DEA looking for Ebonics speakers?


"You got any idea what he's saying?" "Hell no, do you?"

Now here’s what I call strategic workforce planning. The Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to hire up to nine contract linguists who are fluent in Ebonics, according to a request for proposal posted on the Smoking Gun this morning.

The RFP, which was originally released in May, said it needs people in Atlanta to “listen to oral intercepts in English and foreign languages and provide a verbal summary, immediately followed by a typed summary” and then transcribe pertinent calls.

Ebonics is just one of more than 100 languages requested in the RFP. It’s not surprising that the DEA is looking for people who can translate Spanish, Farsi, Korean, and other standard languages — the entire government has struggled to beef up those capabilities in recent years. (They’re also looking for people who can understand the Jamaican patois.) But it seems kind of odd that the DEA feels it has to hire contractors to help it understand what is essentially very heavy black slang.

It sounds like the DEA’s got a bunch of frustrated agents sitting around listening to slang-filled wiretaps and struggling to figure out what the drug dealers are saying — pretty much like every episode of The Wire. Omar comin’.


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  1. I found it even more bizarre that languages like Sanskrit, an ancient, extinct language from India, and Lapp, a language spoken by a few thousand of the original inhabitants of Scandinavia, were among the listed languages. Some is going to be red-faced now.

  2. Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr., J.D. on

    I provided two spellings for insane, the first was for Government workers and Ebonics scholars.

  3. Jerry Colburn on

    My late consulting partners, professors William A. Stewart and J.L. Dillard, and I worked as Black English experts in three desegregation cases, Ann Arbor (Detroit U.S. District Court), Houston (Houston U.S. District Court), and San Diego (San Diego Superior Court).

    Additionally, I wrote several Sunday front-page articles explaining how a language barrier operates to prevent many dialect speakers from acquiring Standard languages. This applies not only to Black English, but also in Louisiana, to 35 other dialect groups including Cajuns. In response to my articles, the state board of education voted unanimously to develop curriculum to remove the barriers, to enable students to acquire Standard English. The governor vetoed the appropriation, three years in a row.

    Though not native to Louisiana, speakers of Yiddish experience the same problem in trying to learn Standard German. My first experience with the linguistic problem came as an undergraduate at Tulane, trying to help Yiddish-speaking friends who needed German to get a chemistry major, the best path to med school. So, the problem does not arise from poverty or low intelligence.

    My partners did the pioneer research showing Black English had evolved out of African Pidgin English. Their scientific findings show that the superficial similarities between Black and Standard English camouflage the deep differences crucial to comprehension above the 5th grade level.

    In a 1984 grant I served as principal researcher on a U.S. Department of Education grant in Charleston, SC, studying black underachievement on standardized testing.

    The data showed only 5% of Black English speakers could learn Standard English intuitively, without formal curriculum.

    However, the most controversial finding showed that black high school seniors in Charleston had an average SAT score below random response.

    In other words, they did worse than guessing, if they read the questions and thought out the answers.

    I came to conclusions about culture conflict as having an even larger role than dialect in these results.

    Most important, the findings apply to all culture-bound behavior, including specifically black characteristics in crime.

    So, while the ridicule heaps on the DEA, let’s remember, they deal with reality. With what do the rest of you deal?

    “Racism” amounts to the national superstition, with magical code words, spells,and ceremonies to test for belief, plus of course inquisitions, witchcraft trials, and burnings at the stake, such as we saw with Dr. Laura last week.

    “Racism” substitutes for policy success. When did any media outlet or foundation conduct a complete analysis of post-desegregation black school failure, complete enough to provide a basis for black school success, across the board?
    Just imagine what America would have become if school integration had provided functional equality by the beginning of the Great Society?

    Why it would have looked like the world of today’s TV ads, except better, because it would draw from everyone, not just the ad agency copywriters.

    Meanwhile, I suggest we replace superstition with open inquiry. We begin by looking at the alternatives to the social science cemented into education policy by Brown v. Bd. of Education.

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