A black and white graphic of a collection of fists raised in protest. They are mostly black, but with white hands interspersed. There are several signs which read 'no+racism' showing that this is representing a march or protest. 

Racism, linguistics and the law

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Image Description: A black and white graphic of a collection of fists raised in protest. They are mostly black, but with white hands interspersed. There are several signs which read ‘no+racism’ showing that this is representing a march or protest. 

CW: Discussion of racism and the murder of Trayvon Martin.

If you want to know what white privilege is, here’s a story that perfectly exemplifies it: the dismissal of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in court. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was chased down and shot by George Zimmerman. Initially let free, Zimmerman was eventually put on trial after public pressure—however, the jury acquitted him of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013. The acquittal was largely based on the jury simply not understanding nor believing ‘star witness’ Rachel Jeantel.

Jeantel was so-called because she was phoning Trayvon as Zimmerman chased him and until moments before his death. It was, as Rickford and King state, “akin to Trayvon’s being in the courtroom himself, testifying on his own behalf.”[1] The case blew up all over social media and the phrase Black Lives Matter was in fact coined in response to the systematic racism involved in Zimmerman’s acquittal. The reality is that Zimmerman walks free today because racism led the jury to not believe Jeantel.

That conclusion is so powerful. It’s a stark indictment of the legal system, and of society. Ever since I read the article, Language and Linguistics on Trial,[1] I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Because what it shows is the unbelievable extent of white privilege—an extent I didn’t fully comprehend. The authors—Rickford and King—outline how one of the many basic privileges denied to people is the privilege of just being understood.

The jury, the lawyers, the media—all of them said they could not understand Jeantel. But this paper’s detailed analysis of the situation yields a blunt conclusion: the physical factors (sound production, loudness) and the linguistic factors (grammar, vocabulary, dialect) would never have undermined Jeantel’s intelligibility. Ingrained racism denies people the simple right of being understood.

What on earth do I mean by that? There has been considerable research demonstrating that factors like race, ethnicity, geography and even social status introduce biases in listeners’ attitudes.[2] Even when the speech recorded is exactly the same, subjects report lower intelligibility when shown a picture of an ethnic minority speaker. Yes, you read that right: when the same speech sample is presented to people, the simple fact that a black person said it means it’s less well understood.

One of the many basic privileges denied to people is the privilege of just being understood.

What’s so shocking is that this isn’t a case of wrongly reporting intelligibility on the basis of race. The subjects aren’t purposefully racist and hence lying. They are being genuine—they genuinely struggle to understand people purely because of the colour of their skin. Indeed, this is true of a number of other factors, including country of origin, ethnicity, and status. It is not about accent, or language, or voice quality, or vocabulary, or anything else. This is about race.

Even as a linguistics student, I still can’t get my head around this. I imagine that for many this does not come as a shock, but my privilege and ignorance, I am ashamed to admit, has made this seem almost impossible to me. For this reason, I’ve chosen to summarise the key points of the 40-ish page article in a way which is accessible to those fortunate enough not to have endured Chomsky’s page-turning Syntactic Structure:

Scientific racism was the historical ‘scientific’ ‘evidence’ (it was neither scientific nor evidential) used to justify racism, slavery and colonialism. Consider Charles White, a so-called ‘Enlightenment thinker’: White argued that white and black people were two different species— an idea called polygeny. So much for being enlightened…

Others, like Alexander Thomas and Samuell Sillen, defended slavery on the basis that black people were ideal to be enslaved because of their “primitive psychological organisation.” Biological racism was probably the most virulent and common form of scientific racism for a long time. Sadly, it continues to this day—although, thankfully, with significantly less scientific support.

So where does scientific racism enter the picture today? One of the more subtle and nefarious forms of scientific racism involves the belief that languages such as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)—a dialect of English—are somehow inferior to English. The ‘reasoning’ for this is varied: such languages apparently ‘lack grammar’, are ‘corrupt’, ‘lack sophistication’, are ‘less complex’, etc.

However, the field of linguistics has systematically shown, time and time again, that AAVE—along with all languages spoken in African and African-American communities—is highly sophisticated and follows strict grammatical rules. Despite this, the belief that such languages are deficient is pervasive and continue to entrench racism today.

Consider the fact that, in 2007, a population-wide survey found that 70% of people in Jamaica favoured a bilingual education in Jamaican and English.[3] Yet, utterly false views about Jamaican being ‘bad’ have continued to be a hindrance to achieving this necessary education. Introducing bilingual teaching would benefit vast numbers of children and allow them the education they have a right to. But pervasive racist views stop that.

Scientific racism involves embedding pseudoscientific ideas in theories which are hard to disprove, or that oppressed communities cannot disprove, in order to justify racism.

Consider when one linguist, Le Page, went into a Jamaican school in 1968 to talk about the need for students to study the grammar of the languages wrongly portrayed as ‘bad’. The headmaster introduced the linguist by saying:

‘Ladies, there is no doubt that we must eradicate the bad talk of our children, and the answer to this problem is more and more attention to the grammar—they must learn the grammar, there is no substitute for the grammar, and Professor Le Page is here to say something to us about this.'[4]

Le Page had come to talk about grammar to discuss the legitimacy of Jamaican. The headmaster thought he was there to delegitimise it on that very basis. The look on the headmaster’s face after the talk was notably different.

Scientific racism involves embedding pseudoscientific ideas in theories which are hard to disprove, or that oppressed communities cannot disprove, in order to justify racism. Toni Morrison summed it up perfectly when she said that, “the very serious function of racism is distraction… Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”[5]

So back to Rachel Jeantel. Firstly, as Rickford, King and many others have shown time and time again: AAVE is a highly sophisticated dialect of English. It should be noted that there are genuine distinctions between AAVE and English, so intelligibility issues may genuinely have been introduced. But, again, it was racism that stopped this problem from being resolved.

Utterly false assumptions that Jeantel’s speech was somehow ‘bad’ or ‘unsophisticated’ led people to dismiss her, rather than organise court transcriptions or even an interpreter. Lisa Bloom, a lawyer and TV legal analyst who was present for the whole trial, reported that “Jeantel spoke an urban teenaged lingo that was an alien tongue to most.”[6] Had the ‘star witness’ been someone speaking French, there would be no doubt that an interpreter and probably even a transcript would have been provided. Structural racism is pervasive.

“When the speaker is represented… as Asian rather than Caucasian, he is rated as being much more accented and harder to comprehend, even though raters are evaluating the same native-speaker.”

The gaslighting that followed involved scapegoating factors that seemed reasonable to blame. Many people agreed that Jeantel spoke with an unintelligible lisp despite linguistic analysis finding that this would have had an insignificant effect on understanding. There was a strong feeling that the acoustics in the room were awful and Jeantel was a quiet speaker. However, acoustic analysis disavowed this reasoning.

The reality is that everyone has been fed slight and subtly racist tropes and assumptions throughout our lives. This means that we have hard-to-prove racist habits. For example, one researcher conducted an experiment perfectly summarised by the conclusion; “when the speaker is represented… as Asian rather than Caucasian, he is rated as being much more accented and harder to comprehend, even though raters are evaluating the same native-speaker accent in each case.”[7][8]

What we must understand is that the subjects of these experiments aren’t ‘the bad ones’ or ‘the racist ones’. They are all of us. In 1973, one researcher found that “teachers rated the same Standard English audio track as sounding much more “nonethnic-standard” and somewhat more “confident-eager” when associated with a video image of a White child than with a video image of either a Black or Mexican American child.”[9][10] These attitudes are common in our education system, in our legal system, in all of society. That’s what structural racism means.

“teachers rated the same Standard English audio track as sounding much more “nonethnic-standard” and somewhat more “confident-eager” when associated with a video image of a White child than with a video image of either a Black or Mexican American child.”

Jeantel’s case was without a doubt worsened by the fact that she was a woman who was ‘dark-skinned, and overweight.’ Racism is one of the worst manifestations of this linguistics problem, but there are so many other social prejudices where it reveals itself; it is an intersectional problem. One linguistics study concluded that “the suspect was rated as significantly more guilty when he employed a Birmingham rather than a standard accent, and that attributions of guilt were significantly associated with the suspects’ superiority and social attractiveness.”[11]

One final study, just to hammer the point home. (If you want to read more about the evidence as a whole, read pages 30-32 of Rickford and King, below; it’s staggering.) Frumkin concluded on the basis of evidence from *undergraduates* that all other things being equal, “the eyewitness who stated that she was German was perceived as more credible than the Mexican eyewitness, who in turn was perceived as more credible than was the Lebanese eyewitness.”[12] This was in spite of Frumkin eliminating any accent distinction. This is a race issue.

The reality is that, as Bloom summarises, “Jeantel’s speech patterns because they are associated with poor African Americans, were perceived by many, including the people who mattered most, the jurors, as unintelligent, and worse, evidence that she was not credible.”[13]

What’s so problematic is that, in individual circumstances, when someone says ‘I’m not being listened to because of systematic discrimination’, such testimony is so often dismissed. The accusation is waved away as a figment of someone’s imagination, or as a result of some supposedly scientific reason: a lisp, voice quality, sound level, acoustics, accent… The list goes on and on.

There will always be another scapegoat for racism, and we cannot expect individuals to have the resources to unearth scientific reports—or worse, to conduct these experiments themselves.

We must take accusations of racism and other forms of discrimination seriously, because we cannot place the burden on an individual to produce that evidence. Fortunately, scientific evidence has unambiguously refuted biological and linguistic racism. But as Toni Morrison summarised, “there will always be one more thing.” There will always be another scapegoat for racism, and we cannot expect individuals to have the resources to unearth scientific reports—or worse, to conduct these experiments themselves – what a failure our legal system would then be. It is our moral responsibility to take these claims seriously.

Moreover, we must take on collective responsibility for this sort of structural, ingrained racism. There are a lot of people who are theoretically on board with tackling racism but see no problem with what they perceive as mere slights. They mock ‘microaggressions’, decolonising curricula and taking down statues. The effect of these small things is huge: the black community isn’t taken as seriously, listened to, or understood—even in court.

As Lippi-Green points out, these negative stereotypes are perpetuated by news and entertainment media—the mocking crows in Dumbo, the mean hyenas in The Lion King— instilling an association between dialect and “trifling, bullying, unsavoury characters.”[14][15] No one wants to destroy children’s imaginations, but we need to think carefully about the effect of feeding them the racist associations promoted by Disney films. It’s one of the reasons blackface is so nefarious.

Jeantel internalised what is a societal problem as a personal flaw.

I think one of the saddest things about the entire case is that, when asked by Piers Morgan why the public mocked her, Jeantel said “I have an underbite… The words I say, I can’t, it can’t come out right.” Jeantel blamed her own lisp as the reason Zimmerman went free. Ultimately, though, specialists have concluded that the underbite was not the cause. This shows the severe gaslighting black communities face in all areas of life. Because Jeantel was not able to rightly point the blame at prevalent racist attitudes. She couldn’t blame the structural discrimination that led to the jury not taking her seriously, not believing her, and not understanding her. Instead, she internalised what is a societal problem as a personal flaw. I find that to be particularly poignant.

Image Credit: Samilustrando @ pixabay

Sources

[1] This article is informed greatly by the fantastic article by Rickford and King which you can access here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/641206/pdf?casa_token=QfhVLGaxMEYAAAAA:2puO5jgabS8qoejQmGDd7IEwGKXzE9wcn_OBBOG-7mrbT-ewkoumXlzZ0P6ND7VSljjB-H2rbGg

[2] Lindemann & Subtirelu. 2013. Reliably biased: The role of listener expectation in the perception of second language speech. Language Learning.

[3] Devonish, Hubert & Carpenter. 2007. Towards full bilingualism in education: The Jamaican bilingual primary education project. Social and Economic Studies. p301.

[4] Le Page. 1968. Problems to be faced in the use of English as the medium of education in four West Indian territories. Language problems of developing nations. pp437–38.

[5] Morrison, Toni. 1975. A humanist view. Paper presented at a conference on Black Studies at Portland State University. [You can listen to this here: https://soundcloud.com/portland-state-library/portland-state-black-studies-1]

[6] Bloom. 2014. Suspicion nation: The inside story of the Trayvon Martin injustice and why we continue to repeat it. p132.

[7] Rubin, D.L. 1992. Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education. p518.

[8] Quote from Rickford and King.

[9] Williams. 1973. Some research notes on dialect attitudes and stereotypes. Language attitudes: Current trends and prospects.

[10] Quote is a summary from Rickford et al. 2013, p291.

[11] Dixon, Mahoney & Cocks. 2002. Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, race, and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. p162.

[12] Frumkin. 2007. Influences of accent and ethnic background on perceptions of eyewitness testimony. Psychology, Crime & Law. p327.

[13] Bloom. 2014. Suspicion nation: The inside story of the Trayvon Martin injustice and why we continue to repeat it. p133.

[14] Lippi-Green 2012. English with an accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the US. pp101-129.

[15] Quote from Rickford and King.

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