The Demonization of “White” English Harms Black Students

by | Apr 15, 2024 | Education

Is Learning Standard “White” English Oppressive for Black Students?

Among the many destructive ideas loose in American education is that black students should not be expected to master standard English because doing so is demeaning and demoralizing for them. Standard English is part of the power structure of “whiteness” that must be overthrown before we can have an equitable society. Professors at esteemed universities are making that argument and it appears to be catching on. Faculty who want to prove their “anti-racist” dedication are changing their teaching and grading to avoid penalizing black students who, after all, already face terrible obstacles in a society that supposedly looks down on them.

The most prominent advocate of this position is University of Michigan professor April Baker-Bell. In her view, “traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm or consequences these approaches have on Black students’ sense of self and identity.”

Before we go any further, do all black students suffer emotional harm if their English is corrected? There are many black scholars who write in perfect English. I don’t think either Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams ever decried their anguish at having to adopt standard English in their academic work. Professor Baker-Bell herself appears to have overcome the “emotional harm” of writing in standard English. It’s hard to believe that any of those academics would have been better off if teachers and professors had said to them, “Your writing is fine; it’s authentic. No need for you to adjust to the needless, old-fashioned rules of standard English.”

Another advocate of allowing black students to keep “their” language is Professor Asao Inoue of the University of Washington at Tacoma. In his book Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing for a Socially Just Future, Inoue contends that writing instructors should evaluate students based on their “effort” in writing and not on whether they succeed in producing perfect or even acceptable standard English work. In his view, black students must be handled with kid gloves lest they think that “white” America is looking down on their preferred manner of communicating. Once we get over that, we can have a just future.

Are those ideas good? Will it help make for a socially just country if we allow blacks to write as they’re used to? There is some disagreement over this, and not just from white professors.

One dissenter is Professor Erec Smith, who teaches at York College. He has written a book entitled A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition and in it, he makes a devastating attack on the notion that it’s wise to give black students a pass when they write poorly.

First, Smith (who is black) doubts that black students are so caught up in their identity that it would be harmful for them to change the way they communicate. He observes that many blacks have mastered standard English without any apparent suffering. A particularly telling case is W.E. B. DuBois, who is known for his opposition to the racist attitudes of 19th and 20th century America.

Smith relates that when DuBois was a student at Harvard, he once received a low grade on an English paper. That bothered him, but he had the good sense to realize that the grade had nothing to do with his race and that if he wanted to make his criticism of society as effective as possible, he needed to make his writing the best it could be.  So he bore down in that course and signed up for other English courses that would sharpen his writing skills.

DuBois, in short, saw standard English as a tool he could use to help accomplish his objectives. Mastering it would empower him.

Conversely, the “anti-racist” writing notions abounding today disempower black students. Smith argues that the likes of Baker-Bell and Inoue allow blacks to retreat into self-pitying victimhood. Doing so solves no problems in America and actually gets in the way of constructive actions. Obsessing over “white privilege” doesn’t help black students succeed.

Another dissenter is Professor Jason D. Hill of DePaul University. In his article “The New Ebonics Movement and the Elimination of Whiteness,” Hill excoriates the “anti-racist” educators. He states that their ideas are “rooted in the de-colonialist and Anti-Western civilization agendas that seek to eradicate from school curricula any European universal foundations that underlie pedagogy, method and content.” That stance is politically expedient for them, but their hostility to teaching standard English will only damage the prospects for black students as they compete for jobs against others, including immigrants, who speak and write in better English.

The costs of this attack on language competency fall on black students, not on these “anti-racist” professors. Hill observes that they “are paid large sums to lecture white progressives on how they should alter their pedagogical styles to expurgate standard English requirements.” They desire to serve “as a managerial vanguard over Black victimization and suffering.”

Where would the “anti-racist” educators be if black students were able to improve their use of language so that they could obtain good jobs and no longer feel victimized by “white” society? They wouldn’t be nearly so famous and would have to do more of the onerous work of correcting student papers.  Not a good trade.

And if composition instructors don’t correct black students on their poor English, what is the point of having classes? As Professor Smith observes, with the “anti-racist” approach, “Nothing exists to master; nothing is there to be taught.” Black students will like the high grades they receive for their efforts, but the time and money spent will have been for naught.  W.E.B. DuBois would be disgusted.

I’d like to point out that getting language right isn’t the only aspect of life where learning to do things “the right way” matters. Consider music. If a black pianist wants to have a career in classical music (which is often attacked as oppressively “white,” but strangely enough, some black musicians still desire to succeed in it), he will have to master performance conventions developed in white Europe centuries ago.  Is that a painful affront to his identity? If he thinks so, he’ll have to set his sights on a different career, but if he loves the music, he’ll eagerly learn how to play Bach and Beethoven the right way, not as he might instinctively prefer. Many have done so.

The notion that black students are somehow harmed by insisting that they master standard English is one of those many ideas so ridiculous that only a university professor could ever believe it.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

George Leef is director of editorial content for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Carroll College (Waukesha, WI) and a juris doctor from Duke University School of Law. He was a vice president of the John Locke Foundation until 2003. A regular columnist for Forbes.com, Leef was book review editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, from 1996 to 2012. He has published numerous articles in The Freeman, Reason, The Free Market, Cato Journal, The Detroit News, Independent Review, and Regulation. He writes regularly for the National Review’s The Corner blog and for SeethruEdu.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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