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Stanford prof: Speakers of ‘black’ English face widespread discrimination

A sociolinguist from Stanford University claims the way African-Americans speak leads to discrimination across the board — in the court system, interactions with police, education, and employment.

Professor John Rickford says “Black Vernacular English” is viewed as less “trustworthy, intelligent and well-educated” than so-called standard “white” English, and that “dismantling this construction is part of the fight for racial justice.”

Speaking at Cornell University on Tuesday, Rickford, who is the current president of the Linguistic Society of America, said the “modern-day racialization of language” — which mandates that African-Americans conform to the white norm — has its roots in slavery.

The Cornell Daily Sun reports Rickford noted how court reporters in Philadelphia were woefully deficient when it came to transcribing testimony from black witnesses, and he highlighted how a meeting with Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak with Trayvon Martin before “white police officer George Zimmerman” shot and killed him, was an eye-opener.

“Her testimony was in very cultured, very deeply vernacular African-American language and was neither fully understood nor believed,” he said.

(Note: Zimmerman was neither a police officer nor entirely white, but this is Sun writer Magdalena Smith’s error, not Rickford’s. The Sun has since stealth-corrected the story, but here’s a screencap of the original paragraph in question.)

From the story:

Rickford used research regarding racialized interactions between civilians and the police force, the school-to-prison pipeline, the racial achievement gap, racial socioeconomic inequality, and mass incarceration to support the arguments in his talk. According to Rickford, it was found that regardless of if a cop is black or white, they will use less respectful language when speaking with black citizens. He said that in job interviews, AAVE was often associated with stupidity, lack of education and poverty, forcing many black people to assimilate their speech patterns in professional contexts.

Linguistic politics today are based more on race than class, which Rickford analogized to how white poor and working class people historically aligned themselves with wealthy white people rather to suppress slave rebellions, with no benefit to themselves.

Rickford also noted the prevalence of the school-to-prison pipeline in many American public schools, the environment of fear, policing and criminalization it creates, and the connections between the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration of disproportionately Black and Latinx people.

Rickford recommended that writing teachers in American schools teach BVE speakers “the linguistics of both [BVE] and standard English, instead of outlawing the vernacular and attempting to standardize language.”

MORE: Scholars defend ‘African American English,’ including improper grammar

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