Hooked on Ebonics

Reading the San Bernadino County Sun on Sunday, you might have thought for a second that something big was going on. But if you tried to put your finger on exactly what, you’d have a tough time pinning the thing down.

The culprit of the confusion was an article headlined “Ebonics suggested for district.” The headline certainly grabs, especially given that this is coming from the state where nearly ten years ago the Oakland School Board ruled unanimously to teach Ebonics (which some argue is a dialect of English spoken by some African-Americans) in school as a second language, then backed off. That 1996 decision opened up a floodgate of debates and debacles over the place of Ebonics in the classroom. If San Bernadino was now following Oakland’s lead with its own integration of Ebonics into the curriculum, that would be huge news.

But from the San Bernadino County Sun piece, there is no way to know if that is what’s actually going on. It’s a near nightmare to parse out the facts of San Bernadino’s “new school policy” — what has been proposed, what has passed, what is already in practice, and where the heck Ebonics fits in.

The piece, written by Irma Lemus, says that “A pilot of the policy, known as the ‘Students Accumulating New Knowledge Optimizing Future Accomplishment Initiative,’ has been implemented at two city schools.” What it doesn’t say, ever, is a pilot of what policy? We learn in the lede that the policy “targets black students,” and the next graf tells us that “The goal of the district’s policy is to improve black students’ academic performance by keeping them interested in school.”

Okay. But how? And how does that relate to Ebonics?

Instead of answering those questions, Lemus fills the piece entirely with quotes from people supporting the policy — or perhaps they’re supporting the pilot of the policy, or maybe the use of Ebonics in the pilot of the policy? It’s tough to say what exactly these people are supporting, since they are only introduced as “Len Cooper, who is coordinating the pilot program,” or “Board member Danny Tillman, who pushed for the policy.” Given that we don’t know what the pilot program or policy really are, and whether or not supporting the policy means supporting teaching Ebonics in school, it’s hard for us to know what to think of these people.

There’s something else fishy about these sources. Other than the many, many quotes from Mary Texeira, a sociology professor who believes that students who speak Ebonics as a first language should be treated the same as those who speak Spanish or German, none of the sources are talking about Ebonics. They do comment on the policy — one Board member “hoped the new policy would increase the number of black students going to college and participating in advanced courses,” and another expressed her concern that “now that we have this the Hispanic community, our largest population, will say, ‘We want something for us.’ Next we’ll have the Asian community and the Jewish community (asking for their own programs).”

In fact, we have a pretty good idea what really went on here: the reporter set about writing a mundane update on the pilot of some vague program intended to increase black students’ performance; she stumbled upon one kooky professor who thought that Ebonics should be a part of that program; then she pretended that the Ebonics angle was actually the story, without ever taking the time to gather information about how Ebonics would fit into the program and how the Board members felt about the proposal.

Yesterday — five days after the original article — the Sun came up with a new device to set the record straight. Let’s call it a correctorial — a correction disguised as an editorial. The correctorial explains once and for all that the new policy “will not, however, repeat, not include Ebonics. The district aims to find better, more effective ways to gain, and hold, the interest of black students.” The piece explains that Texeira’s proposal to include Ebonics (ah, so she is the sole force behind that initiative) “has been met with such round disdain that district officials have been quick to renounce such a development.”

Too bad that disdain was not even remotely discussed in Lemus’ article, which was purported to be about the Ebonics proposal.

But the correctional didn’t come soon enough. We’re not the only ones who caught wind of the July 17 piece, and (not surprisingly) not everyone out there took the time to realize the true thrust of the article — namely, that only one woman was saying Ebonics should be included in the program. Bloggers (and most likely local readers of the paper) were quickly foaming at the mouth.

So for all of the writers for local newspapers who think their articles won’t make an impact, check out the furor sparked by one misleading piece in the San Bernadino County Sun: furor, furor, furor, furor, and more furor.

We’re betting the blogosphere doesn’t light up in quite the same way today with posts about yesterday’s editorial.

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.