How linguists challenge the racists

How can linguistics help us understand the education process better? In the early 70s, William Labov tore down the edifice of cultural deprivation as an explanation for poor school performance among inner-city Black youth. The movement to label Af-Am families as deficient was based in large part on the supposed inability of Black youth to articulate logical thought and make connections expressed in connected language. IOW, the inability to use transition words, copular verbs, and full sentences determined that these children could not succeed.* Cultural deprivation may have been meant originally to counter the racist interpretations for Black school performance but it quickly became another tool in the covert racism directed at Black families and adults we see recapitulated by commentators like Bill O’Reilly and politicians like Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum.
Labov and other linguists demolished this explanation 40 years ago and more (Labov was writing on this in the 1960s and I presented 10 years ago at ACTFL on Thirty Years of Black Culture in the Classroom, showing the work that had been done in the early 70s by psychologists, linguists, sociologists and anthropologists). Yet the appeal to so many people of an explanation that absolves the power structure and Whites in general of any responsibility appears too great to resist. A while back it was the Black Underclass. Before that, cultural deprivation. Now it’s a cultural problem: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” accordng to Paul Ryan.
Interestingly, the cultural deprivation theory was countered by Charles Murray who ascribes economic and other difficulties in the Af-Am community to genetic inferiority; there’s no point in fretting about inferior schools for Black children because as a group they cannot match Whites in cognitive “skills”. Paul Ryan ominously cites Charles Murray. Murray wrote in 1994 on this topic (The Bell Curve) and continues to defend it.**
Joining with the neo-Confederates and White Supremacists would strengthen Republican numbers and would be a fitting match for their base ——— oh, that’s right, that is their base. So wouldn’t it be clearer if the GOP just adopted the Rebel flag, the Stars and Bars, placing it on the dais at the National Convention? The crowd would go wild. That would be one way to get those Black Republicans to wake up and smell the burning cross.
*Labov not only described African-American Vernacular English to show it to be a perfectly normal variety of language, he showed how the investigators weighted their analyses against the children they interviewed by counting an answer, “In the tree” as an answer to “Where is the squirrel?” as a partial sentence that should have been, “The squirrel is in the tree.” Word choices like “couch” instead of “sofa” were counted as “not knowing the names of common objects” etc.
**As an equal opportunity racist, Murray asserts that Asians are superior to Whites. His obtuseness is stunning. He worships IQ tests and uses their scores as cudgels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *