Speak Ebonics? You may have a future at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Yes, academics and culture warriors may argue endlessly over the merits of "black English" as a subject to be taught or whether it is a separate language. But the DEA has little doubt about its usefulness. The agency has put out a request for linguists who are fluent in "Ebonics."
Reason: Drug agents in certain communities need help in translating wiretaps.
Score one for the separate-language side. As a black parent who grew up immersed in both cultures, I still have doubts about the usefulness of black English as a teaching tool in the lower grades. But as a former police reporter, among other beats, I have little doubt about its usefulness in law enforcement. In some neighborhoods, it sometimes takes an Ebonics speaker to catch one.
"Ebonics," you may recall, is the mash-up of "ebony" and "phonics" that the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District created in 1996 to re-brand the traditional vernacular better known to us old-timers as "black English."
They didn't get far. There already was a growing backlash against bilingual education in California, among other states, and against certain ghetto-centric black youths who ridicule standard English as "acting white." The glorification of Ebonics didn't have much of a chance.
So when I heard that the Justice Department recently issued a request from the DEA's southern office for nine Ebonics-fluent linguists, I thought at first it was a joke.
But to the DEA and other crime fighters, Ebonics is no joke. Cultural conservatives may attack or ridicule multiculturalism but, however begrudgingly, no one respects the nuances of ethnic diversity more seriously than police do.
Imagine, for example, you are a detective eavesdropping on a suspected drug transaction in Baltimore and you hear: "We're slinging large up in the here, homes. Got to re-up. Two G-packs. You feel me?"
Translated to the Queen's English, according to the rigorously authentic Baltimore-based HBO crime series "The Wire," he is saying something like, "Business is booming in this neighborhood, my friend. I need to be resupplied. Two more wholesale packages of cocaine, each containing 100 vials, would do it. Can you fulfill my request?"
Yet the experience of the creators of "The Wire" offers a note of caution to the DEA. Don't rely too much on the formal credentials of your translators and too little on their street savvy.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the show's creators - David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective - was to keep their slang up to date. On Baltimore streets, for example, they found more than three dozen synonyms for "handgun," they have said in interviews, with new ones showing up almost every week.
There's a difference between Ebonics - which describes the grammatical structure of black dialects ranging from S.C. Gullah to New York "Spanglish" - and slang, a vocabulary that constantly changes with time and place.
A white police officer I know, who asked to be identified only as "Jim," thought at first that the DEA story sounded like a joke. But, having worked in a mostly black district on Chicago's West Side for more than a decade, he called Ebonics "a useful tool," not only to understand what others in the community are saying, but also to speak to them in a way that builds their confidence - if you get it right.
"Get it wrong," he said, "and you can sound as out-of-date as Smitty on [the 1970s TV comedy] 'Sanford and Son.'"
Indeed. Even if you get the words right, there's a thin line between a tone of empathy and one that sounds like it is making fun. Many good intentions get lost in translation.
Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at email@example.com.