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The New York Times: Ebonics: Empty Theories and Empty Promises, March 7, 1997 | Cypress Semiconductor

The New York Times: Ebonics: Empty Theories and Empty Promises, March 7, 1997

Last Updated: 
May 24, 2012

The New York Times: Ebonics: Empty Theories and Empty Promises, March 7, 1997

T.J. Rodgers

The Oakland, Calif., school board stirred up a hornet's nest late last year with its resolution to make black English, or ebonics, a second language, equal in stature to ordinary English. In the face of heavy criticism, the school board later amended its program to describe ebonics as only a teaching tool in its effort to build students' self-esteem and to help them learn by translating their thoughts from ebonics to conventional English. But even as amended, the policy is an unwarranted stretch of California's already unsuccessful bilingual education program.

As the chief executive of a Fortune 1,000 company that will compete in future global markets with the raw materials produced by our schools today, I see the embrace of ebonics as a human and economic tragedy. Institutionalizing black English would severely handicap Oakland students in their efforts to compete in the job market.

Ebonics has precipitated a useless debate between liberal and conservative positions, drawn primarily along racial lines. But the fact is that neither position holds water. Only an objectivist approach will bring common sense to bear on the decisions being made for our schoolchildren. While our school systems are whipsawed by both the right and the left for their own purposes, the children should be getting a better education than the one offered by an ineffective government monopoly.

On one side in the debate are liberals who want to remedy discrimination and victimization with self-esteem psychobabble. Their idea of so-called equal opportunity is less a theo ry than an untenable belief-that unless pay, status and employment statistics are distributed proportionately among the races and the sexes, the differences are assumed to be driven by prejudice. The idea really deals not with equal opportunity but with a mandate for equal results. This view is absurd, as California voters recently underscored by approving Proposition 209, which effectively abolishes affirmative-action programs in the state.

At the other extreme is the conservative idea of the bell curve, most recently elaborated by Charles Murray-that different groups of people have different inherent capabilities. But judging individuals based on excessively broad categorizations like race or sex is useless in practical decisions like hiring. This model also ignores the huge variation of individuals within any group.

The objectivist theory-that choices have consequences-is championed by Dinesh D'Souza, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the book "The End of Racism." As an example of this theory, consider a group of 100 high-school dropouts, compared with a group of 100 high-school graduates. A disproportionate number of the dropouts will receive lower pay in later life because of their choice to quit school. Life choices may not be distributed equally among ethnic and gender groups and may consequently differentiate those groups.

For example, a disproportionate number of women in the 1960's chose not to study physics. A present-day consequence is a disproportionate number of male physics professors. That underrepresentation is a consequence of choice, not of discrimination by men (equal-opportunity theory) or female incapability (bell-curve theory).

Consider the Oakland ebonics program as a choice with serious consequences. Those consequences will not fall proportionately on all ethnic groups; 51 percent of Oakland's students are black. Their education will be impaired by a choice made for them by a misguided educational bureaucracy that values what it calls self-esteem over basic education.

Some may argue that a retail or consumer-goods company might benefit from having its inner-city retail outlets run by managers skilled in both ebonics and conventional English. One consequence of a choice to squander school time on ebonics will be that while low-level sales jobs may remain available to the ebonics generation, many high-quality jobs will not be available to those students in the future.

As the chief executive of a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, my job is to hire people with the best possible skills to get the job done. We hire sales personnel in Japan who speak excellent Japanese. We speak French in France and German in Germany, as opposed to what some Germans derisively call "hillbilly German," the Swiss dialect. In Switzerland, we are represented by Swiss nationals who speak both French and German. Given a choice between two otherwise equally qualified candidates for our North American sales force, I would opt without hesitation for the one who spoke precise English rather than for the English-ebonics bilingual candidate if ebonics meant the candidate's English skills were compromised. Good communication is critical to career development.

With fewer jobs available, the ebonics generation will earn lower pay, prompting another round in the useless liberal-conservative debate. The right answer is provided by the objectivist theory: This generation will suffer the consequences of a bad choice made for them by a school board out of touch with reality. Bad choices are the reason why it costs California about $5,200 a year to educate public schoolchildren, compared with $3,300 for the average private school in the state, as estimated by the Californians for Educational Freedom.

What's the proper response to such choices? In the short term, the current members of the Oakland school board should be replaced. In the long term, California badly needs a school voucher program to allow parents, not utopian bureaucrats, to make choices for their children, leaving them better equipped to join the workplace of the future.