According to sociolinguist Professor John Rickford, black people face discrimination in the courts, the employment sector, and in their interactions with law enforcement not only because of the color of their skin but because of the way they talk. The Stanford University professor told students at Cornell this week that “Black Vernacular English” is seen as a dialect used by those who are less “trustworthy, intelligent, and well-educated” than those who use “white” English on a day-to-day basis. He said in his seminar that it was important to tear down these presumptions as part of “the fight for racial justice.”
Rickford claimed that part of the reason that George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting of Trayvon Martin was that jurors were biased against the victim’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel.
“Her testimony was in very cultured, very deeply vernacular African-American language and was neither fully understood nor believed,” he said.
This is not a new claim on Rickford’s part. He was featured in a Stanford News article shortly after the acquittal in which he suggested that the jury (and the American public) largely dismissed Jeantal’s testimony because of linguistic prejudice.
From the Stanford News, 2014:
Rickford, one of the world’s leading experts on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, said that Jeantel was misunderstood and discredited by the jury because of the way she talks.
Jeantel was subjected to cruel public commentary for her “ungrammatical blather.” But Rickford noted that Jeantel is actually “fluent in a variety of English that’s been in existence for centuries. She speaks a very systematic, regular variety of AAVE.”
At the Cornell lecture, Rickford said that the way forward was to incorporate BVE into the school curriculum. Teachers, he said, should teach BVE speakers “the linguistics of both BVE and standard English, instead of outlawing the vernacular and attempting to standardize language.”
We don’t doubt that some of Rickford’s observations are correct, but he’s not exactly breaking new ground when he says that people are judged on the way they speak. Where he errs is in assigning this judgement to racism. You don’t think that MSNBC goes out of its way to find countryfied dialects when they roam the streets looking for Trump supporters? You think an employer is going to take seriously an applicant who talks like a good ol’ boy from Pennsyltucky? These are just the facts of the world, and they are as true for an Italian kid from Brooklyn as they are for a black kid from Sanford, Florida.
The idea of throwing “standardized English” out the window because kids grow up in ethnic/cultural neighborhoods is silly and unproductive. It may soothe the liberal racist soul, but it does nothing to bring these communities out of poverty. It only entrenches them more deeply.