Was she pandering to a black audience? She wasn’t born and raised in the ghetto. She went to college. She’s demonstrated the capacity to be articulate, even if what comes out of her mouth may fall shy of knowledgeable. But when she got up to speak at Rev. Al’s National Action Network, suddenly Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was talking like AOC from the hood.
Some took her to task for pandering to a black audience, using words, inflections that might be expected from some black people, but were called the equivalent of “blackface.”
John Cardillo of Newsmax tweeted, “In case you’re wondering, this is what blackface sounds like,” while Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire charged that Ocasio-Cortez, in this speech, “speaks in an accent that she never uses.” Lawrence Jones, a Fox News contributor and black American, shared a Twitter hashtag, #WedontTalkLikeThat.
The division between those who found her feigning ebonics and those who rationalized her entitlement, as a Latina, to effect the sounds of African-American Vernacular English, which is the name given to legitimize it as a language, wasn’t along racial lines, but fandom lines. Those who liked AOC found it acceptable, if not wonderful. Those who didn’t, didn’t.
Code switching is a tool communities learn when they’re told their voice, appearance, & mannerisms are “unprofessional.”
The more official definition of code switching is when a multilingual speaker alternates between two or more languages. Is using the word “ain’t” rather than “is not” code switching? What about the twang in pronunciation of certain words to give it that ghetto sound when uttered by someone who grew up in the lovely Westchester County neighborhood of Yorktown and went to college at Boston University?
John McWhorter, a Columbia professor of linguistics, goes full intellectual in defense of AOC’s going ghetto.
Ocasio-Cortez was engaging in what linguists call code-switching. Few find code-switching surprising when Latinos do it between English and Spanish, alternating between the two languages within a single conversation or even sentence. The concept perhaps seems less familiar when done between dialects of the same language, but this, too, is extremely common. For example, what an unfortunate number of Americans think of as black people slipping into “errors” when they speak is, in the scientific sense, people code-switching between standard and Black English, the latter of which is an alternative, and not degraded, form of English.
Key to McWhorter’s rationalization is his final sentence, its final phrase. It’s not a “degraded” form of English, but merely an alternative. There’s standard English and “Black English.” McWhorter comes out and says it, that there is an “unfortunate” number of American’s who see Black English as “errors.” Ain’t that the truth.
It became fashionable in education in the 1970s to reinvent Black English, described as the language of the descendants of slaves, into its own legitimate language. In the 1990s, there was a push to adopt it for pedagogical purposes in order to bridge a gap in performance.
That all changed with the ‘Ebonics’ controversy of December 1996 when the Oakland (CA) School Board recognized it as the ‘primary’ language of its majority African American students and resolved to take it into account in teaching them standard or academic English.
This proved disastrous. While it served to boost the grades of Ebonic-speaking students, it left them at an extreme disadvantage in higher education and the job market. It’s not that people who came by it naturally didn’t use it, but that they weren’t similarly taught to use standard English.
To take McWhorter’s rationalization seriously, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t be as entitled to weave back and forth from AAVE to standard English, just as they might from French to English or Spanish to English. If it’s a stand-alone language, then anyone capable of speaking it can do so.
Ocasio-Cortez’s critics seem to assume that since she is not black, her use of Black English must be some kind of act. This, however, is based on a major misreading of the linguistic reality of Latinos in America’s big cities. Since the 1950s, long-term and intense contact between black and Latino people in urban neighborhoods has created a large overlap between Black English and, for example, “Nuyorican” English, the dialect of New York’s Puerto Rican community. To a considerable extent, Latinos now speak “Ebonics” just as black people do, using the same slang and constructions, code-switching between it and standard English (and Spanish!) in the same ways.
Apparently, the legitimacy of an ebonics-speaking person is limited not by their ability to utter the words or affect the twang, but by their marginalized ethnicity. McWhorter isn’t wrong about the reality of Hispanics in “America’s big cities,” by which he means the ghettos like New York City’s Harlem, Fort Washington and South Bronx, although ghettos is no longer a tolerable word because the description is too accurate.
Except AOC didn’t live on 168th Street and St. Nicholas. She may be Latina by ethnicity, but not by “lived experience.” Having spent a legal career speaking to people who lived in those neighborhoods, I can confirm the basic concept, even if McWhorter’s mistaken about it being Puerto Ricans, who largely moved out and were replaced by Dominicans, but the Dominicans who adopted the language of the streets, flowing from Spanglish to Ebonics.
It made for some problematic Title III wire transcripts, as black jurors never came to appreciate and accept the use of a certain n-word by Hispanics. White jurors hated it even worse. Then there was the problem of jurors having no clue what witnesses were saying, as there were no AAVE interpreters to translate. If the witness testified in Mandarin, there would be an interpreter, because Mandarin is a foreign language in the United States. Ebonics is not.
But none of this factors into the dichotomy of excuses used to rationalize the acceptable pandering of the left, because there are no principles that don’t fall to the side when they produce the wrong outcome.
Public language in America is becoming less formal practically by the week, and Black English is increasingly a lingua franca among American youth. In our era, as politicians are minted whose only memories of the 20th century were formed as small children, we will hear ever more use of Black English in public, with its warm, demotic flavor.
Putting aside the irony of McWhorter using “lingua franca,” a phrase that is rarely heard above 125th Street, you can’t have it both ways. If it’s a legit language, then anyone can speak it. If there’s a pigment requirement, or at least a vowel at the end of a name, then it’s not a language. And if we close our eyes really tight, it still doesn’t make Hillary look like Angela Davis. Are politicians multilingual or pandering? Can anyone speak that way, including the full panoply of word choices employed uptown, or just the folks given special permission?