The Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity continued their Plain Talk series on race and ethnicity last Tuesday. Jeffrey Nash, former chair of the UA Little Rock department of sociology and anthropology, presented his lecture, “Words and Race: Does Black English Matter?”
Nash became interested in the importance of black English after reading through historical publications from the years 1944 to 1989. All of the publications brought Nash to the conclusion that, in terms of vocabulary, blacks remain significantly behind whites. Nash turned to language in order to examine the main cause of this.
Looking through vocabulary test results in the University of Chicago’s General Social Surveys from 1974 to 2016, Nash found that African Americans’ scores, measured in percentage of words correct, were significantly lower than those of whites. Nash wanted to see if there was a variable that could make this percentage higher or lower.
In order to figure out what the variable was, Nash compared the vocabulary test scores of both African Americans and whites relative to level of education and perceived financial status. Unambiguously, African Americans were still behind whites in terms of vocabulary.
In his attempts to figure out why African Americans were falling behind so much, Nash found out it was not education, or financial status that set them apart, but their race and their hidden language.
The Social Surveys account for a form of standard English that the majority of people in the United States use with some minor variations. The surveys do not, however, recognize the unique dialect spoken by African Americans. This, Nash concluded, was the factor that held black test scores back.
After the presentation, Nash and the attendees participated in an open discussion. One discussion point was the question of why this dialect does not dissipate and fade away like most other minority languages in the United States.
One point Nash brought up was that different forms of language are associated with how society is structured.
“As with any language in a particular social structure,” Nash said, “a consequence and a reason of why it exists is to hold the membership boundaries and to increase solidarity among its members.”
In addition, African-American language might not be fading away so quickly because of the mixture of white and black cultures and the blurring of the membership boundaries present within the cultures. Nash brought up the example of a white male playing a game of pick up basketball with African Americans. In an attempt to socialize correctly and fit in, the white male attempted to “talk black”.
Another example Nash gave about the crossing of boundaries had to do with rap music’s entrance into the mainstream of American music.
“Rap music would be nowhere without the white suburban kids who buy it,” Nash said.
Nash concluded from his research findings, the rich culture and history associated with black English, and its prevalence in modern American life that the answer to the question presented in the title of his lecture is a definite yes.