In what sounds like the setup for a comedy sketch, the Justice Department is seeking experts in "ebonics," or black English. According to The Smoking Gun, a Drug Enforcement Administration office in Atlanta wants to hire up to nine experts in the slang-heavy dialect to help translate wiretapped conversations between African-American suspects. "Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction," says a representative of English First, a group that advocates English-only laws in the U.S. Does the DEA really need linguists to understand bugged calls between English-speaking Americans? (Watch a local report about the need for ebonics translators)
Ebonics isn't a language, just a way of speaking: The government can't be serious, says Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post. First of all, "jive," as ebonics was once known, "ain't even a language." It's just a relaxed way of speaking — lopping off words, running them together — that millions of African Americans can slip in and out of with ease. The DEA has some "chutzpah" treating it like some mysterious foreign code.
"DEA: The E is for 'Ebonics'"
Actually, black English is a recognized dialect: The "outrage" over the use of the word "ebonics" is understandable, says Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing. The term has had "racially-charged" overtones since 1996, when a Californian school board proposed using "ebonics" to teach black students. But African-American English is a recognized dialect with roots dating back to slavery. It has "an important place in American cultural history."
"Justice Dept. hiring 'ebonics experts' for drug enforcement spying operations"
Ebonics experts might not be what the DEA needs: Federal drug agents probably do have a hard time understanding black English, says Boyce Watkins at AOL's Black Voices. But even those well-versed in ebonics will struggle to help them. These criminals use code words that the "rest of urban black America" is unlikely to understand. Surely the DEA would be "better off hiring a former drug dealer"?
"DEA seeks ebonics experts to help with cases? ... Seriously"
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