Did Linguistics and the study of language neglect Black boys? #blackdegreesmatter

By Don Allen, M.A. Ed.

It troubles me that in 2017 in the United States, we still have a challenge with the teaching of language, reading, literacy and critical thinking to boys of Black American heritage; to be very clear, there are some items we need to explore. First, public schools, curriculum and classroom design were never meant to house, teach or guide black boys. Secondly, the people who control identity, are the same who control language, wealth and education. It’s unfortunate we have to live by rules that were never meant nor updated for us (sans the victim mentality).  A 1990 study of more than 105,000 students in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where African Americans made up about 65 percent of the enrollment, showed that black male pupils performed comparably to boys and girls of all races on first- and second-grade standardized math and reading test. But by fourth grade, African American boys experienced a sharp decline in their scores. More recent national studies have shown similar findings: In 1994, fourth-grade reading scores of African American boys lagged behind those of all other groups at the same grade level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (Bennett-Alexander, 1997). This becomes problematic because we know that prisons use a grade four model do create an anticipatory set on how many prisons will be needed. We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third graders, and that’s just wrong,” I think waiting until kids are ready for kindergarten to begin to intervene is too late (Ford, 2013).

What the experts are saying:

  • Three of four African-American boys in California classrooms failed to meet reading and writing standards on the most recent round of testing, according to data obtained from the state Department of Education and analyzed by CALmatters (Department of Education, 2016).
  • African American males in primary and secondary schools were suspended more than twice as often as white males in 1992, according to the Office of Civil Rights. (Levin, 2017).
  • The United States has made virtually no improvement in reaching its lowest performing students. Although the percentage of white students in the country has declined dramatically over the past 50 years, while the percentage of black students has changed very little, the achievement levels of black students compared to white students (and other racial/ethnic groups) has barely narrowed (Hanushek, 2006).

One of the problems in public school education is that some poor, economically disadvantaged Black boys are treated as victims.  If you are walking into a classroom and see students as victims, you are seeing them as having an inherent flaw that only you can fix. You [the teacher] are there to help them learn and allow them to do fixing for themselves (Elie, 2016). The cup-filling and entitlements become less-than a strict balance of academic rigor and low expectations from educators make it simple for this lost generation to get passed on and graduate as functional illiterates. In an article by author Maya Elie: Author’s Advice to White Teachers in Urban Schools: Drop the ‘Savior Complex’ and Learn from Students, Elie writes in an interview with Dr. Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who is a passionate and unapologetic advocate for the advancement of urban education nationwide who wrote the book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, says:

“There are teachers who are not being trained appropriately. Not to speak negatively about education schools, but there are people coming out of school with a Masters or Bachelor’s in education, taking one class in multiculturalism, or one class on ethnicity, race and politics. Then these teachers go into spaces where race, politics, ethnicity and class are the biggest factors they have to face. There’s also the idea of the hyper-scripted curriculum that the teachers don’t have the space to ask the students about who they are” (Elie, 2016).

How does Linguistics play a role in this hyper-critical failure for Black Boys?

One of many positions held by linguists and many anthropologists locates the problem not in the children, but in the relations between them and the school system. This position holds that inner-city children do not necessarily have inferior mothers, language, or experience, but that the language, family style, and ways of living of inner-city children are significantly different from the standard culture of the classroom, and that this difference is not always properly understood by teachers and psychologists. Linguists believe that we must begin to adapt our school system to the language and learning styles of the majority in the inner-city schools. They argue that everyone has the right to learn the standard languages and culture in reading and writing (and speaking, if they are so inclined); but this is the end result, not the beginning of the educational process. They do not believe that the standard language is the only medium in which teaching and learning can take place, or that the first step in education is to convert all first-graders to replicas of white middle-class suburban children (Labov, 1972). Even after decades of research on African American English (AAE), there is still no consensus as to exactly how it has developed. Although there are several theories, the two most prominent are featured in Do You Speak American? One theory suggests that when slaves of different language backgrounds were transported from Africa to America, they developed a pidgin—a simplified version of a language used for communication between people or groups who do not have a common language. This language subsequently developed into a full-fledged creole language that children acquired in their homes. (Some creole languages—languages that have developed out of pidgins and have acquired native speakers—have the word creole in their names—for example, Hawaiian Creole—while others do not—for example, Gullah.) It is believed that the Gullah spoken to this day on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia closely resembles the language used by slaves on plantations. Because plantation slaves were not taught English and had limited contact with English speakers, some features of this creole were passed from generation to generation. These features have survived post-slavery because as AAE developed, it became more than just a means of communicating between groups: It is a source of solidarity among people who use it. A second theory is that slaves in the South worked alongside indentured servants who spoke non-mainstream varieties of English. African American slaves learned English from these indentured servants (often of Scots-Irish descent). People who believe this explanation for the beginning of AAE say that it explains similarities between AAE and other non-mainstream varieties of English (such as Appalachian English, which shares some linguistic features with AAE), (PBS, n.d.).

The constraints of Urban Education in the “James” Crow Era

The fact is, Black boys in public school settings are not learning language, the use of, or anything else. The major challenge points to teacher training universities (current), and curriculum that has been surreptitiously void of all cultural responsive content-in-context. The challenge of Black boys and their education now becomes a part of a racial-political paradigm that is still controlled by the people who designed the construct in the beginning. If educators look at the model of first-things-first in urban education, they would understand that until all gaps are gone, there can be no success for the Black boy, nor the black in the federation in education.  By recognizing these challenges, we’re also acknowledging the responsibility we share to bridge the race, language and color divides in our country. No doubt our Black Boys are smart enough, spirited enough, and genuine enough to meet the challenge. The question is, are we?


Bennett-Alexander, D. (1997, April ). Are schools failing black boys? Parenting Magazine.

Elie, M. (2016, July 8). Author’s advice to white teachers in urban schools: Drop the ‘savior complex’       and learn from students. NEAToday. Retrieved from neaToday.

Hanushek, E. a. (2006, October). School quality and the black-white achievement gap. National Bureau of Economic Research, Stanford University, University of Texas at Dallas.

Labov, W. (1972, June). Academic ignorance and black intelligence. The Atlantic. (T. Atlantic, Ed.) New York, NY, U.S.

Levin, M. (2017, June 6). 75% of black California boys don’t meet state reading standards. (L. A. News, Producer) Retrieved June 6, 2017, from Los Angeles Daily News Literacy : http://www.dailynews.com/social-affairs/20170604/75-of-black-california-boys-dont-meet-state-reading-standards

PBS. (n.d.). Do you speak American?. Carnegie Corporation of New York. Twin Cities Television (TPT). (C. C. York, Ed.) Minneapolis, MN, U.S. .