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Racists have some slippery ways of denying their guilt. When charged with administering job or school application tests that are culturally biased, they claim the tests are "merit-based." When racist cops stop and search an innocent young Black man driving through a white neighborhood, they cite crime statistics to back up their actions. And when racist landlords reject potential Black tenants on the basis of a phone call, they say they had no way of knowing the callers were Black.

Well, in the case of the landlords, it's becoming increasingly difficult to crawl behind the color-blind cover. Research by John Baugh, a professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University, and others has demonstrated that racial identification by speech takes place all the time, and it has had several legal implications.

For example, in 1999 racial identification by speech was used to convict a Black man. A Kentucky Supreme Court judge, hearing an appeal by the man, convicted for drug trafficking in a sting operation, ruled that it was proper for a white police officer to identify a suspect as Black solely on the basis of the voice he heard in an audio transmission from a wired cop.

The officer testified that in his 13 years on the force he had had numerous conversations with Black males and knew the voice of a Black man when he heard one. The judge, upholding the conviction, stated that no one suggested it was improper for the officer to identify one of the voices he heard as being that of a female. Thus, "We perceive no reason why a witness could not likewise identify a voice as being that of a particular race or nationality, so long as the witness is personally familiar with the general characteristics, accents or speech patterns of the race or nationality in question."

In this case the defendant was done in by "linguistic profiling." Surely you've heard of its sister, racial profiling, a practice infamously employed by police officers, who stop and search Blacks simply because they fit a "profile." In linguistic profiling, however, the racial cues are aural rather than visual.

The Racial Imprint

Call it TWB - Talking While Black. A person has a telephone conversation with someone he has never seen before and draws a conclusion about the race of that person based solely on the way the person sounds.

Nothing particularly insidious about that - on the face of it. We can usually tell if a person is a man, a woman, young or old, a Southerner or a Latino in the space of a five-minute telephone conversation. But linguistic profiling is somebody "acting upon that racial or demographic imprint in a criminal way by denying [the victims] access to a business transaction that should not be in any way biased, based on a person's racial background," says Baugh.

His own personal experience with linguistic profiling occurred a few years ago, when he was looking for a place to live in California. He would call up in response to an ad in the paper, but when he would show up, he would learn that the apartment was unavailable. He believes that it is because over the phone, when he uses his "professional voice," he sounds White. When he appeared in person, he was handed all sorts of excuses for why he could not rent - none being, of course, the obvious fact that he was Black.

So Baugh went about trying to prove what he had suspected. Having grown up in the inner city, in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Baugh was exposed to a variety of ethnic dialects and considers himself "linguistically dexterous." He began telephoning renters and would say, "Hello, I'm calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper." He would make some calls using his professional voice. Other times he would modify his voice, repeating the same sentence with the same grammar but with an intonation that was unmistakably Black. He made more than 100 calls and found that his "Black" voice got half as many calls back as his "White" voice. It did not matter that when Baugh used his Black voice he was speaking perfect, standard English.

Apparently if a speaker on the telephone sounds African-American, he is subject to the same kind of racial discrimination as he might be in a face-to-face encounter.

Vocally Branded

At least Baugh, when speaking in his professional voice, got called back and was able to make it to the second stage of the interview process. But what about those African-Americans who call about apartments, or jobs, or loans who never get called back and have no idea why? After all, they may be well educated, and gainfully employed; in other words they look great on paper. What could possibly put them at a disadvantage? According to Baugh and others, it is simply TWB. The work that he has done with the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), a civil rights organization that focuses on housing discrimination, bears this out.

The National Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny housing, loans or insurance to anyone on the basis of race. In loans and insurance, particularly, most of the transactions are conducted over the phone. Very often whether you are able to obtain financing at a reasonable rate rests on how the person at the other end perceives you by your voice. Sometimes the first thing out of an insurance agent's mouth, once he or she has guessed that the caller is Black, is "Have your ever had any claims against you? Have you ever cancelled?" says the NFHA's executive director Shanna Smith.

Discrimination based on linguistic profiling has been difficult to prove. Unless there is some smoking gun - a written telephone message, saying the caller sounds Black,or Mexican or whatever - judges have been reluctant to hear such cases. Baugh's research has been employed by the NFHA to prove that renters, loan companies and the insurance agents do treat callers differently based on racial identification by voice.

Three Voices

In one experiment Baugh and others tape-recorded the same phrase,"Hello, I'm calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper," changing the phonology - the sound or accent - of the voice, but always using standard, grammatical English. All the speakers were adults. The subjects of the experiment then had to identify as many social demographics of the speakers as they could, whether they were men or women, Northerners or Southerners, Black, White or Latino, young or old. (Baugh spoke three different times, using his African-American voice, his professional voice, and his Latino dialect.)

Over 75 percent of the time in the Latino case, over 80 percent of the time in the African-American case, and over 88 percent of the time in the instances in which Baugh used his professional voice, the subjects identified the speakers correctly as either Mexican or Puerto Rican, Black or White. Baugh, using his three voices, was able to demonstrate that just by manipulating intonation, he could lead people to very different conclusions about the speaker.

In another experiment Baugh's colleague spliced the word, "hello" out of the complete phrase. The result was over 90 percent recognition with accuracy for racial identification, using that word alone.

The NFHA chose its linguistic testers based upon whether a "control" person was able to identify correctly the race or national origin of the tester over the phone. Evidence was gathered in states where it is legal to tape a phone conversation. When an African-American tester would call about renting an apartment, the landlord would lie and say it was already rented. When a White tester followed up, the apartment was once again available and an appointment would be set up for him to come see the place.

"Sophisticated Lie"

It is so easy for landlords to get away with this kind of discrimination, because all they have to say is, "Oh, you know what? There are three people ahead of you. Why don't you give me your name, and if those fall through, I'll call you." To the caller that sounds legitimate. "African-Americans and Latinos simply don't report that," says Smith. "That's why we do testing. We can catch that sophisticated lie that's used to deny housing."

In a lawsuit filed last fall, in San Francisco's U.S. District Court, lawyers for the plaintiff, James Johnson, attempt to show how linguistic profiling was used to deny him an opportunity to seek better housing in the neighborhood where he lived. Johnson, who lives in San Leandro, CA and was looking for a larger apartment two years ago, saw a For Rent sign in front of an apartment complex on his block, and called the number listed on the sign to inquire. He got a voice-mail message, instructing callers to leave their name and telephone number, which he did, adding that he had worked at Kraft Foods as a supervisor for 20 years.

When Johnson did not receive a response to his message, he called repeatedly and left several messages at the same telephone number. He never got a call back. Exasperated, he gave up. Months later, Johnson saw a For Rent sign posted again in front of the same apartment complex and called the number to inquire - five or six times, leaving voice-mail messages each time. Again, no reply.

Johnson asked a friend, a Latino who "sounds white," to call about the apartment. The friend called, left a message and got a call back on the same day from one of the owners of the complex. She told the friend that an apartment was available. Johnson then filed a housing discrimination complaint with the local fair housing center. The center conducted an investigation, with five different testers - two Black and three White - calling the apartment complex owners about availabilities and leaving their names and numbers in voice-mail messages. The White testers all got called back the same day. The Black testers' calls were never returned.

Glaringly Different Experiences

The NFHA has filed suits charging Prudential with racial discrimination against African-Americans in Milwaukee, Richmond, Toledo, Washington, D.C. and Chester, Pa. All of the testing in those cases was done over the telephone, says Smith. In some instances African-American testers would call repeatedly to inquire about insurance, but were never called back. The white testers calling the same agents had glaringly different experiences. They were given quotes and encouraged to purchase the insurance. Furthermore, says Smith, when an insurance agent thinks that the person on the other end is white, the agent will market to that customer a whole array of products that the African-American caller will never get to hear about - auto, along with home-owner's insurance, for example - which can lower the premium.

In cases like these, Baugh's research is used to counter claims by the defendants that they have no way of telling whether a caller is Black or not, and that it is even racist to suggest as much. But common sense tells us this is not true. Science confirms it.

"Ask" or "Ax"?

So, who's screening out Black callers? Very likely people who are less educated and earn less money than those on the other end. In some instances a White person conducting business over the phone may be asked to practice linguistic profiling by his or her supervisor. Smith mentions a case in Alabama where a White apartment manager contacted the local Fair Housing group to report that the apartment owner told her if she suspected that a caller was Black, to tell him or her nothing was available. Smith also recalls a conversation she had with a White woman working for an employment services company, who had been instructed to get callers to say the word "ask." If they pronounced it "ax," that was one way of identifying them as African-American. (Baugh says that particular pronunciation is most commonly associated with Blacks.) Smith, who is White, says, "We get to hear these things all the time."

The only way to put a stop to linguistic profiling is for those who know about it to report it and make the offenders pay. No need for Blacks to hire speech coaches. What's called for is not more pear-shaped tones, but more organizational muscle, exercised by the likes of the NFHA and its local affiliates.

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Patrice D. Johnson is a writer living in New York City.

Sources that contributed to this commentary:

National Fair Housing Alliance

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