Why Ebonics Isn’t Good For African-Americans

““He may well win the race that runs by himself.””  Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

If you want your children to be good at something . . . or if you want your friends . . . or peers . . . or employees to be good at something, there is one thing you cannot do: You cannot make things too easy for them.

The impulse to help is noble, but often unwise. When we see someone competing at a disadvantage, it is only natural to want to give him a hand to get him even with his competitors. But the act of helping often disables, because it denies the recipient the opportunity to develop the capacity to make up the disadvantage himself. (We talked a little bit about this in Message #188.)

Let me give you two recent examples.

Years ago in California, well-meaning voters tried to make education easier for Spanish speakers by requiring the state to fund and administer a costly bilingual educational program. It didn’t work. In fact, test scores declined. Some people argued that the fault was in not helping enough and argued for further programs and greater expenditures. But enough was enough. Two years ago, voters repealed the program. Now, after just two years of English-only teaching, the mean averages of non-native-speaking students have increased sharply.

Just last week, a national report on education in the USA showed that the average scores for 17-year-old black students in reading and math are about the same as the averages for 13-year-old whites. This is the biggest gap that has existed in decades. So much for Ebonics.

And it’s not just a social phenomenon; it’s a natural law. Wasn’t it just last month that we learned that all our efforts to live in a bacteria-free environment are actually making us more susceptible to disease?

You need dirt to have a strong immune system, and you need intellectual challenges to get smart.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Yet it has – especially the journalists, teachers, and good-hearted people who have been promoting make-it-easy programs for all too long. In the academic and political worlds, ideas that would pass for common sense elsewhere are ostracized, despised, and even ridiculed.

In sports, no such confusion exists. Any high-school coach will tell you that if you want to be good at anything, you have to be willing to undergo a considerable amount of discomfort. “No pain, no gain” is the undisputed rule of athletic performance. (Just today – and I heard this on French television, so don’t quote me – a world-class surfing champion from Fiji said he had to leave his island home and come to the States to train “where people understand how hard you have to work to become really good at something.”)

The greatest harm done to African-Americans after slavery was the creation of the welfare state. By making it easier to get work, save money, start businesses, acquire employment skills, and receive basic health care, we created a culture of dependency. All the numbers – regardless of where they come from – say the same thing. African-Americans are worse off – by far – in every major social category that they have received help in.

Meanwhile, American Jews, many of whom are just one generation away from Nazi extermination and who still suffer from prejudice and alienation, have achieved a standard of living, education, and health care that far surpasses the norm.

The difference, in my opinion, is that American Jews were never offered and never received, by and large, government handouts and help-ups. They relied on their own skills, and one another, to succeed. And they did.

If government programs have failed African-Americans so miserably, what has worked? Only a few things that I am aware of. In the educational arena, privately funded schools (often by businesses) that emphasize standard curricula, hard study, and discipline. In the social arena, the efforts of the Black Muslims. As James Baldwin wrote in 1962 in The Fire Next Time:

“Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do: to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and the female with pride and serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light.”

I’m no fan of Elijah Poole Muhammad. He took a perfectly good religion and diluted it with the questionable teachings of Fard Muhammad, a half-British, half-Indian ex-con and grifter out of New Zealand who convinced Elijah and the early Nation of Islam followers that a circular spaceship carrying 1,500 smaller ships filled with bombs will at some indeterminate point destroy both England and America. But what he did, and what the largely reformed Muslim American Society has continued to do since 1975, was to teach his followers that success in life requires old-fashioned virtues like diligence, and honesty, and perseverance. It’s hard to kick an addiction and to make an honest living when you don’t have a high-school diploma. Black Muslims acknowledge that.

I don’t mean this to be the definitive word on Ebonics. I’m more interested in exploring the idea of competition and achievement. It seems to me that there is some fundamentally ironic principle at play here: Helping hurts. I don’t intend to stop helping myself . . . and I’m not yet prepared to argue that we shouldn’t have wheelchair ramps . . . but it bears thinking about it, wouldn’t you say?

OK. OK. ETR is supposed to be useful. So to what use can you put these ideas?

First, recognize that when it comes to acquiring the skills you need to succeed, you’re going to have to do the hard work yourself. You can accelerate your progress . . . enormously . . . by following good advice and making the right contacts. But you can’t avoid the pain.

Second, when it comes to friends, family, and loved ones, feel free to help them but be very careful about how. Every time you do something for them that they will eventually have to do for themselves . . . every time you give them something they will eventually have to earn for themselves . . . you postpone their chance to strengthen themselves.

Finally, if you vote, don’t vote for any make-it-easier legislation. It doesn’t help. It hurts.