English spoken by blacks and whites in the United States is becoming increasingly different, making misunderstanding between the races more likely, according to a study by a University of Pennsylvania linguist.
"Our results can be seen as signals of the dangerous drift of our society toward a permanent division between black and white," said William Labov, who headed the three-year study.
-- Recent news item.
I'm starting to appreciate the professor's point. I've just asked a senior government official to explain the recent order that would keep the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development from keeping statistics on race and sex. If he had told me that the administration no longer wants the statistics because it doesn't give a damn whether real estate agents, lenders, insurers and developers discriminate against minorities and women, I wouldn't have been pleased, but I would have understood his language. Civil rights enforcers in the affected agencies are complaining that the new ban will make their work all but impossible.
But while this senior official, who asked not to be quoted by name, answered in English that sounds like mine, his words fell short of making sense to me. "It's absolute b.s.," he said. "They (the complaining civil rights enforcers) are trying to make it into something that it's not."
Well, what is it?
"It's a question of whether the information is duplicative and whether it has utility," the official said. "One of the forms I saw asked not just for racial data on loan applicants and co-applicants but also wanted the race of spouses. Are they trying to see whether there is special discrimination against interracial couples? It just seems to me that a lot of the information they are gathering is unnecessary, and a lot of it already exists elsewhere in the government."
No doubt it does. But why should the agencies most directly associated with federal housing programs be forbidden to gather directly the information necessary to see that the programs are administered fairly, and that they reach the people they are supposed to reach?
It is, said the official, a question of reducing "burden hours" -- the time it takes to fill in those race and sex blanks. "Besides, it raises the question of whether the census data could be used (by the bureaucracy itself) to facilitate discrimination."
Was he suggesting that discrimination by the bureaucracy is a bigger threat than discrimination by the housing industry? Well, not quite. "If they really think they need the information, they ought to come to us and ask for a modification of our proposal instead of running to the press." This official is not the only member of the administration who speaks a form of English blacks find hard to comprehend. Attorney General Ed Meese and his deputy for civil rights, Brad Reynolds, are hard at work trying to get cities with long-settled and effective programs for integrating their work forces and desegregating their schools to reopen those cases. Why? Because they believe in racial fairness.
To the NAACP, which has sued to block the Justice Department's efforts to reopen settled consent decrees, the administration's words (and actions) constitute a full-scale assault on civil rights. The administration, incredulous and hurt that it should be so profoundly misunderstood, imagines that it is only hastening the day of a colorblind society.
Maybe what we need is a course in remedial English. How about it, Prof. Labov?