At UMass lecture, Stanford professor tackles prejudice against African-American English in courtrooms

  •  In this July 26, 2013, file photo, Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, holds up a card with a photo of her son as she speaks at the National Urban League's annual conference in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Matt Rourke. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

AMHERST — Almost four years ago, a Sanford, Florida jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin — an unarmed African-American teenager — polarized the nation.

The testimony of Martin’s longtime friend, Rachel Jeantel, took center stage during the month-long trial. Jeantel had been on the phone with Martin as he was walking through a gated community where he lived at the time, when Zimmerman, who was a member of the neighborhood watch, approached him and asked what he was doing in the neighborhood. An altercation ensued, and Martin was shot dead.

Jeantel’s testimony was crucial to the prosecution, according to Stanford linguistics expert John Rickford, because it was as close as jurors were going to get to ever actually hearing from Martin. The then-19-year-old’s testimony became a lightning rod for ridicule and harassment because of the way she spoke. Critics called her testimony unintelligible. Others said the hard-to-understand testimony was indicative of a lack of intelligence and that she lacked credibility as a witness.

Rickford told an auditorium of roughly 200 attendees Friday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Freeman Lecture for Linguistics that these criticisms shone a light on a major problem of the criminal justice system: Peretuating prejudice against African-American English dialects.

He provided excerpts from Jeantel’s 2013 testimony. In this particular excerpt, Jeantel is recalling Martin trying to evade Zimmerman, who is following behind.

“And he say he — he by, ahm, the area that his daddy house is, his daddy fiancee house is, and I told him ‘Keep running.’ He said, and he said, ‘Naw,’ he’ll just walk faster. I’m like, ‘oh-oh.’ And I — I ain’t complaing ‘cause he was breathing hard, so I understand why.”

Jeantel is not unintelligent, Rickford said, and she’s not forsaking proper English-language conventions — she’s speaking a different dialect: African-American Vernacular English. The dialect varies among social classes and cultures.

“A lot of people’s lives hang in the balance on whether their testimony is heard accurately or not,” Rickford told the auditorium. “Nobody mentioned Jeantel in the jury deliberations. The most important defense was never mentioned … I think that had to do with her dialect.”

Rickford, who teaches at Stanford University, specializes in sociolinguistics and studies how language intersects with ethnicity and social class.

Rickford said this is a problem that widely permeates the judicial system that prioritizes courtroom speed and efficiency, rather than what’s right.

For example, just as interpreters for foreign languages are used in courts of law for parties whose primary language is not English, Rickford said the same courtesy ought to be offered to individuals whose dialects don’t reflect conventional English grammar.

“The people who are involved in the criminal justice system are totally unaware of this research,” he said in an interview. “I’m not sure if they want to be aware … there’s a real pressure to keep things moving in the court. So, making provisions for dialect speakers would probably slow things up. It would give you better justice, but people are not necessarily always interested in that.”

Seated in the audience was Briyana Joseph, 20, a psychology and sociology student at Mt. Holyoke College. Rickford’s message, she said, was one that resonated her. As an African-American woman from Miami, Joseph said the way she speaks to friends and classmates in New England is not how she might engage with those back home.

“Basically what I heard from him was using vernacular and Ebonics and all these other great things us African-American people use, it makes it difficult for people to understand us. And because of that, it makes us sound less credible and reliable,” Joseph said. “I realize that I speak pretty much the same way as Trayvon’s friend when I’m home, but I can’t do that when I’m here.”

Because of that, she added, “I really think about how I speak, especially here in New England, because I don’t want people to think of me as being less intelligent or less credible than I actually am.”

After being away from school for an extended period of time, Joseph’s friends will pick up on a shift in the way she speaks immediately, she said.

“They say ‘Oh, we hear that Miami in you again. And I’m like ‘What do you mean by that?’ And then I realize by like the third or fourth week, I don’t sound like that at all,” Joseph said. “And my friends in Miami are like, ‘You sound white again.’ and I’m just like ‘Whatever.’”

“If this is what I have to do for now to make it somewhere in the world, this is what I’m going to do,” Joseph said of her linguistic fluidity. “That’s how I feel.”

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.