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Of Ebonics, the DEA, and the Department of Education

Apparently, the federal government is finally recognizing Ebonics as a viable language.

Indeed, the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has put out a call for Ebonics interpreters to work in its Southeastern regional office in Atlanta.  Specifically, the DEA is seeking the assistance of nine linguists fluent in Ebonics to “monitor, translate and transcribe” wiretapped conversations of suspected drug traffickers. In addition to being native speakers of Ebonics, a “DEA Sensitive” security clearance is required for all candidates.

And this is not the first time that law enforcement has sought to use Ebonics fluency as a tool, although never in such a formal manner.  Most notably, a Houston Independent School District (HISD) police officer circulated the “Ghetto Handbook:  Ebonics 101,” which was filled with racist stereotypes, in 2007


The HISD outrage inspired me to write my first blog, “Houston We Have a Problem Over the Ghetto Handbook.”  

As I explained at the time, “American Ebonics is a contact language that resulted from the mingling of non-English-speaking, displaced and enslaved Africans with English speakers. Hence, its lexicon is English but many of its grammatical structures and its syntax, according to some linguists, closely resemble those found in West African languages.” 

Ebonics is among the 114 languages–categorized as either “common” or “exotic”— for which the DEA’s Regional Linguist Services is presently seeking contract translators.  According to the foreign language requirements of the DEA, Ebonics is classed as exotic, as it is “newly identified.” 

The Smoking Gun first reported this story, which they characterize as “bizarre,” raising the following question, at least in my mind:  Just what is so bizarre about identifying a linguistic need and taking the necessary steps to meet it?

What is bizarre, however, is that the federal government will do whatever is necessary to incarcerate African-Americans — recognize Ebonics as a distinct language— but not to send them to school, and by extension, improve the life chances of the population.

This is what the Oakland, Calif., school board attempted to do in 1996 when it stirred up a national uproar with its vote to formally recognize Ebonics as a language in order to facilitate the teaching of English to Ebonics native speakers. That is, as a bridge. After the ensuing media firestorm, they relented and withdrew the proposal.

Like the Oakland School Board, Eric Holder’s Justice Department will be criticized and ridiculed for this validation, of sorts, of Ebonics as a language. Already the criticism has begun. 


The Associated Press reports that some see this as a troublesome “precedent.”

According to Aloysius Hogan, government relations director of English First, “hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction.” 

Hogan said further that he is “unaware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,” he said. “I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.”

While it is true that Ebonics is rarely formally taught, it is undeniable that the majority of African-Americans are native speakers of the language dubbed “Black English” by some linguists.

Hopefully, the Justice Department’s pragmatism will migrate to the Department of Education, where Secretary Arne Duncan will revisit the idea of using Ebonics as a bridge for teaching English to African-American children in targeted school districts.

Perhaps we can then begin to reverse America’s shameful high school drop-out rate, over 50 percent for African-Americans in some cities, which feeds an enormous pipeline of drug traffickers who often see no other way to feed their families.

Dr. Pamela Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic and assistant professor of English composition & Africana literature at Virginia State University.

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