Black Dialects a Barrier to Justice

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Independence Hall, originally known as Pennsylvania State House is where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
A new study finds
that Philadelphia court reporters did not accurately transcribe the speech of
speakers of African American English (AAE) at the 95% accuracy standard for
which they received their industry certifications.
evaluation revealed that only 59.5% of the transcribed sentences were accurate,
and 77% of the time the transcriptionists could not paraphrase what they heard.
Perhaps most shockingly, 11% of the transcriptions made no sense whatsoever.
The study is
a four-year joint effort by Jessica Kalbfeld of NYU’s sociology department,
Ryan Hancock of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, and Robin Clark and
Taylor Jones of the University of Pennsylvania’s linguistics department. It has
been accepted for publication by the journal Language.
researchers had access to twenty-seven court stenographers currently working in
the Philadelphia courts, which is fully a third of the official court reporter
pool. To reiterate, all transcriptionists are required to be certified at 95%
accuracy; however, those certifications are based primarily on the speech of
lawyers and judges.
The researchers
recruited nine native speakers of AAE from West Philadelphia, North
Philadelphia, Harlem, and Jersey City. Each of the speakers, of which there
were four women and five men, were recorded reading eighty-three different
sentences taken from actual speech from speakers of AAE.
The court reporters were asked to transcribe and paraphrase the
recordings they heard, which were played clearly and at a pitch louder than
they were used to in court. None of them performed at 95% accuracy, by any type
of evaluation.
According to
Taylor Jones, “We picked the “best ears in the room” and found that they don’t
always understand or accurately transcribe African American English. And
crucially, what the transcriptionist writes down becomes the official FACT of
what was said.”
Jones also
discussed the fact that linguistic discrimination is symptomatic of anti-black
racism and attitudes about language that emphasize that there is one correct
manner of speaking. In reality, AAE is a rule-governed, systematic dialect that
is as valid as any other.
Jones wrote that
many of the court reporters assumed criminality on the part of the AAE
speakers, and many expressed the wish that the AAE speakers spoke “better
English.” Jones also noted that the court reporters were not “unrepentant
racist ideologues.” Rather, they were professionals, both white and black,
whose trainings did not match their tasks.
Responding to
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter,
Temple law professor Jules Epstein questioned if it was not just stenographers,
but also jurors, judges, and lawyers who were misunderstanding AAE speakers,
and what that implied about the quality of justice
dispensed by the courts.


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