Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ebonics still pushes hot buttons -- Aug. 26, 2010 column


Americans reacted with our usual cool-eyed calm to news that the Drug Enforcement Administration intends to hire Ebonics translators.

Ha. I wish that were true. In fact, the hot buzz on TV and the Web quickly escalated from “bizarre,” “truly strange” and “Ridiculous!” to “Have we lost our minds?” and ugly, emotional, dialect-ridden rants.

Many people evidently find it horrifying that the government would “reward” people who speak Ebonics with jobs. Others object to the government’s recognizing Ebonics at all.

“Speak English and forget the jive,” one reader commented online.

“This country has gone absolutely crazy,” said another.

The source of the uproar were reports that the DEA is trying to recruit nine fluent Ebonics experts in the Southeast to help translate wiretapped conversations of suspected drug dealers. The translators will have to render the conversations into good English so the evidence can be used in court.

Last I heard, nobody wants drug dealers to go free merely because they use a vocabulary that’s unintelligible to white-bread investigators. It’s hard to fault the government for hiring contract workers who can comprehend and testify about what criminals say. The program isn’t without potential problems, however. It’s unclear how the proficiency of Ebonics experts will be proved to judges’ satisfaction. That’s an issue for another day.

Nobody complains that the DEA is seeking translators of more than a hundred other languages – Arabic, Spanish, French, Sicilian, Afghan Persian, Vietnamese – including the obscure Ga, spoken in Ghana, and Hakka (Mauritius).

It’s use of the word Ebonics that’s the red flag. Had DEA called Ebonics by one of its more formal, academic monikers – African American Vernacular English, Vernacular Black English or Black English Vernacular – some people think it might have avoided controversy. Of course, it also would have been criticized for sneakiness.

Ebonics, as it’s known to the public, has evolved into an urban language that’s no longer spoken only by African Americans, DEA Special Agent Michael Sanders told the Associated Press. The Atlanta DEA office “saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said.

A spokesman for U.S. English told CNN the advocacy group supports DEA’s attempt to understand drug dealers’ conversations.

The last time a government entity tried to recognize Ebonics, a blended word from “ebony” and “phonics,” Bill Clinton was president. A firestorm ensued in December 1996, when the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics a second language and the primary language of its African American students.

The board said it was simply acknowledging the language students spoke at home. Declaring students bilingual, however, also could have made the school system eligible for special federal funds. Bowing to pressure, a new school board undid the resolution the next month.

The underlying issue is the nature of language and how it changes. One description, used by the Linguistic Society of America and others, is that language is an enormous house that has to be reconstructed by each new occupant, who has to discover its design as the work is in progress, and while the previous occupants are still living in it.

The linguistic society stood up for Ebonics after the Oakland controversy. It passed a resolution in 1997 saying that characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," "lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.

Some linguists have spent decades trying to convince the public that “the language variety of African Americans…is systematic and rule-governed.” For them, DEA’s announcement was upsetting and frustrating, because, “The only people we have managed to convince is the DEA,” wrote H. Samy Alim and Imani Perry on

Today, while Ebonics can still excite controversy, it seems decidedly last century. The focus of English preservationists has shifted to the influx of Spanish speakers.

The linguistic society recently passed a resolution opposing an Arizona Department of Education’s directive to remove teachers who speak English with “heavy accents” from some classrooms with Spanish-speaking students. The society said there’s no such thing as unaccented speech “because everyone’s speech is characterized by the pronunciation patterns of their dialects and styles within those dialects.”

The perception of an accent is more about the attitudes of the listener than the speaker, the resolution said.

The same could be said about the uproar over Ebonics; it’s more about the attitudes of listeners than the speakers.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Higher education no silver bullet -- Aug. 19, 2010 column


We’re No. 12. The United States has dropped from first in the world to twelfth in the percentage of young people with college degrees.

The problem isn’t that we’re sending fewer students to college. College enrollment in the United States is at an all-time high; 70 percent of those who graduated high school in 2009 were in college last fall. The problem is that other countries are pumping ever more students into their educational pipelines, particularly in science and math.

President Obama wants to raise the number of college grads by 8 million by 2020 “because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.”

But do we, really? It’s red, white and blue, but we should ask if we’re serving our people and our country well by simply churning out more of the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a large, educated citizenry, but increasing the quantity of college graduates without improving quality won’t boost our national smarts or our global competitiveness.

Americans still want to believe education is the key to personal and national triumph, but a growing body of research and literature challenges that view. College-educated Americans still do better economically than those without college, but a degree no longer guarantees success or even employment.

And there are signs our schools need to do a better job teaching people to think critically. The latest Pew Research Center poll found nearly one in five Americans mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim. In fact, the Obama’s-a-Muslim contingent is growing. The poll was taken before Obama’s remarks about a mosque on the World Trade Center site. People said the source of their information was TV.

Obama pledges to make sure that “every one of our young people has the best education that the world has to offer.” That’s hardly a novel notion from a president, but fine words still don’t butter the parsnips. He didn’t go into details on how he’d target funds to improve the quality of higher education.

We already spend about 2 ½ times more than the average of developed countries on higher education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. education costs rose four times faster than inflation over the last 25 years and twice as fast as our health care costs.

It’s easy to burn a thousand dollars a week on tuition, room and board at a private college or university. Financial aid helps, of course, and state schools are a better bargain. Nevertheless, many students graduate with $100,000 in student loan debt only to find that a college degree isn’t a silver bullet.

Scholars at the Brookings Institution studied economic mobility and found that education tends to reinforce, rather than compensate for, the differences associated with family background.

“Strikingly, children from low-income families with a college education are no more likely to reach the top of the income ladder than children from high-income families without a college education,” Ron Haskins wrote in “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America.”

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, authors of the new book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It,” suggest that colleges are padding their staffs and are building luxury facilities that would be more appropriate for country clubs.
Full-time professors teach fewer undergrads and poorly paid adjuncts are teaching more students, the authors note. (I’ve taught as a college adjunct instructor, and my father was a university professor.)

Hacker and Dreifus cite Williams College in Massachusetts for having as many administrators to students as teachers to students. More than 70 percent of employees at the college do something other than teach. With about 2,000 students, Williams has 84 coaches on staff and 73 fundraisers, Hacker and Dreifus write.

Students don’t escape blame either. Several studies have found college students study less than they did decades ago -- but expect better grades.

College students in 1961 studied 24 hours a week while students in 2003 studied just 14 hours a week, Philip Babcock and Mindy Parks wrote in a study for the American Enterprise Institute.

The shorter study time stemmed not from students being pressed for time from working part-time – although they do have jobs. Nor was it because they picked less demanding majors or because they saved time with computers.

No, the authors said, the most plausible explanation for the decline in time spent studying is that academic standards have fallen.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Obama, college, higher education, spending, academic standards, students, time studying

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Politics and the 14th Amendment -- Aug. 12, 2010 column


To hear Senate Republicans, pregnant women around the world can’t hop on planes fast enough to get to the United States to give birth. Their babies then become instant American citizens, thanks to the 14th Amendment.

This is a problem, the men say. Here’s Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.: “I’m not sure exactly what the drafters of the (14th) amendment had in mind, but I doubt that it was somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the specter of rich foreign women going to resorts to “drop” their babies on American soil.

“You come to a resort, you have your child at a hospital within the resort [and] that child is an American citizen,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News. And then there are the “thousands of people coming across the Arizona-Texas border for the express purpose of having a child in an American hospital so the child will become an American citizen,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have suggested it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1868 to ensure that freed slaves and their descendants had full rights and protections as citizens.

“I think we ought to take a look at it – hold hearings, listen to the experts on it,” McConnell told The Hill newspaper.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a change in birthright citizenship, however. What’s going on here is more politics than policy.

The situation is not exactly as the politicians present it. Imagine that in an election year.

A new Pew Hispanic Center study did find that 8 percent of newborns in the United States in 2008 had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant, a statistic that is sure to inflame anti-immigration sentiments.

But the report’s analysis, which was based on Census Bureau figures, also said that 80 percent of the mothers had lived in this country for more than a year, and more than half had lived here five years or longer.

Despite all the rhetoric, nobody expects a serious run at the 14th Amendment, the salient part of which reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…”

And yet, GOP candidates seem intent on outdoing each other to prove their toughness on the issue. A Republican gubernatorial candidate in Wyoming, Rita Meyer, even wants to see the children of illegal aliens deported along with their parents.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to favor tougher immigration laws, but even among Republicans there’s no great groundswell of public opinion for changing the 14th Amendment.

Measures to do so previously have failed in Congress. There’s a dispute over whether ending birthright citizenship requires amending the Constitution, but passing an amendment is very difficult. It requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

Several public opinion surveys have asked if the Constitution should be amended to bar citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, and overall responses split about 50-50. Republicans are warmer to the idea than Democrats, but they are not overwhelming.

What’s more significant than the party divide is that people under 50 view the country very differently than their elders.

Younger people are far less inclined to change the Constitution to end birthright citizenship than older people. Only 30 percent of those 18 to 29 favored a constitutional change to end birthright citizenship. Slightly more, 38 percent, of people 30 to 49 favored a constitutional change. Among people 50 to 64 and over 65, though, roughly half supported the change, according to Pew.

Similarly, younger people are less supportive of Arizona’s immigration law than older Americans, polls have found.

Differences in attitude are understandable, given the country’s demographics. While Hispanics are 34 percent of the general population, they make up only 7 percent of the population over 65. The Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will be 20 percent of the elderly population in 2050.

The country’s attitude toward immigrants evolves with each new citizen born.

© Marsha Mercer 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Soak the rich? Not now -- Aug. 5, 2010 column


During the 2008 campaign, three little words summarized the Democrats’ plan for George W. Bush’s expiring tax cuts: Soak the rich.

Candidate Obama promised to keep lower tax rates for middle-class Americans while raising taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year. Life was simpler than.

President Obama remains firm on letting the tax cuts expire for the wealthiest taxpayers Dec. 31, but some Democrats, along with congressional Republicans, are balking.

A spirited tax debate on Capitol Hill likely will commence next month, just as midterm campaigning hits its stride.

In this election year, with most Americans less than confident about the economy, raising taxes is hardly a way to win votes. But if Congress does nothing, taxes on personal income, dividends and capital gains, and estates will rise to 2001 levels come January.

So, get ready for some fancy rhetorical flourishes as politicians in both parties explain why raising anyone’s taxes – even the richest among us – would be a huge mistake.

Once again, blame the economy.

“I don’t care if it’s the wealthiest of the wealthy, you don’t raise their taxes” during a recession, Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., told The Hill newspaper. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., also a freshman, said that the economic recovery is so fragile, tax rates should remain where they are.

“People in the upper tax brackets have a huge impact, a disproportionate impact, on consumer spending,” Connolly told The Hill.

A sleeping issue is the estate tax. The United States has had an inheritance tax since 1916, but the Bush plan began phasing out the estate tax in 2003 and repealed it for 2010. This year, billionaires can die and their estates pay no estate tax. If Congress does nothing, though, in 2011 the tax is scheduled to return to 2001 levels. Estates over $1 million would face a 55 percent tax rate.

Obama favors restoring the estate tax to 2009 levels, which would mean a 45 percent tax on inheritances of more than $3.5 million for individuals and $7 million for couples.

Republicans have long smelled political opportunity in the so-called death tax. A recent attempt by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to repeal it failed when only two Democrats backed repeal.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats still favor letting the tax cuts expire. Some Democrats though want to delay pulling the plug until after Obama has run for re-election in 2012.

Others have suddenly discovered that their wealthy constituents already face a high tax burden. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, supports letting the tax cuts expire, but he and several other New York City area representatives want to shield their voters from the consequences by requiring the IRS “to adjust tax brackets proportionally in regions where the average cost of living is higher than the national average.”

“The reality is that a dollar in New York isn’t worth nearly as much as a dollar in Spokane or Knoxville or Topeka,” Nadler said. The Wall Street Journal mocked him editorially, saying “the bill is called the Tax Equity Act, but a more acurate title would be the Blue State Tax Preference Act.”

Republicans have hypocrisy of their own to explain. They just fought extending unemployment benefits on grounds it would add to the ballooning deficit. Now, they say it’s fine to retain income tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, even though that would cost nearly $700 billion in lost tax revenue over 10 years.

They also argue that repealing the tax cuts would harm small businesses. Not so, says Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who has taken the lead in refuting the Republicans on tax cuts.

Geithner called the GOP claim “a political argument masquerading as substance.” Fewer than 3 percent of small businesses would be affected, he said.

“There is no credible argument to be made that the purpose of government is to borrow from future generations of Americans to finance an extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent,” Geithner said in a speech at the Center for American Progress.

Economists disagree over the effects of raising taxes. The rich haven’t been spending enough as it is to boost the economy, some argue. Others say raising rich people’s taxes won’t lead to higher tax revenues anyway.

That’s because one thing doesn’t change. The rich have the resources to avoid getting soaked.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.