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The Mayor's Copula

Lo, Newark mayor Cory Booker walked his city, sworn to reducing crime, finds time to correct the language of schoolchildren, too:

Sitting in a conference room with the boys and their parents, Mr. Booker asked the teenagers, Duwon Diggs and Sean Bennett Leboo, about their dreams, peppered them with quotations from Frederick Douglass and Nelson Mandela, and scolded them for their muddled diction and messy hair. He has since taken the boys on as a sort of project, escorting them over the past few weeks to suburban bookstores and first-run movies like “Fearless” and “Gridiron Gang,” treating them to paella in the city’s Portuguese Ironbound section and arranging for tutors from Rutgers University.

The mayor has set ground rules for their relationship: the boys must read books and, when in his company, wear collared shirts and speak thoughtfully constructed English. “People will judge you by the way you look and talk,” he told them. “You’re only 16 and it’s not fair, but that’s how life is.”

All that, even when Diggs and Leboo were caught spray-painting “Death to Cory Booker” in their high school.

The profile mentions how Booker has found governing Newark difficult, in part because race matters more in city affairs than he realized or wanted to acknowledge. His candidate for police director met resistance because he’s white; Booker’s been criticized as “not black enough.” But I find the language moment very telling, as well. Let’s suppose that Diggs and Leboo’s “muddled diction” is actually African American Vernacular English — that is, a dialect and not (as Labov and a million other sociolinguists have shown in the last 30 years) bad English. It follows from this that Booker wants the boys to speak more of a standard dialect — that is, stereotypically white. So Booker doesn’t realize how class matters, either: the environment in which “speaking white” is an asset is one in which upward mobility is possible and available.

If such mobility isn’t possible — then, well, Diggs and Leboo probably understood Booker’s point before he came along: “People will judge you by the way you look and talk.”