from sea to shining sea

By John Baugh, Stanford University     print Print

1954 Brown vs. Board of Education results in the holding that segregated educational facilities were “separate and unequal”
January 26, 1973 The term “Ebonics” coined by Robert Williams at “Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child” Conference.  
1974 Lau vs. Nichols asserts the rights of language minority students, implying that students for whom English is not native define that group.
1979 In the wake of the “Black English trial” California’s state board of education adopted a policy for SEP, titled “Black Language: Proficiency in Standard English for Speakers of Black Language.”  Use of the term “Black Language” in this document opens the door to extreme Afrocentric interpretations of Ebonics which influence Oakland’s future policies and decisions. 
1992 Ernie Smith in consultations with the Oakland school district staunchly advocates Ebonics as something other than English.
December 18, 1996 Oakland, California school board passes a resolution defining Ebonics as the native language of 28,000 African American students within that school district.
December 24, 1996 Secretary Riley of the US Department of Education makes the statement “the Administration’s policy is that Ebonics is a nonstandard form of English and not a foreign language” balking at the proposed bilingual interpretation of Ebonics “a spokesman said Federal Law specifically viewed black English as a form of English, not a separate language eligible for Title VII money.” 
January 1997 Linguists gather in Chicago for their annual LSA conference and issue a resolution intended to affirm the linguistic integrity and legitimacy of African slave descendants.  Their use of the term Ebonics, however, as a synonym for “Black English” is quite different from that of Oakland, who declared that Ebonics was unrelated to English.  The media in reporting the continuing dialogue surrounding this issue were largely unaware of this distinction interminology, leading to more confusion in the ensuing months.
January 14, 1997 Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) drafted a resolution that said in part: “Wheras “Ebonics” is not a legitimate language: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, that it is the sense of the House of Representatives that no Federal funds should be used to pay for or support any program that is based upont he premise that “Ebonics” is a legitimate language.
January 15, 1997 At a special meeting of the Oakland school board, a revised version of the controversial resolutions was passed.  A major change stated that Ebonics is “not merely a dialect of English” a different stance from the original document which had claimed that there was no relationship between English and Ebonics.  This is significant in that it more closely aligns the position of Oakland with that issued by linguists at LSA. 
January 16, 1997 Texas calls for additional research and information to resolve educational problems confronting African American students.
January 23, 1997 Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa) chairperson of the Senate subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education, convened Ebonics hearings.  He opened the hearing recounting his own linguistic heritage as a child of Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants, alluding to the legacy of linguistic diversity that is “such an integral historic component of American culture.
January 23, 1997 Senator Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) speaks next at the Ebonics hearing, decrying the politics of race and their Ebonic surrogates as one of the most “absurd” examples of extreme “political correctness” that he had ever encountered.
 January 23, 1997 Representative Maxine Waters (D. Cal.) an African American woman who served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, responds directly to Senator Faircloth, expressing her opposition to his statement and affirming her understanding of the Oakland school board’s intention to teach standard  English, not Ebonics to its students.
January 23, 1997 The hearing shifts to comments from Oakland educators and an Oakland high school senior of considerable academic distinction.
January 23, 1997 The next speakers are an African American minister, a conservative African American radio talk show host both of whom were highly critical of Ebonics
January 23, 1997 Four scholars speak before the Senate, including Michael Casserly, Executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, Orlando Taylor, dean of Graduate studies at Howard University, William Labov, internationally acclaimed leader in the field of sociolinguistics, and Robert L. Williams, professor Emeritus from Washington University in St Louis and the creator of the term Ebonics.
January 23, 1997 The Senate hearing end with Senator Specter stating that he fully expected to convene one or more hearings with other witnesses who had not yet had an opportunity to testify.  In the end, no such hearings were convened.
March 3, 1997 California holds politically contentious hearings that sputter as soon as African American Ebonics detractors accuse members of the California legislature of racially motivated political opportunism at the expense of California’s black students.


There were many examples of racist reactions and political satire which followed the hearings, and Ebonics continues to be a topic under national discussion. However, as media attention began to diminish after the hearings, so too did the political fireworks that had been ignited. To this day, the Senate hearings have not been reconvened, and no new legislation has been passed to significantly address the problems facing African American students in schools today.

"Returning to the language of African American slave descendants, there are two ways to handle revising linguistic classifications for minority students: One might argue (as I have) that current classifications are too restrictive (Baugh 1998), or one might argue (as Oakland did) that African Americans, by way of their Ebonic linguistic inheritance, already meet existing criteria for LEP. Neither approach has made any real headway because the prevailing political climate is such that most citizens link standard English to intelligence and personal discipline. (pg 52)

Reprinted from: Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice, by John Baugh. (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Additional Resources:

Coalition on Language Diversity in Education
Proceedings of the Coalition's 1998 conference: Language Diversity and Academic Achievement in the Education of African American Students. The conference was convened as a platform for national scholars to articulate their views about what the United States must do in order to meet the academic needs of African American and other students, with respect to language variation.

Oakland Resolution Complete text of the 1997 Oakland School Board resolution that sparked the  controversy.

John Baugh joined Stanford University as Professor of Education and Linguistics in 1990. Prior to his tenure at Stanford, Dr. Baugh served as Associate Professor of Linguistics and Foreign Language Education at the University of Texas at Austin and as Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Black Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology at Swarthmore College. Dr. Baugh has published extensively in the fields of Anthropology, Education, Legal Affairs, Linguistics, Sociology and Urban Studies. His work bridges theoretical and applied linguistics, with particular attention to matters of policy and social equity in the fields of education, medicine, and the law. He has conducted extensive research regarding the social stratification of linguistic diversity within the U.S., Austria, Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, and the UK, and is actively engaged in ongoing research that examines the evolution and dissemination of English and other European languages in post-colonial contexts throughout the world. Dr. Baugh is a past president of the American Dialect Society and a member of the usage advisory committee for the American Heritage English Dictionary. He has also served as consultant on several documentary films related to American language and as an expert witness in court cases where matters of voice recognition and language attitudes have been central. Dr. Baugh received his B.A. in Speech and Rhetoric at Temple University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently sits on the Boards of the Consortiuum of Social Science Associations, Eastside Prep, Raising a Reader, and Project Pericles.

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