Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Beyond Ebonics: Indoctrination Isn't Teaching

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Illustration by Jonathan Bouw

At the heart of the furor over black English is one of the most seductive and yet dangerous ideas in all of American education: self-esteem.

It is an idea with two parts. The first is the post-'60s notion that self-esteem is not only a condition for learning but is also as important a goal in the education of minority students as academic mastery itself. The second part is the belief that self-esteem comes as much from group identity as from individual academic success. Over time, this link between self-esteem and identity has caused the education of many minority children, particularly blacks, to be based more on identity enhancement than on high academic expectations.

This idea is the centerpiece of a strategy of racial reform that might be called indirection. By this strategy, minority problems are never directly addressed. Instead, they are understood and approached indirectly through their root causes, which are always said to flow from America's history of racism.

The linking of self-esteem and identity has caused the education of many minority children, particularly blacks, to be based more on identity enhancement than on high academic expectations.

By forcing the discussion of minority problems into the area of root causes, indirection deflects us away from problem-solving and into yet another negotiation of who owes what to whom. This is not to say that black problems don't have root causes or that racism is not one of them. The point is that indirection is an ingenious opportunism that makes root causes the only ones that count--and thus, the only ones with a powerful claim on society's resources.

"Ebonics" is a case in point. It directs us away from the problem--the poor academic performance of black children--by emphasizing self-esteem and weak racial identity as the root causes of the problem, the only causes that truly matter. In the interest of self-esteem, of protecting black children from racial shame, ebonics makes broken English the equivalent of standard English. To further bolster identity, it is said that this form of speech has an African origin, despite the lack of evidence.

In the world of education, it is assumed that the self-esteem difficulties of black children stem from racial victimization. So, by making poor academic performance a problem of self-esteem and identity, ebonics evokes America's history of racism as the true root cause. Now we no longer have students with academic deficits; we have racial victims, identity victims.

Ebonics seeks to make victimization the only cause that counts. Its purpose is to shift responsibility for the problem away from the people who suffer it and onto society.

Of course it is true that racial victimization--if only its legacy--plays some role in the poor performance of these students. But ebonics seeks to make victimization the only cause that counts. Its purpose is to shift responsibility for the problem away from the people who suffer it and onto society.

By seeing racial identity as the main source of self-esteem of black children, we are left with little more than identity enhancement as a way to improve their performance. So when we find inner city black children who are in desperate academic shape, we use their very desperation to justify a program of identity enhancement.

In Oakland, Calif., black English is transformed into a language with African roots. In Los Angeles, there is talk of expanding a small ebonics program to reach all 92,000 African-American students in the school district. In Milwaukee, two schools are devoted to Afrocentric teaching. In Detroit, Baltimore, and other cities, there are all-black military-style academies and all-male classrooms.

Almost everywhere there is an unquestioned belief in role-model theory--matching black students with black teachers, often by sex as well. Now there is the idea that we can match racial identities with "styles of learning."

Teaching that is directed primarily at the group identity of at-risk black students offers an imagery of racial glory, which is a kind of propaganda. This puts the black child in a rather absurd position. To garner the self-esteem to do well in school, he must believe that Egyptians flew to work in little gliders or that he has his own racial learning style. He must conform to an ideology in order to be smart.

The poor academic performance of black students should be approached directly, with a strong commitment to academic rigor. Nothing special should be done about their self-esteem or their racial identity. The focus of their education should shift from being to doing, from identity to academic mastery. They should be treated with warm human respect, but also with the understanding that high expectations are the only show of respect they will believe in the long run. They don't need rigor as much as they deserve it.


Shelby Steele, the author of The Content of Our Character, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. This essay is reprinted with permission of The New York Times.

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Web Resources
  • Read an update from the Oakland Unified School District, as well as the full text of the revised resolution on the education of African-American students.
  • Read a series of stories in The New York Times related to The Debate Over Black English. (The site requires free registration.)
  • AFT President Albert Shanker's "Where We Stand" column from Jan. 5, 1997, argues that the Oakland school board has a worthwhile goal, but should pursue it without introducing an issue that will only make it harder for them to succeed.

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