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.

Sentence-by-sentence 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.

The 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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