Stanford Sociolinguist: Black Vernacular English Speakers Face Discrimination

By: Magdalena Smith,  The Cornell Daily Sun
September 20, 2018

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.

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Prof. John Rickford