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By Patrice D. Johnson,
Racists have some
slippery ways of denying their guilt. When charged with administering
job or school application tests that are culturally biased, they claim
the tests are "merit-based." When racist cops stop and search
an innocent young Black man driving through a white neighborhood, they
cite crime statistics to back up their actions. And when racist landlords
reject potential Black tenants on the basis of a phone call, they say
they had no way of knowing the callers were Black.
Well, in the case
of the landlords, it's becoming increasingly difficult to crawl behind
the color-blind cover. Research by John Baugh, a professor of education
and linguistics at Stanford University, and others has demonstrated
that racial identification by speech takes place all the time, and it
has had several legal implications.
For example, in
1999 racial identification by speech was used to convict a Black man.
A Kentucky Supreme Court judge, hearing an appeal by the man, convicted
for drug trafficking in a sting operation, ruled that it was proper
for a white police officer to identify a suspect as Black solely on
the basis of the voice he heard in an audio transmission from a wired
The officer testified
that in his 13 years on the force he had had numerous conversations
with Black males and knew the voice of a Black man when he heard one.
The judge, upholding the conviction, stated that no one suggested it
was improper for the officer to identify one of the voices he heard
as being that of a female. Thus, "We perceive no reason why a witness
could not likewise identify a voice as being that of a particular race
or nationality, so long as the witness is personally familiar with the
general characteristics, accents or speech patterns of the race or nationality
In this case the
defendant was done in by "linguistic profiling." Surely you've
heard of its sister, racial profiling, a practice infamously employed
by police officers, who stop and search Blacks simply because they fit
a "profile." In linguistic profiling, however, the racial
cues are aural rather than visual.
The Racial Imprint
Call it TWB - Talking
While Black. A person has a telephone conversation with someone he has
never seen before and draws a conclusion about the race of that person
based solely on the way the person sounds.
insidious about that - on the face of it. We can usually tell if a person
is a man, a woman, young or old, a Southerner or a Latino in the space
of a five-minute telephone conversation. But linguistic profiling is
somebody "acting upon that racial or demographic imprint in a criminal
way by denying [the victims] access to a business transaction that should
not be in any way biased, based on a person's racial background,"
His own personal
experience with linguistic profiling occurred a few years ago, when
he was looking for a place to live in California. He would call up in
response to an ad in the paper, but when he would show up, he would
learn that the apartment was unavailable. He believes that it is because
over the phone, when he uses his "professional voice," he
sounds White. When he appeared in person, he was handed all sorts of
excuses for why he could not rent - none being, of course, the obvious
fact that he was Black.
So Baugh went about
trying to prove what he had suspected. Having grown up in the inner
city, in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Baugh was exposed to a variety
of ethnic dialects and considers himself "linguistically dexterous."
He began telephoning renters and would say, "Hello, I'm calling
about the apartment you have advertised in the paper." He would
make some calls using his professional voice. Other times he would modify
his voice, repeating the same sentence with the same grammar but with
an intonation that was unmistakably Black. He made more than 100 calls
and found that his "Black" voice got half as many calls back
as his "White" voice. It did not matter that when Baugh used
his Black voice he was speaking perfect, standard English.
Apparently if a
speaker on the telephone sounds African-American, he is subject to the
same kind of racial discrimination as he might be in a face-to-face
At least Baugh,
when speaking in his professional voice, got called back and was able
to make it to the second stage of the interview process. But what about
those African-Americans who call about apartments, or jobs, or loans
who never get called back and have no idea why? After all, they may
be well educated, and gainfully employed; in other words they look great
on paper. What could possibly put them at a disadvantage? According
to Baugh and others, it is simply TWB. The work that he has done with
the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), a civil rights organization
that focuses on housing discrimination, bears this out.
The National Fair
Housing Act makes it illegal to deny housing, loans or insurance to
anyone on the basis of race. In loans and insurance, particularly, most
of the transactions are conducted over the phone. Very often whether
you are able to obtain financing at a reasonable rate rests on how the
person at the other end perceives you by your voice. Sometimes the first
thing out of an insurance agent's mouth, once he or she has guessed
that the caller is Black, is "Have your ever had any claims against
you? Have you ever cancelled?" says the NFHA's executive director
based on linguistic profiling has been difficult to prove. Unless there
is some smoking gun - a written telephone message, saying the caller
sounds Black,or Mexican or whatever - judges have been reluctant to
hear such cases. Baugh's research has been employed by the NFHA to prove
that renters, loan companies and the insurance agents do treat callers
differently based on racial identification by voice.
In one experiment
Baugh and others tape-recorded the same phrase,"Hello, I'm calling
about the apartment you have advertised in the paper," changing
the phonology - the sound or accent - of the voice, but always using
standard, grammatical English. All the speakers were adults. The subjects
of the experiment then had to identify as many social demographics of
the speakers as they could, whether they were men or women, Northerners
or Southerners, Black, White or Latino, young or old. (Baugh spoke three
different times, using his African-American voice, his professional
voice, and his Latino dialect.)
Over 75 percent
of the time in the Latino case, over 80 percent of the time in the African-American
case, and over 88 percent of the time in the instances in which Baugh
used his professional voice, the subjects identified the speakers correctly
as either Mexican or Puerto Rican, Black or White. Baugh, using his
three voices, was able to demonstrate that just by manipulating intonation,
he could lead people to very different conclusions about the speaker.
In another experiment
Baugh's colleague spliced the word, "hello" out of the complete
phrase. The result was over 90 percent recognition with accuracy for
racial identification, using that word alone.
The NFHA chose
its linguistic testers based upon whether a "control" person
was able to identify correctly the race or national origin of the tester
over the phone. Evidence was gathered in states where it is legal to
tape a phone conversation. When an African-American tester would call
about renting an apartment, the landlord would lie and say it was already
rented. When a White tester followed up, the apartment was once again
available and an appointment would be set up for him to come see the
It is so easy for
landlords to get away with this kind of discrimination, because all
they have to say is, "Oh, you know what? There are three people
ahead of you. Why don't you give me your name, and if those fall through,
I'll call you." To the caller that sounds legitimate. "African-Americans
and Latinos simply don't report that," says Smith. "That's
why we do testing. We can catch that sophisticated lie that's used to
In a lawsuit filed
last fall, in San Francisco's U.S. District Court, lawyers for the plaintiff,
James Johnson, attempt to show how linguistic profiling was used to
deny him an opportunity to seek better housing in the neighborhood where
he lived. Johnson, who lives in San Leandro, CA and was looking for
a larger apartment two years ago, saw a For Rent sign in front of an
apartment complex on his block, and called the number listed on the
sign to inquire. He got a voice-mail message, instructing callers to
leave their name and telephone number, which he did, adding that he
had worked at Kraft Foods as a supervisor for 20 years.
When Johnson did
not receive a response to his message, he called repeatedly and left
several messages at the same telephone number. He never got a call back.
Exasperated, he gave up. Months later, Johnson saw a For Rent sign posted
again in front of the same apartment complex and called the number to
inquire - five or six times, leaving voice-mail messages each time.
Again, no reply.
Johnson asked a
friend, a Latino who "sounds white," to call about the apartment.
The friend called, left a message and got a call back on the same day
from one of the owners of the complex. She told the friend that an apartment
was available. Johnson then filed a housing discrimination complaint
with the local fair housing center. The center conducted an investigation,
with five different testers - two Black and three White - calling the
apartment complex owners about availabilities and leaving their names
and numbers in voice-mail messages. The White testers all got called
back the same day. The Black testers' calls were never returned.
The NFHA has filed
suits charging Prudential with racial discrimination against African-Americans
in Milwaukee, Richmond, Toledo, Washington, D.C. and Chester, Pa. All
of the testing in those cases was done over the telephone, says Smith.
In some instances African-American testers would call repeatedly to
inquire about insurance, but were never called back. The white testers
calling the same agents had glaringly different experiences. They were
given quotes and encouraged to purchase the insurance. Furthermore,
says Smith, when an insurance agent thinks that the person on the other
end is white, the agent will market to that customer a whole array of
products that the African-American caller will never get to hear about
- auto, along with home-owner's insurance, for example - which can lower
In cases like these,
Baugh's research is used to counter claims by the defendants that they
have no way of telling whether a caller is Black or not, and that it
is even racist to suggest as much. But common sense tells us this is
not true. Science confirms it.
So, who's screening
out Black callers? Very likely people who are less educated and earn
less money than those on the other end. In some instances a White person
conducting business over the phone may be asked to practice linguistic
profiling by his or her supervisor. Smith mentions a case in Alabama
where a White apartment manager contacted the local Fair Housing group
to report that the apartment owner told her if she suspected that a
caller was Black, to tell him or her nothing was available. Smith also
recalls a conversation she had with a White woman working for an employment
services company, who had been instructed to get callers to say the
word "ask." If they pronounced it "ax," that was
one way of identifying them as African-American. (Baugh says that particular
pronunciation is most commonly associated with Blacks.) Smith, who is
White, says, "We get to hear these things all the time."
The only way to
put a stop to linguistic profiling is for those who know about it to
report it and make the offenders pay. No need for Blacks to hire speech
coaches. What's called for is not more pear-shaped tones, but more organizational
muscle, exercised by the likes of the NFHA and its local affiliates.
Patrice D. Johnson
is a writer living in New York City.
Sources that contributed
to this commentary:
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