Black Opportunity Destruction

“Do you mean he is taller than me am?” sarcastically barked Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, to one of the students in our class. The student actually said, “He is taller than me,” but Rosenberg was ridiculing the student’s grammar. The subject of the elliptical (or understood) verb “am” must be in the subjective case. Thus, the correct form of the sentence is: He is taller than I.

This correction/dressing down of a student, that occasionally included me, occurred during my attendance at North Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin High School in the early ’50s. Franklin was predominantly black; its students were poor or low middle class. On top of that, Franklin had just about the lowest academic standing in the city. All of our teachers, except two or three, were white. Despite the fact that we were poor, most of Franklin’s teachers held fairly high standards and expectations.

Today, high standards and expectations, at some schools, would mean trouble for a teacher. Teachers, as pointed out in one teaching program, are encouraged to “Recognize and understand the cultural differences among students from diverse backgrounds, and treat such differences with respect. Intervene immediately, should a fellow student disparage a Black student’s culture or language.” That means if a black student says, “I be wiff him” or “He axed me a question,” teachers shouldn’t bother to correct the student’s language. What’s more, should anyone disparage or laugh at the way the student speaks, the teacher should intervene in his defense. Correcting the student’s speech might be deemed as insensitive to diversity at best and racism at worst, leading possibly to a teacher’s reprimand, termination and possibly assault.

A teacher’s job is to teach and failure to correct a student’s speech, just as failure to correct a math error, is a dereliction of duty. You might say, “Williams, Ebonics or black English is part of the cultural roots of black people and to disparage it is racism.” That’s utter nonsense.

During the 1940s and 1950s, I lived in North Philadelphia’s Richard Allen housing project, along with its most famous resident, Bill Cosby. We all were poor or low middle class but no one spoke black English. My wife was the youngest of 10 children. Listening to her brothers and sisters speak, compared to many of her nieces and nephews, you wouldn’t believe they were in the same family. The difference has nothing to do with cultural roots of black people. The difference is that parents, teachers and others in authority over youngsters have become less judgmental, politically correct and lazy; therefore, speaking poorly is accepted.

Language is our tool of communication. If a person has poor oral language skills, he’s likely to have poor writing, reading and comprehension skills. To my knowledge, there are no books in any field of study written in Ebonics or black English. It is very likely that a person with poor language skills will suffer significant deficits in other areas of academic competence such as mathematics and the sciences. It doesn’t mean that the person is unintelligent; it means that he doesn’t have all the tools of intelligence. That is what’s so insidious about the state of black education today; so many blacks do not have a chance to develop the tools of intelligence. Many might have high native intelligence but come off sounding like a moron.

Black Americans should thank God that non-judgmental, politically correct people weren’t around during the early civil rights movement when blacks began breaking discriminatory barriers. Discriminatory employers would have had ready-made excuses not to hire a black as a trolley car motorman, cashier or department store sales clerk.

There are some significant challenges to being judgmental and politically incorrect and insisting on proper language. A professor or teacher can get cursed out by students or parents. A black student who speaks well, carries books and studies can be accused of “acting white” and find himself shunned and assaulted by other students.

I would be interested in hearing the teaching establishment’s defense of permitting poor language.

  • KCDave

    In order to succeed in a society, one must learn the trade language of that society. The ability to speak the trade language is not only an intellectual tool, it is also an economic tool. I would posit that our union-run schools instruct their attendees neither intellectual nor economic tools.



  • Janet

    What a marvelous article, Mr. Williams. What a different world it would be and what wonderful opportunities would be afforded to so many students if only your advice would be followed. I grew up and was educated in the same area as you during the '40's and early '50's but attended Catholic Diocesan schools where no nonsense nor poor English was ever tolerated. But in today's world, as you've so ably written, it's so much more important to not offend a child than it is to guide them toward a world of unimagineable opportunity. What in the world is the political left doing to our kids!!!

  • Steely Irony

    As a 60-something professional writer with over 50 years' private and public experience. The downward spiral of language is NOT only reflected in the black community. For the past 20 years, I have managed a jurisdiction-wide public sector "student intern program". I have been able to actually document the degraded language skills of university JOURNALISM graduates. Since 2005, not a single candidate has managed a "passing grade" on a 9th grade grammar test that I repackaged/contemproized for testing purposes back in 1992. Since 2005, over 3500 UNIVERSITY JOURNALISM SCHOOL GRADUATES wrote the test; NO CANDIDATE PASSED IT.

    Language plays an essential role in the process of reasoned, clead thinking. The latter requires vocabulary and an understanding of structure.

    I could go on and on, but I'd rather celebrate my upcoming retirement and the book contract I just signed with a genuine publishing house.

    • Richard

      Your first sentense is gramatically incorrect. Perhaps you should go back to 9th grade.

    • Army Guy

      Your post is a “clead” example of your point. Good luck with your new book.

  • Joy

    Great assessment and well-deserved critique of today's lower standards and expectations for the average student. He/She is handicapped from the get-go in most public schools, where only the truly self-motivated student can be expected to succeed. Teachers are too busy or lazy or fearful or whatever to spend the additional time and demand more respect for the "rules of the road" in school to help those students who are not already helping themselves. Truly a sad situation – and it continues to bode ill for the good of our society.

  • MMoise

    You are "absolutely correct" (though not "politically correct") and I applaud your courage to identify with the truth about this and so many other issues.

  • guest

    What drivel. Williams clearly knows nothing about teaching or children. The point is not that children shouldn't be corrected, but that if you make them feel stupid, they will reject school. Equating the way they, their peers, parents and people in their community speak with stupidity is about as backwards an approach as one could come up with. Not only is it false, which they will intuitively know, it's bad pedagogy. Result: they reject school, a completely normal and predictable outcome. White southerns have dealt with this too but for the most part escape the explicit racial stigma.

    Williams shows he is as bad a historian as he is an educator. He expects us to believe that in one generation blacks went from speaking acceptably to speaking ebonics? Really, please explain that one. Did ebonics get smuggled into black communities along with crack cocaine? So instead of offering one piece of useful information about where this black dialect came from, how it evolved, why it has proven so resilient, etc Williams tells us some bad parents just introduced one fine day.

    Stick to economics Williams, where being spectacularly wrong is both expected and rewarded.

    • USMCSniper

      Perpatuating ignorance and reinforcing bad habits such as allowing students to speak ebonics or white trailer trash english does less than nothing for the students. It cripples their future. The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life successfully — by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught how to speakcoherently, to think logically, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past — and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.

    • johnnie

      Uh…okay…exactly why are you defending ebonics? Studies have shown that this type of language, while in no ways is limited to blacks, does play a major determinant in how one will do in life, both economically and educationally. Put simply: why defend it? It didn't used to be defended. I think we tend to forget that most kids and teens' "feelings" are not as fragile as we make them out to be. They can take being corrected. In long term, it only helps them toward getting better jobs and getting a better education. Simply put: Wouldn't you rather be corrected in science class if you thought that the sun revolved around the earth? Or in math class if you thought that 5 and 5 equalled 9? Of course you would. Williams' essay is essentially saying the same thing, except for English class and ties it to English class.

      • guest

        where do i defend ebonics? I think you're responding to a figment of your imagination. And i say up front, it's not that they shouldn't be corrected. Seriously, pay attention. There's a big difference between being corrected and degraded. Fact: the approach you endorse produces the exact opposite to what you claim to want.

        Your example isn't relevant, language is always changing and evolving, as are opinions as to what is the proper way to speak. 5+5 always equals 10. Probably none of us speak 'correct' English all the time, we use it when we need to. Different situations allow us to use different versions of English. Most of these are technically incorrect and so far civilization hasn't collapsed. Do you always say 'going to" or do you sometimes say 'gonna'?

        • coyote3

          I am a minority. I from a part of the country where English and Spanish are spoken almost interchangeably, and English is spoken with a drawl. My education, was, for the most part "degrading" if you want to call it that, but we didn't reject it, we didn't dare. Even the drop outs, could read and write, which is more than I can say for a lot of the graduates now. Certainly, we don't always use correct English. The sign at the county line says "Bienvenidos, Y'all", but we were not allowed to speak that way in school. It is not a matter of using different variations of the English language, but it is having to compete in a world where allowances aren't made for the failure to have basic literacy. You may not be able to completely control your accent, and may not speak "correct" English everytime, but students need to learn it the correct way. Indeed, we certainly don't speak Spanish the "correct" way, but when Spanish is taught in places like the USBPS, it is taught correctly. Slang and "street" language can come later.

    • luke

      Actually, Williams, while technically inacurate in part is completely accurate in his overall thesis: namely, higher education + better economic status in life down the road = the ability to speak the English language with clarity and distinction. (laymans terms, the dumber you sound the dumber you act and ya'll wont get no progress in life. Where the money at = keep lookin' for it, cause it aint comin' yore way, fool)

    • paulie

      Williams is also channelling his George Bernard Shaw. Pygmalion dealt with this theme extensively. The professor could place a person's economic status by their tongue, their brouge. Funny, all the poor folks SPOKE like they were uneducated. Wonder why? 'liza doolittle, learned and acquired some education in the process and got out of the gutter and up to Park Lane. The message is relevent then as it it is right now.
      The modern white equivalent, of ebonics in white pop culture right now would probably be the "valley girl" dialect or the "slackers", "stoners". (hey dude! Awesome, totally, etc) most assume fewer IQ points whenever one such person opens their trap. Is anyone surprised that Paris Hilton flunked out of high school? Just listen to her speak and remember, where if by God's grace would she be if not for her family's last name? Probably working in a tanning salon (at best) for minimum wage.

    • PAthena

      One of my grandmothers came to the United States from Russia in the 1880s not speaking a word of English, only Yiddish (and maybe a little Russian). She was eight years old and sent to the public schools in New York City. She quickly learned English, speaking, reading, and writing. She was forced to leave school at the age of twelve because her father was opposed to education for girls. (She loved the truant officer who made it possible to go to school until the then school-leaving age of twelve.) Her letters to my mother are far better – even with a few "ain'ts" – than most of what I have gotten from university students. Probably the teachers were of a higher caliber then than now.
      So "guest" is just wrong.

    • sr

      Really… “making someone feel stupid” will make them reject school?? You sound like a victim of the new wave of educational enlightenment!! The failures in education today are well documented and I’m sure it’s because someone’s delicate self esteem got jolted. Guess we shouldn’t assign grades on lil Dwayne’s paper lest we hurt his self esteem? I grew up in a rural area with a dialect that is riddled with incorrect grammar. As I advanced my grammatical skills, I never felt “stupid” because my parents or community still spoke the same. It doesn’t take a major research thesis to figure out why people speak the way they do……their first “teachers” when developing language skills would be their parents. You say “white southern(er)s, have escaped the racial stigma” actually sounds implicitly as though they haven’t since you so perfectly pointed out and referenced white “southerns” …..ever heard or used the term “red-neck” ? I guess that was smuggled in the same door as ebonics, but in a redneck neighborhood??

      So, in final analysis to offer up “useful”, yet obvious conclusions (no research needed for the obvious), we are all exposed to external familial input (school, even TV, etc.). We make a decision to learn and become successful people in society if we have the drive and desire. It’s not always someone else’s fault……not even the teacher that might have “made” me feel stupid!!!!! By the way, I do have a background in education and had a successful teaching career.

  • rich

    From a non-scientific observation, but valid from a pop culture perspective, one should just observe the rap stars, atheletes who speak in public. Guess their education level. Question: How far would they have gotten in life without sports/entertainment talents?
    Dr. Thomas Sowell has dealt at length as to ebonics' origins. Linguistically it originated in Western England in 17th cent. As many of the original southerners came from this area, they migrated to US speaking this dialect. So, technically, you could say that Williams is incorrect, the historical basis for ebonics goes back to 18th cent. White England. However, post slavery which brought blacks into full citizenship of Americans, it was recognized that the best way toward mobility, then as now, was acquiring an education, which included speaking the language properly. Why is this such a problem today?

  • Janet

    Oh my, I do believe "guest" is from that politically left group I mentioned…….bound and determined to keep the masses in their place, needy and dependent. Oh, yes, mr./ms guest, if you happen to be an educator (that may be an oxymoron). and I could relive my adolescence, I'd sure as heck want my teacher to be Walter Williams, not you.

    • coyote3

      Yes, ma'am, (and I don't mean that sarcastically), glad to see that the plantation is alive and well. He/She probably thinks I still belong on the hacienda, or at least the ranch.

  • aspacia

    Yes, correct oral and written skills are frowned on by many teachers and administrators. One "English" teacher once told me that students do not need to now what a preposition is, or how it works in a sentence.


    Administration loves her because she only grades on what students do in class, and does not make them make-up missing assignments when absent.

  • Janet

    Well said, Joy.

  • Nemesister

    Mr. Williams is right, as usual.

  • USMCSniper

    Hey guest. You said " He expects us to believe that in one generation blacks went from speaking acceptably to speaking ebonics" Ahhhh, …. but that is true and those who did it inisist on it for all balck children. Denzil Washington. Barack Obama, Walter Williams, Dr J, Thomas Sowell, and yes, Reggie Bush to name a few of the millions of blacks who would object to what you say. Many of their parents never even got to the 8th grade, but they all have degrees and graduate degrees from major universities.

  • DoctorTed

    My ex[Haitian] speaks perfect English. She always made a point of correcting and demanding our 2 daughters never speak a word of Eubonics: EVER! She also corrects me[American, Physician]……….Can't argue……..she's right all the time!

  • chuckray

    Political correctness in our education system is a cancer. A cancer that affects minorities the most. It is often said that "The shackles on African-Americans today are more ominous than the ones from 200 years ago." And many are being shackled voluntarily!

  • Joy

    "Guest" is talking through his hat! But he will never acknowledge what common sense should tell him. Of course, one (we) often speak in colloquialisms,slang and very imperfect English – but we usually try NOT to speak in grammatically incorrect English. And we would never write a business letter like we speak, nor use English in formal writing as we speak or as we do in emails. One rule of thumb: One cannot break the rules (of English language) without knowing what they are; because to just blurt out words in a rudimentary fashion would expose our total ignorance. Even though "Guest" claims not to defend Ebonics, he actually does just that by not totally condemning it outside a very small circle of family & friends. What's that experession, "They thought I was a fool; but when I opened my mouth, I removed all doubt." I work with young people of all backgrounds (as a part-time tutor), and I never shrink from politely – but firmly – correcting their spoken English.

  • guest

    Years ago you filled in for "r lim" and fairly regularly you invited Dr. Sowell to join you for an hour. williams, i say, i emailed a quick note to him – to heck with "Tuesdays with Morrie", i much prefer fridays with Walt and Tom!

    i must say i do disagree with your position on buying bullets from china – i'd sooner buy h1n1 vaccine from chemical ali…

  • So Cal Mike

    Williams and Steely Irony are correct.
    Even the American born A and B college students who graduated from the "better high schools in the well off suburbs" of southern Cal struggle to string together cohesive grammatically correct sentences. Without help,many could not write a simple essay on their own even about a subject they know well. The 2 students I was helping insisted they were never taught grammar. Indeed, many teachers proudly proclaim they don't teach it.
    Most recently my high school sophomore cousin who goes to school in NY asked me to help her with handwriting or cursive style writing. And I mean in English, not Japanese or Chinese characters, both of which I can write. Teaching handwriting apparently went the way of the T-Rex with the increasing use of word processors.
    "But it's so important we sing happy birthday to every student on their birthday" a well regarded high school principal friend of mine proudly told me not long ago.
    I think he got an award for this.

  • Wil

    Liberalism is a powerful, profoundly destructive cancer. Over time, it is more destructive than Aids, or a full-scale thermonuclear war.

    Liberals are suicidal, mentally deranged fools who destroy as many people as they possibly can, before they die.

  • Chuck Moody

    What better way to guarantee that black kids are kept on what used to be called a plantation (now a ghetto or "the projects") than to keep them from a decent education, so they are dependent upon others to survive? What would the libs do if all these kids had the tools to prove they were just as smart as members of any other group–and moved into the larger world to prove it?
    Ave atque Vale

  • Bill_H

    A teacher is an agent for cultural uniformity, while political correctness and the indoctrination that goes with it was invented to bring about the elimination of Western culture through the promotion of cultural disunity & societal non-uniformity. The politically correct indoctrination occurring in our schools now is supposedly being performed in the name of social justice, but how is the promotion of the destruction of the prevailing culture social justice. Answer: It isn't.

  • cedarhill

    The key to blacks is blacks changing their culture. To change the culture one needs vigorous parenting. Williams pointed out that he lived in the same area as Bill Cosby. If you recall any of Cosby's monologues his father was portrayed as the supreme figure as in "I brought you into this world and I can take you out." It will be the rare exception that becomes motivated in the current black culture of "I hate the pole-lease". There's really nothing non-black America can do to change this, it must be from folks like Williams and Cosby to turn black culture back to strong nuclear families.

    • cjk

      You're right, the rest of society can help, but only in proportion and alongside blacks themselves.
      Unfortunately the left does nothing but hamper true progress chiefly by preaching the doctrine of 'blame every last iota of anything bad on whitey'. I think a large reason for 'Ebonics' and the 'acting white' labels emanate from rebellion and racial hatred taught within the black community itself and carefully fostered by the left.
      Society at large needs to start to recognize that teaching hatred, resentment, irresponsibility, and rebellion need to go unrewarded and unfunded.

    • coyote3

      Correction, I believe it is "pol-leece".

  • Mr. Buzzcut

    My wife is a second grade teacher, been at it for 23 years and the school she’s at is in a rural county. Thank God they still believe in education and correcting students.

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  • Chris

    Black people are pathetic. They have the chances, they just choose to be ignorant ghetto dwellers.