On December 18, 1996, the school district in Oakland, Calif. passed an amendment to designate Ebonics as a main language of its predominantly African-American student base. The move was met with outrage and resistance, leading to changes in the amendment.

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The term Ebonics has since been replaced with a more contemporary term – African American Vernacular English or AAVE –  but controversy remains about what that exactly means.  At the outset, the school district wanted Ebonics to be viewed as an entirely different language, not an ethnic dialect. However, the intent of the amendment was more to serve as a bridge to teach standard American English to Black students who were already using Ebonics.

The decision came after 1979’s Ann Arbor Decision, a case that allowed Black English or Ebonics to be used as a teaching tool to help Black students who used it to learn standard English. In the case for the plaintiffs, the poorer students of Ann Arbor’s Martin Luther King Elementary School,  (middle-class students who did not use Ebonics were not included) their lawyer argued they were denied equal protection under the law as their way of speech was not recognized.

The passing of the resolution kicked off a flurry of protests which helped inspire an amended document that did not include the wording that Ebonics was a “primary” and “genetically-based” language.

But the change did little to quell critics who wanted the resolution done away with altogether. It included the promise that Oakland’s Black student population would be taught standard English without a reliance on Ebonics.

The resolution came before several national and local elected officials, including Rev. Jesse Jackson who was first against it before he understood it would be used as a teaching tool, and Rep. Maxine Waters, who clashed with  then Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican who believed that the Ebonics issue was nothing more than political correctness.

The matter made its way back to the California legislature in March 1997, but ended there after officials were accused making the issue political and racial instead of looking to provide a true educational benefit.

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By 1998, the term Ebonics was dropped altogether, replaced by AAVE and acknowledged only as teaching tool that may help African-American students to code-switch.  It also helped that as AAVE, ‘Ebonics’ was viewed as just another  of several regional and colloquial dialects, such as you would hear from different ethnic and regional groups.

 

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