Anti-Blackness is a Dual Language Issue

I originally wrote the below text for the fall newsletter for the American Educational Research Association Bilingual Education Special Interest Group and thought I would share it here with links as well.


At its core, anti-Blackness has always sought to question the full humanity of Black people. During the time of slavery, questions about the full humanity of Black people were framed within discourses that suggested that they were property before they were human. In our contemporary society, these questions are typically framed within discourses that suggest that Black people are culturally and linguistically inferior to “normal” humans (i.e. white people), which justifies their continued oppression. These contemporary framings of anti-Blackness have their roots in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that concluded that segregation produced psychological damage to Black children, which prevented their social mobility. This damage-centered narrative was subsequently taken up by the 1965 Moynihan report that pointed to purported cultural and linguistic pathologies of Black families as their primary barrier to social mobility and by the 1966 Coleman report that suggested that integration would help to alleviate these cultural and linguistic pathologies.

It is these anti-Black discourses that also provided the foundation of institutionalized forms of bilingual education in the Bilingual Education Act (BEA). Relying on the discourse from these two reports, at the core of debates around the passage of the BEA were the supposed cultural and linguistic pathologies of the primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican students who were understood to be the primary beneficiaries of the programs. The basic argument was that bilingual education would offer one tool for fixing these cultural and linguistic pathologies. These deficit discourses with roots in anti-Blackness became even further entrenched by the accountability systems associated with the BEA. As schools receiving BEA funds were mandated to assess students in both languages to identify eligibility for the programs and monitor student growth, many Latinx students were determined to be not fully proficient in either English or Spanish. These students were originally described as semilingual. The consensus that gradually emerged was thatthey were proficient in Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) but struggled with the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) that was necessary for school success. 

As a product of this history, dual language programs have inherited these anti-Black discourses. While some attention has been paid to the ways that anti-Black discourses have led to the systematic exclusion of Black children from these programs, deficit discourses with roots in anti-Blackness also serve to marginalize the bilingualism of both Black and non-Black Latinx students. Most notable is the widely circulating discourse that suggests that these programs will provide Latinx children a “strong foundation” in Spanish CALP that they can transfer to English. This discourse is often used to remediate Latinx children, and sometimes even exclude them from these programs, while the bilingualism of white children in these programs is universally celebrated and positions them as gifted.  

In short, anti-Blackness provides the foundation of the deficit discourses that dual language education programs often reproduce. This means that efforts to dismantle anti-Blackness should not be understood as separate from struggles to promote equity in dual language education program but rather as foundational to these struggles. Anti-Blackness is a dual language issue.

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