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On Negro dialect

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Message Siegfried Othmer
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After the Los Angeles riots back in 1992, following on the acquittal of the police who brutally beat Rodney King, civic efforts were mounted to address inner city problems. In one such initiative, young blacks were brought together to present their views to a local television audience. "We need jobs," was the basic message.

With my own history going back to the early days of the modern civil rights movement in the South, I listened with a great deal of empathy. I had considerable problems understanding the speakers, however. With some of them, it was just too much work. At one point during the presentations, drifting away from the on-screen proceedings mentally, I decided to put on my hat as a small businessman. Under what circumstances would I hire any of these people, I asked myself. Could I contribute to the solution here in some way?

The answer was unequivocal: There were no circumstances at all under which I would have hired any of these young people, regardless of their qualifications. The reason was simple: I could not understand them! Here was a go/no-go criterion that was not to be found on a resume. The issue would not be talked about on any guide to finding employment. Surely others in the on-site audience must have had the same difficulty I did, but it would have been gauche to raise the issue with the speakers. It was among those topics that are unmentionable, like bad breath in a colleague.

Our society even went so far in the desire for accommodation to consider teaching "ebonics" in the schools, so that children would not feel culturally out of place. In some other countries numerous local dialects present a parallel to our situation. Every child grows up with one local dialect or another, but in school is taught the language of formal discourse, of commerce, and of the media. It is expected that every child will master that before graduation. It is not a service to black children in the US to submerge this issue in the swamp of civil rights concerns. Yes, they have a right not to speak Walter Cronkite's English, but that right can only be exercised at great cost to them personally.

And so it is most certainly true that if Barack Obama had grown up in Louisiana and approached his countrymen in the local dialect, he would not have been elected. It is of course equally true that he would not have been elected if he had been dark-skinned. Sociologists have shown that the prejudice against dark skin prevails even among blacks themselves. Had he been dark-skinned, Nelson Mandela would likely not have been the first President of the ANC, although his breakthrough prepared the way for the later accession of President Zuma. And it is doubtful that Colin Powell would have been as successful in his career path.

Finally, it is doubtful that Obama and Powell would have been successful if they had had a more traditional upbringing in a black family in the US. During their formative years, they were both outsiders to the brooding, pervasive, stifling race consciousness that remains in this country. If Senator Reid cannot speak the truth about race without it being considered a gaffe, then perhaps others among us need to carry the discourse forward.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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