Tuesday, September 06, 2005


A Cal State sociology professor recently convinced the education pooh-bahs in San Bernardino of the need to incorporate "Ebonics" into their curriculum--at least on a limited basis. By giving official linguistic recognition and respect to what most people consider street-talk, these officials hope to peak the interest of marginal students and to discourage them from dropping out of school.

Unfortunately, none of these lofty objectives were achieved by Oakland’s experiment in substandard English. And now Professor Thomas Sowell has written an extended essay--contained in the book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals--that helps explain why.

Ebonics, Sowell argues, is not a distinctive black language. Instead, it is a dialect with an undistinguished pedigree that includes Southerners of both races and extends back to the borderlands between Britain and Scotland. Terms like "yawl," "dis," and "dat" as well as verbal constructs like "I be" and "she ain’t" were common in the more primitive regions of those countries--areas which provided a substantial number of emigrants to the American South. Thus, what some academics have labeled "Ebonics" is really an Anglo-Saxon export associated with a pre-Enlightenment "cracker" culture.

Characteristics of that culture in America have been described by observers ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to W.E.B. DuBois: less interest in education, anemic entrepreneurial activity, undisciplined work habits, emphasis on immediate gratification, intoxication, ostentatious display, an exaggerated sense of personal pride, frequent duels, and lax sexual mores. These accounts focus, by and large, on white "redneck" culture. But the same traits naturally defined most of the non-white inhabitants of the South who had no contact with the African cultures from which they were s eparated by thousands of miles and several generations.

Significantly, not all black Americans (and not all white Southerners) were part of or remained tied to this culture that originated in foreign territories where lawlessness made an emphasis on long-range planning futile. Sowell points to blacks in the North whose manners and speech patterns were reflective of those found in the population among which they lived--at least prior to the unwelcome northern migration of Southern blacks in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Sowell also notes the impact of schools established in the South after the Civil War by religiously-motivated New Englanders. These "New England enclaves" not only produced a disproportionate share of black leaders, they also inculcated in their students an ethic that replaced the dysfunctional ethos in which they had been immersed from birth. DuBois himself praised these efforts as "the finest thing in American history."

West Indian migrants constitute a third group whose stunning accomplishments have been inversely related to their participation in "redneck" culture. These individuals, also exposed to the "legacy of slavery" in the Caribbean, became entrepreneurs in Harlem, comprised a huge percentage of black graduates at Ivy League schools, and in the 1930’s were actually less likely than whites to spend time in New York’s Sing Sing Prison.

The upshot of Sowell's analysis is this: Ebonics is more closely associated with a dysfunctional redneck culture than with any distinctive black identity. As the Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal observed, "the so-called 'Negro dialect' is simply a variation on the ordinary Southern accent."

The utter irony of the Ebonics fad is that while most whites and many blacks have escaped the clutches of this once-prevalent culture, some intellectuals seem hell-bent on perpetuating and even expanding its scope. By identifying the language of redneck culture with racial pride, academics succeed in linking racial identity with a world of violence, ignorance, and hair-trigger resentment--with values nowadays commercially disseminated via gangsta rap. No wonder Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. recently lamented that black youths commonly view educational accomplishment as selling out to "da man."

The KKK would be ecstatic with these results--not having the wit to see that they exist as cousins in the same cultural backwater. Misery loves company.

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