the cultural differences among students from diverse backgrounds, and treat such differences with respect. Intervene immediately, should a fellow student disparage a black student’s culture or language.”

That means if a black student says, “I be wiff him” or “He axed me a question,” teachers shouldn’t bother to correct the student’s language. What’s more, should anyone disparage or laugh at the way the student speaks, the teacher should intervene in his defense. Correcting the student’s speech might be deemed as insensitive to diversity at best and racism at worst, leading possibly to a teacher’s reprimand, termination and possibly assault.

A teacher’s job is to teach and failure to correct a student’s speech, just as failure to correct a math error, is a dereliction of duty.

You might say, “Williams, Ebonics or black English is part of the cultural roots of black people and to disparage it is racism.”

That’s utter nonsense. During the 1940s and 1950s, I lived in North Philadelphia’s Richard Allen housing project, along with its most famous resident, Bill Cosby. We all were poor or low middle class but no one spoke black English.

My wife was the youngest of 10 children. Listening to her brothers and sisters speak, compared to many of her nieces and nephews, you wouldn’t believe they were in the same family.

The difference has nothing to do with cultural roots of black people. The difference is that parents, teachers and others in authority over youngsters have become less judgmental, politically correct and lazy; therefore, speaking poorly is accepted.

Language is our tool of communication. If a person has poor oral language skills, he’s likely to have poor writing, reading and comprehension skills.

To my knowledge, there are no books in any field of study written in Ebonics or black English. It is very likely that a person with poor language skills will suffer significant deficits in other areas of academic competence such as mathematics and the sciences.

It doesn’t mean that the person is unintelligent; it means that he doesn’t have all the tools of intelligence.

That is what’s so insidious about the state of black education today; so many blacks do not have a chance to develop the tools of intelligence. Many might have high native intelligence but come off sounding like a moron.

Black Americans should thank God that non-judgmental, politically correct people weren’t around during the early civil rights movement when blacks began breaking discriminatory barriers. Discriminatory employers would have had ready-made excuses not to hire a black as a trolley car motorman, cashier or department store sales clerk.

There are some significant challenges to being judgmental and politically incorrect and insisting on proper language. A professor or teacher can get cursed out by students or parents. A black student who speaks well, carries books and studies can be accused of “acting white” and find himself shunned and assaulted by other students.

I would be interested in hearing the teaching establishment’s defense of permitting poor language.

[Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.] COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM


Thank you for relating your personal experience as a black man. No one can argue with what you say - but some have had a different experience. I was raised in a home where 'black' dialect was respected as a 'second' language. We were exposed to the poetry of Langston Hughes and other black authors who used black dialect to bring reality to their method of communicating their ideas. We were also taught the importance of speaking English correctly. Bill Cosby, who was raised in your community in Philadelphia, has used both black dialect and correct English to achieve his accomplishments. During the 50's and 60's, in Los Angeles, persons of color who spoke with a distinct 'southern' accent were scrutinized carefully. (There was a belief that those who spoke with a southern accent would not be accepted in certain areas of the city.) Of course those who spoke incorrect English were eliminated in the oral interview. Many in my family are proud of their 'bi-lingual ability'. My mother graduated from UCLA in 1932; my grandfather graduated from USC; many others in my family are college graduates and all are 'bi-lingual'. We were never taught that the uniqueness of our cultural language roots was demeaning. We were taught that it was necessary to speak English correctly - but we were also taught to enjoy the rhythm and flow of 'black dialect'. Those in my mothers generation often shared with us memorized poems by celebrated black authors using black dialect. Appreciating and being able to use 'black dialect' did not deter anyone in my family from speaking English correctly. The reality of today is that many Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, do not correctly speak or write English. I agree that allowing students to speak incorrect English is shameful. There are teaching methods that correct without belittling. In my day, these methods were used in the home. <cite> To my knowledge, there are no books in any field of study written in Ebonics or black English. It is very likely that a person with poor language skills will suffer significant deficits in other areas of academic competence such as mathematics and the sciences.</cite> What a shame that you have not been exposed to an African-American literature class. Alice Walker wrote <strong>The Color Purple</strong> using 'black' dialect. She is an excellent American writer who is proficient in the use of correct English. Note: <strong>Possessing the Secret of Joy</strong>

I do not disagree with your disgust with Black students who do not speak correct English. I am disgusted with American students who do not speak correct English. We allow Americans of the Jewish culture their unique language in communicating; the Hispanic culture; the Asian culture; etc. without demeaning their cultural 'take' on the English language. I hope I'm wrong in assuming that you are demeaning 'black dialect' rather than expressing your sadness that not all Americans speak English correctly - especially those of your cultural roots.

dawn69's picture

Consider this excerpt from Ferrol Sams' "FUBAR" - The Widow's Mite & Other Stories:

"My granddaddy taught me to work and he learned me to be tough and not ever cry about anything. Just like he learned my mama and all her brothers and sisters. School teachers all tell you that you ought to say taught instead of learned, but my granddaddy taught me how to work and he learned me not to cry, and if anyone can't tell the difference, all I can say is one of them lets you talk to folks and guide them and the other one just needs a set jaw with an eye that can shrivel your feelings like salt in a snail's shell...".

Ferrol Sams is an author, Korean War veteran (M.A.S.H. unit), and retired doctor from right here in our own Fayetteville, Georgia. He writes in the vernacular, but believe you me, when you'd sit in his office and listen to him give dictation on whatever it was that's ailing you - he's no dummy.

The vernacular in literature is, as you say, lyrical with rhythm and motion. However, on a job interview; well, it may not fair you too well.

Students in school, however, should be taught proper English and corrected when necessary. When my daughter asked me to teach her how to paint I told her that I'd be glad to, but first she needed to learn to draw. When you've learned the basic concepts of color theory, value, perspective, design, texture, line and composition - then you can use those tools and build upon them even if you chose to paint in the abstract. There must be a solid foundation.

<"The most beautiful things in life cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart." - Helen Keller>

I think this is the same gentleman that I heard when I first arrived in Fayetteville and attended a Black History event. He recited MLK's <cite>I Have A Dream</cite> speech. He used the 'tonal quality' of Dr. King - and it didn't make one difference that his skin color was of a different hue. You're so right about the need for a solid foundation - in whatever one attempts to accomplish. Many in the 'black' community realize that there is much work to be done to reintroduce the concept of 'bi-lingualism'. . . the reality is that there is much work to be done with all of our American children in teaching the basics of speaking and writing using correct English - and knowing the difference between correct English and the vernacular used by some.

Shannon, I understand your appreciation of his contributions to our community. I never liked him as a Doctor. I lost most all respect for him when I happened to be seated at a nearby table one night in Jasper at a restaurant and listened to him repeat a number of truly crude jokes. And I'm guessing you don't know what the expansion of "FUBAR" is.

Just started reading Sams DOWN TOWN. One learns alot about a region when reading the works of a respected author.

My Speech Development prof (a black woman) told us the same thing. At home her family/friends spoke one way and at school/work another way. She told us that the problem lies when you have persons that do not have the intellectual ability to make the switch. Those people learn to speak what is spoken in the home and simply can't make the transition. It is, more or less, speaking two languages. The problem in the schools today is that if a white teacher corrects a black student, the teacher is usually called on it (by the student) which further disrupts the class. So, correct and go on? Ignore? I don't claim to have any answers. I correct and go on because that is just me. However, if I were repeatedly called a racist for doing so...I would just stop. We have to pick and choose our battles.

I applaud you for 'correcting'! I understand the problem. Years ago there was an instructional program for urban youth called 'The Man's Language'. It assisted teachers in instructing students who spoke poor or non-standard English. When one works in a community where the parents and grand parents are comfortable speaking non-standard English - it doesn't matter if you're black or white - it is indeed a challenge! Stick with your principles - but I certainly understand you have to choose your battles. Keep up the good work!

<cite>She told us that the problem lies when you have persons that do not have the intellectual ability to make the switch.</cite>

After giving this sentence some thought - and discussing it with others who speak a 'second language' - it was brought out that it is not the intellectual ability that is the deterrent to speaking a language correctly, it is the lack of exposure to 'correct' language. . .or the assumption that the 'correct' language is foreign or 'white' language and not to be 'learned' or 'used'. In today’s world of TV, all have the opportunity to hear 'correct' language used by persons of all colors. There is a real need for parent/grandparent education, involvement in this area. I remember my friends who had the opportunity to live with grandparents who did not speak 'correct' English (they actually spoke German, Japanese, Spanish, etc.) - sometimes expressing 'shame'. Those who did not view their grandparent’s lack of English proficiency as shameful- and learned the language of their grandparents were fortunate to become bi-lingual.

I should have explained more thoroughly...this was a speech and language development class that deals largely with those students that are in special education. After I read you comments I realized that you may have thought I was referring to a speech class as in publicly speaking in front of an audience. I forget that not everyone lives in my world!! Sorry. The topic at hand was what to do with those students that can't make the "switch;" do we continue to try or would our time be better spent working on something that we can remediate? The prof advised that those that are slow learners and/or mildly retarded are typically unable to make the transition and our time may be better spent working in areas that we can improve. Correct and move on, right? As for those that are capable of making the switch but choose not to??? I guess that is their business. I still correct and move on.

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