A court reporter in Philadelphia heard a witness say, “He don’t be in that neighborhood,” but transcribed it as, “We going to be in this neighborhood.” Yes, that’s the opposite the opposite of what the speaker meant, and a soon-to-be published study finds that Philadelphia court reporters often make errors transcribing sentences that are spoken in what the New York Times and some linguists call “African-American English.” I call it bad English, and once again the claim is being made that it’s everyone else’s fault when people can’t talk.
Here’s a jaw-dropping statement from the Times article: “Decades of research has shown that the way some black people talk could play a role in their ability to secure things like employment or housing. The new study, scheduled for publication in June in the linguistic journal Language, provides insight on how using black dialect could also impact African-Americans in courtrooms.” Ya think? I confess when I hear anyone, black or white, express themselves with a sentence like “He don’t be in that neighborhood,” I tend to think that
- Such an individual is not well-educated
- Such an individual is not well-read
- Such an individual is unlikely to think very clearly
- Such individuals may not be very bright, not necessarily because he or she speaks in such a manner, but that because they lack the common sense to know that doing so will not leave a positive impression.
In short, it is not my fault if someone else can’t speak clearly, and claiming that a grammatical and syntactical dogs breakfast like “He don’t be in that neighborhood” is acceptable because a lot of people talk that way is a rationalization. More Bizarro World reasoning from scholars,
“People who speak African-American English are stigmatized for so doing,” said Taylor Jones, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s authors. Mr. Jones added that there was nothing improper or broken about the dialect that some African-Americans inherited over generations, but negative stereotypes have influenced the way people hear or perceive it.
“If you’re taught that these people speak incorrectly, then it’s very easy to say, ‘Well, they don’t make any sense; what they’re saying is wrong,’” Mr. Jones said.
Those who argue that “He don’t be in that neighborhood” isn’t incorrect are essentially pointing us toward a cultural Babel where anyone can make up and adopt whatever dialect they choose, and insist that everyone else acceptand decypher it. That’s no way to run a business, a nation, or society. Clarity in language is essential, and must not be shrugged off as one more matter of personal choice. We have to communicate, after all.
This is not a racial issue, and to represent it as such is itself racist, applying the bigotry of low expectations to blacks when the principle that we should all strive to speak clearly must be universal. The last time I wrote about this issue was last August, but the subject wasn’t a poor black Philadelphian, but the President of the United States.
Still, blacks and their frustratingly slow progress in overcoming historical disadvantages and cultural pathologies have spawned a scholarly approach that insists that those of us who believe skill at communication is a reliable marker of competence and intelligence are the ones who need to change. Here, for example, is part of the description of an internal American University program for the faculty:
Plenary Session: The Language Standards That Kill Our Students: Grading Ain’t Just Grading
9:45 AM -11:00 AM
Open to all faculty who preregister
This plenary will argue against the use of conventional standards in college courses that grade student writing by single standards. Inoue will discuss the ways that White language supremacy is perpetuated in college classrooms despite the better intentions of faculty, particularly through the practices of grading writing.
Breakout Session: Creating Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies in Writing Courses
11:20AM – 12:35PM
(Note: We believe this workshop will be most helpful to Writing Studies faculty, but others are also invited to sign up.)
This interactive workshop will focus on redesigning writing courses’ assessment ecologies in ways that reduce the negative effects of a single standard of writing used in conventional grading practices. It will offer an alternative to such grading practices, labor-based grading contracts, and a comprehensive theory of assessment that may lead participants to other ways of redesigning their courses’ assessments.
Breakout Session: Rethinking Standards of Writing Intensive Course Rubrics
2:30PM – 3:45PM
Butler Board Room
(Note: We believe this workshop will be most helpful to faculty teaching or preparing to teach upper division or graduate courses, including the AU Core’s DIV and W2 courses, but others are also invited to sign up.)
This workshop will engage participants in rethinking what standards for writing in their courses could be and how those standards can be assessed and graded most meaningfully for students. It will offer a brief account of two antiracist writing assessment practices, and consider one more carefully, dimension-based rubrics for writing assignments. When used in particular ways, this rubric can be a way to acknowledge the diverse range of readers in any classroom. It also can resist the negative effects of grading by a single standard that most conventional rubrics and scoring guides embody.
This represents a cruel and unethical surrender of common sense and accumulated cultural experience.