Linguistic Discrimination in School AfricanAmerican English





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Published on Apr 28, 2008

Discusses linguistic discrimination of African American dialects and a court case that has helped to prevent further discrimination based on language.

When rural southern blacks eventually moved to the cities of the north, they brought their own kind of English with them. They're young men now, but 25 years ago, Dwayne, Asheen, and Kihilee were students at this school. Situated in a prosperous, mostly white suburb of Ann Arbor, there were not many black kids at the Martin Luther King school. When they spoke, as they did at home in African American English, their teachers simploy assumed they couldn't do school work.

ABrenen: They sort of felt like we were unteachable in a sense, I would feel. So, it kind of made them go towards other students more and gave them a little bit more help than they would give us.

RM: Can you remember some of the things that were said? Teachers would say?

ABrenen: Actually to be honest, the teachers really didn't even communicate with us too much. It just was sort of like, in a sense, that we were on our own.

RM: Do you remember any of that? You were younger.

KB: I was really young, but I mean I remember enough to know that I wasn't being treated the same way as all the other kids in the class, or a lot of the other kids. You know, that's the irony of it all. It's Martin Luther King's School and, you know, they hadn't learned anything from Martin Luther King. Well, hopefully, they learned it, but they didn't learn it back then.

RM: Three mothers who refused to accept 2nd best for their sons.

RM: Annie, what was it that got you and other parents upset enough to bring a lawsuit against the school?

ABlair: My kids was tested and was tested and was put into special ed classes, and I felt like that they were not getting educated and was not treated equally. And I felt like that shouldn't be a barrier because of the language to stop them from being educated.

RM: Ruth Zweifler is a social worker familiar with the housing project the boys came from. Listening to Annie tell how her son and his friends were failing at school, she knew something was wrong.

RZ: There were maybe 24 black, poor black children in a sea of affluent white families. And they really were having a very hard time.

RM: Ruth became convinced that the kids were being discriminated against because of their African-American English.

RZ: Language is the marker for assumed attitudes. Coming with an implied criticism, which is what I think a black child carries with him. We as adults, as mainstream society, as Americans have really done bad by these little kids.

RM: Unable to make any headway with the school admininstrators, Ruth went to Detroit. One of the lawyers she consulted as Ken Lewis. The legal strategy they and others thrased out led to a landmark court decision on black English.

KL: Our job was to see if we could come up with some legal theories that made sense that we could pursue on their behalf. The initial thrust of the case was to deal with the children's poverty, as the reason why they were not being educated. There is really no Constitutional right not to be poor in this country. And so, trying to find some constitutional provision that would help us along those lines was a futile effort. So, language became a part of it. And since that language barrier seemed to impact adversely only on black youngsters, we were able to tie in the race issue.

John Baugh: The most significant thing that I believe was raised during that trial was that you had a federal judge acknowledge formally that African American vernacular English represented a significant linguistic barrier to academic achievement and success. He confirmed that the school district was really insensitive to the linguistic background of the vast majority of African American students within the school district.

RM: Years later, the argument Ken Lewis used in this courthouse was raised by educators in Oakland, California. But, they claimed Black English, which they called Ebonics, was a separate language. That caused a national storm.

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