John Rickford is an emeritus professor at Stanford and president of the Linguistic Society of America.

September 20, 2018

Stanford Sociolinguist: Black Vernacular English Speakers Face Discrimination

Print More

Correction: The Sun previously reported that George Zimmerman is a police officer, when in fact he was a neighborhood watch volunteer. The Sun also incorrectly stated Zimmerman’s race.

American courts, police forces, job search processes and standardized education systems all discriminate against speakers of Black Vernacular English, a Stanford sociolinguist argued at a talk in Klarman Hall on Tuesday.

Prof. John Rickford, linguistics and the humanities, Stanford University, said the historically white standard English is constructed as more trustworthy, intelligent and well-educated than African-American Vernacular English — and dismantling this construction is part of the fight for racial justice.

In addition to being an emeritus professor at Stanford, Rickford is president of the Linguistic Society of America and former president of the Society of Caribbean Linguistics, among many other honors. He has written, edited or co-authored 117 academic scholarly articles and 16 books.

During his talk, Rickford cited a study in Philadelphia that found court reporters were only 59.5 percent accurate in their transcriptions of witnesses who spoke using Black Vernacular English, though the required accuracy rate is 95 percent.

For part of his research, Rickford spoke with Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, killed him on February 26, 2012. He said Jeantel “completely transformed” his teaching and research.

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

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.

Rickford said that the modern-day racialization of language that forces black people to assimilate to a white standard is rooted in slavery. 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.

To counteract the achievement gap in schools across the country between black and white students, Rickford argued writing teachers need to teach AAVE speakers the linguistics of both AAVE and standard English, instead of outlawing the vernacular and attempting to standardize language. Many world-renowned writers, poets and singers use the African-American vernacular, he said, and teaching children that standard and vernacular English are both valid may encourage students to claim the English language as their own.

“There is a very interesting and intimate connection between language variation, social class and race,” Rickford said, “and it has very strong activist implications.”