Blogbook -- The Language Race War in the Literacy Classroom

Entry 26

Whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, we are in a language race war. I know, that sounds awful, but I don’t know how else to put it. The way we use our language standards in literacy classrooms is one front -- a very important front --  in that language race war that we’ve been fighting for at least 150 years. This becomes most obvious when students of color are in large numbers in schools and colleges. When this happens, perceptions of falling or low literacy standards among students begin to circulate. One way to see this war is in the rising number of so-called “remedial” students. In gentler circles, we refer to these students as “underprepared.” 

But we might ask ourselves what is the racialized nature of preparedness for our schools and colleges? Knowing our histories of schooling should tell you the answer: The nature of preparedness for school is gauged by a student’s proximity to and experience with Habits of White language (HOWL). 

As an alternative, we might conceptualize preparedness in an antiracist way. We might ask about preparedness in a way that accounts for the raciolinguistic histories and politics of our schools and society. Instead of asking how prepared are our students of color to do the work of the literacy classroom, we could ask: How prepared is the teacher or professor to read, respond, and uplift the locally diverse students in their classroom? In what ways is the teacher prepared to understand and language with their raciolinguistically diverse students? 

Or we could ask about that classroom and its curriculum: How is the course, program, or school prepared to value the locally diverse students’ various languages and their habits of their English languages and not devalue them? Part of the valuing of locally diverse students' ways with language is also to not use students’ language markers as signs of deficit, particularly language markers that do not match SEAE. So perhaps one measure of a course or school’s preparedness for raciolinguistically diverse students is their curricula’s and pedagogies’ ability to afford students’ rights to their own languages, to value the inherent linguistic and other diversities in classrooms. Where might we find the markers of this antiracist preparedness? In our assessment ecologies

Likely, you don’t need proof that such affordances for multiple ways with English language are necessary in colleges and high schools, but here’s some evidence. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that since 1976 the racial demographics of U.S. college students has become increasingly less White. In 1976, 84.3% of all college students were White, but only 9.6% were Black, 1.8% Asian, 3.6% Latine, and .7% Native American. That means just over 15% of all 1976 college students were BIPOC. By 2016, 44.8% of all college students were BIPOC (note 147). 

Now, consider next to these trends current English remediation rates in colleges and universities. According to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress, 35% of all White college students were enrolled in remedial courses, meanwhile 56% of all Black students, 45% of all Latine students, and 55% of all Pell Grant recipients were (note 148). What do these statistics say together? 

As our schools and colleges increase the numbers of BIPOC students, more concerns about illiteracy pop up, and they show up mostly in BIPOC student populations. BIPOC Students are seen as inherently remedial. No one, of course, will admit this publicly, but the outcomes and results in our systems clearly show this. BIPOC are identified as less prepared in Habits of White Language (HOWL), and so they are simply understood as “less prepared.” Race and language intersect to create such trends because language follows groups of people. Literacy is a surrogate for race, making our classrooms the trenches in a language race war.

Grading mechanisms, standards, and tests are the first line of defense in these literacy crises. Remedial designations are determined by standardized tests, which use, of course, a White standard of English language (HOWL and SEAE). This is why so many more BIPOC students are designated as remedial. There is nothing deficient about the vast majority of these students. They just come from different places with different languaging than what our school systems determine to be “standard” languaging. 

All of this makes sense given what assessment and standards generally do. The primary goals of grading by a standard, and this includes large-scale assessments, are the following: 

  • controlling bodies and their movements in a system or place;
  • enforcing accountability or getting people to act or behave in particular ways; and 
  • measuring people in order to control where resources and opportunities go in a system. 

Most of the time for BIPOC, these three primary goals really amount to exclusion in White supremacist societies and institutions. And this is what White supremacist systems have always done through the use of so-called neutral language standards.

The trick for critical and social justice-minded educators is to see language difference from a White standard not as longitudinal difference but latitudinal. We’re in landscapes of language difference, not ladders (see painting by Jeremy Miranda, "Low Tides"). When we talk about language differences in classrooms, we are talking about locations on a wide and diverse plane, not points of altitude in one quadrant. But our assessment and grading mechanisms only work to hang students and their performances on ladders of so-called ability. And this has a very particular effect when it comes to most BIPOC and poor students. 

Assessment and grading by a single White standard function to produce not just ladders but barriers. It keeps the higher grades, opportunities, and self-esteem that go with such things, from BIPOC by drawing lines of so-called ability. It’s the ghettoizing that grades do in our diverse classrooms. And so, we may think of the red marks and grades on papers and assignments that signal how good or bad a literacy performance is (or seems to be) -- that is, how close a performance comes to the White standard of languaging -- as the redlining practice of schools. 

Along with racial restrictive covenants that kept Blacks out of housing in areas reserved for Whites (note 149), redlining was a practice of identifying areas that were bad risks for banks to give mortgages, which began during FDR’s New Deal. Redlining was used by banks that worked with the Federal Housing Administration and the Veteran’s Administration, particularly when veterans were using their benefits to buy homes for the first time after WWII. The primary criterion for a redlined area, a bad risk area for a bank, was the presence of Black residents. 

Just after WWII, the over 1.2 million Black veterans were mostly denied the education and housing benefits guaranteed in the G.I. Bill, or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (note 150). By 1956, the year the bill expired, it had dispensed over $14.5 billion in education and training benefits. By 1955, it had guaranteed 4.3 million home loans, which amounted to $33 billion (note 151). Black veterans were mostly denied these benefits because southern democrats, led by Mississippi Congressman John Rankin, made sure that the administration of all benefits were handled at the state level. This meant that local banks and real estate agencies could determine things like bad risk areas from the racist discourse around them. And they did. 

Today, we inherit our oppressions, and privileges -- this means, you don’t gotta ask for either of them. Oppressions and privileges are by definition imposed. For Blacks in the U.S., the results and residue of redlining and restrictive covenants, as well as the racist ways the G.I. Bill funneled money and homes to Whites and away from Blacks is part of the oppression that serves also to privilege Whites. 

Brave Work

Write for 15 minutes. 

Look over a typical set of comments or feedback you’ve given a student on a piece of writing. What standard for effective or good writing did you use? What exactly did you say to the student? 

After you’ve made a few observations on your standard and your words to the student, look more carefully at your words. Imagine that the paper is a battle front: on one side is the student’s languaging, or their ways with words; on the other side, is yours and your standard that you are holding them to. Who is the aggressor in this battle? How does that aggression or violence materialize? How are your words a redlining practice that protects the White property of literacy in your standard?

Redlining was a racist practice to segregate people and keep wealth and property in the hands of White populations. It moved Whites into suburban homes that gave them equity and capital, as well as more richly funded schools because of better tax bases. Meanwhile, Blacks were forced to urban areas, where they could not establish equity in homes, and had to send their children to poorly funded schools because of smaller tax bases. The legacy of redlining and the inequitable way the G.I. Bill was administered in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s to mostly White veterans has had deep and sustained financial and educational consequences for Blacks in the U.S. today (note 152, see also "Racism in Housing" from Hive Learning, which has lots of resources on this topic). It’s a systemic and historical way that oppression and privilege in our students are inherited. 

The idea that we participate in literacy redlining in our literacy or language classrooms is similar to how literacy has been understood and articulated in court decisions and other legal and governmental documents in the twentieth century. These places too are fronts in the language race war because they often determine the battle lines and rules of engagement. Catherine Prendergast argues that literacy in the U.S. has functioned as assumed White property, a White trait and entitlement. She demonstrates this in the Supreme Court case decisions of Brown v. Board of Education (1954 and 1955), Washington v. Davis (1976), and The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) (note 153). 

In fact, she demonstrates how the presence of Blacks in a school equates to perceptions of falling literacy standards, which makes Whites flee the area and schools. This is what Prendergast calls the “economy of literacy” (note 154). It’s how literacy in the classroom is wedded to property, both the physical homes in which people live (or can live) and the figurative property articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in critical cases that have structurally dictated U.S. education and literacy. Nothing illustrates the consequences of the language race war more than the "Racial Wealth Gap" (see Netflix video below). 

Redlining is a practice of maintaining ownership of property, whether it be real estate or literacy. So when I say that grading is schools’ way of redlining, or maybe readlining. I mean that it’s part of a long history of racist projects that has preserved structurally all kinds of property for Whites: geographic, ideological, legal, intellectual, and linguistic. It’s also how teachers engage in White language supremacy without knowing it. All the while we think we are doing something else, holding standards, being rigorous, helping students, but really we are fighting a language race war, drawing its redlines and reading lines.  

Grading by a single standard is how most, if not all, schools and literacy classrooms exercise the historical White supremacist practice of exclusion in order to protect literacy as White property, all the while allowing schools and teachers to believe that they are helping their students of color. The language race war is centrally about drawing lines in the earth -- trenches -- in our texts, and in our minds that keep out BIPOC, or keep them in. It’s about using a dominant White group’s language as a universal standard, without identifying it as closely associated with that one group of people, and its results in schools and society is to exclude BIPOC from educational opportunities, success, and all that those things afford in society. Thus grading and the use of singular standards inflicted on everyone sets unfair rules of engagement in the language race war.

Is it still hard to imagine that we are and have been in a language race war? Then consider the noted eugenicist and advocate for racial segregation, Lothrop Stoddard and his 1921 book, The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy. Stoddard was a White supremacist. In the book, he argues that increasing populations of peoples of color around the world threaten the White geographic, economic, and political center. White settlements are being taken over or threatened, he argues, by various people of color, and this is a bad thing. 

Strategically, Stoddard notes, there are inner and outer dikes. The outer dikes of civilization are those places in the world that contain mostly people of color yet are ruled by White colonial and imperial powers. The inner are those places on the globe that are White settlements in which people of color are increasing, and those areas must be protected, policed and walled, so that they remain racially White (note 155). Can you hear our current remedial literacy crises in this? Stoddard isn’t speaking in metaphors. He means that the war is real. 

To illustrate his point, Stoddard offers a color-coded map graphically arguing for how the outer dikes threaten the inner ones (see Figure below). On the map, areas are controlled by “Nordics” (red), “Alpines” (green), and “Mediterraneans” (grey). These are various White races. The rest of the globe undulates with waves of Brown, Yellow, and Black races, all of which threaten White hegemony. 

Stoddard shows us the historical pattern and logic of racist discourse. The language race war, like the other fronts of the global race war, is about protecting assumed White property. This is the logic behind redlining to protect real estate property from Black, Latine and other Americans of color in the U.S., or projects to build border walls between the U.S. and Mexico. There are no discussions to build such walls between the racially White nation to our north, Canada, and the U.S. The White settlements, the White property, that Stoddard speaks of are understood as crucial inner dikes that need protecting because they are the last defense of the White centers of property. For Stoddard, we have always been in a race war, one that is global and ubiquitous, one fought on many fronts, on the ground, in the law courts, and in our schools. 

Stoddard is concerned with Asia first, but he acknowledges that the White race must let Asia go, but control them, hem them in. He says, “Our true ‘outer dikes’ stand, not in Asia, but in Africa and Latin America” (note 156). He explains: 

But against these race-frontiers—these “inner dikes”—the rising tide of color has for decades been beating, and will beat yet more fiercely as congesting population, quickened self-consciousness, and heightened sense of power impel the colored world to expansion and dominion. Above the eastern horizon the dark storm-clouds lower, and the weakened, distracted white world must soon face a colored peril threatening its integrity and perhaps its existence. This colored peril has three facets: the peril of arms, the peril of markets, and the peril of migration. All three contain ominous potentialities, both singly and in combination. (note 157)

Education, schools, and literacy in the U.S. are inner dikes that teachers of all stripes too often protect from the rising tide of students of color. The rising remediation rates in schools are understood as a “peril threatening” the “integrity” and “existence” of the U.S., and perhaps Western civilization. But what they really show us are language differences. 

Today, we don’t explicitly make the racialized argument that Stoddard did. It’s about literacy and illiteracy. And we pretend as if we aren’t fighting in a language race war. We pretend that literacy isn’t synonymous with how White groups of people language with the result of controlling things -- everything really. We defend our practices and actions by arguing that we’re teaching clear expression, or literacy standards, or preparing our students for their futures, but the racialized consequences are the same as they’ve ever been. Deny and punish BIPOC. Keep them out of the good schools, the good neighborhoods, the good paying jobs. No college for you. 

Consider Stoddard's use of the noted eugenicist, Madison Grant. He’s coming to a conclusion about limiting or eliminating immigration to the inner dikes -- walling people out, or in. If we substitute the racial references, such as “race-soul,” for references about language clarity, English standards, or dominant conventions, the passage could be applied to the literacy or language classroom and a defense of singular English language standards for the betterment of all students, or rather of a Whiten society. 

One fact should be clearly understood: If America is not true to her own race-soul, she will inevitably lose it, and the brightest star that has appeared since Hellas will fall like a meteor from the human sky, its brilliant radiance fading into the night. “We Americans,” says Madison Grant, “must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the melting-pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to ‘all distinctions of race, creed, or color,’ the type of native American of colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles and the Viking of the days of Rollo.” (note 158)

The “We Americans” Grant references is the same White group that Stoddard is trying to protect from the rising tide of color. The non-Americans are people of color who are seen as mad or crazy. In effect, BIPOC are understood as ill-equipped to function as citizens, turning the country into “an asylum for the oppressed.” And America has done this to itself apparently because of our “maudlin sentimentalism.” 

I hear the same logics and arguments from those who wish to maintain "high standards" or "rigor" in literacy classrooms. These are code words for White habits of language as the standard. It's framed usually as an altruistic and democratic goal for everyone. These arguments tend to appeal to our sense of "respecting" BIPOC by assuming all students have the same capabilities and so should have the same rights to learning What Englishes. But students' capabilities to learn any English are not debated. It is the uneven conditions in which BIPOC students learn any English. What is debated is how we should acknowledge the historical racist legacies of White Language Supremacy in our schools and standards for languaging? 

Can you hear the false logic, the tacit ad hominem attack? It’s the same kind of argument we hear today in gestures to “libtards” and “feminazis.” These are not compassionate or understanding arguments. They avoid the actual argument itself, rely on common sense ideas of liberals and feminists that are generated from racist discourse. They aren't trying to dialogue or come to the best decision in a case. They aren’t interested in agreement. This rhetoric is similar to racist rhetoric. It uses difference as an identification of something bad or wrong because it threatens one’s personal sense of things and assumes the right answer in a debate about what that answer is.   

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes. 

Consider your typical writing standards or expectations, maybe they are captured in a rubric. Examine them very closely. 

What inner dikes of language are you protecting by the enforcement of this rubric or set of expectations? How many other ways in language are there to accomplish each expectation or rubric item? Given what you’ve seen in your students’ writing, who in your current classrooms has the most access to the inner dikes you protect? 

There is no more fitting analogy to what we do in literacy classrooms than Stoddard’s description of inner dikes. Schools today are literally and figuratively White settlements. Many built on land stolen from indigenous peoples, which have become tacitly, as Stoddard makes clear, a White entitlement, an inner dike, to protect and pass on to the next generation. It's also a trench in a language race war, a trench we all crawl around in as teachers. 

I end this blogpost with some brave questions. 

To my White identifying audience: Do you feel your hands are clean? I mean, you didn’t steal the land, kill the indigenous people on it, or promote White racial supremacy. You didn’t keep the last Black generation, or the one before it, from owning homes in areas where you grew up, or kept them from well-funded schools, did you? You didn’t make up the standard for English proficiency in your classroom, did you? You just had good conditions to learn it, or opportunities to rise up out of your poverty, and now you make others learn your English too no matter their conditions. How can you embody antiracist teaching in your classroom in a body that has benefitted so much form the racist systems we are all a part of? 

To my BIPOC identifying audience: Do you think that you have to identify as White in order to use a White hegemonic standard? Do you think that only White teachers participate in White language supremacy? Do you know where the trenches are in the language race war and what you are doing in them to stop the fighting, or change it? Do you think you might participate in redlining in your classrooms? Maybe you are grading by the standards taught to you in your schools and colleges, standards that have, through hard work and perseverance, paradoxically afforded you a plot of green land in a mostly barren territory. Are you trying to cultivate your plot, or re-survey and decolonize the territory?  


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.