Using Linguistics to Fight Housing Discrimination

January/February 2003

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John Baugh made the first phone calls in 1988. He had arrived as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on campus, and he called four landlords who were advertising apartments in local papers. But when Baugh—a professor of education and linguistics who is African-American—arrived to look at the properties, he was told they were no longer available.

“An attorney told me to sue,” Baugh recalls. “But I thought, why don’t I do some research?”

For the next year, Baugh tested his theory that landlords were discriminating against prospective tenants on the basis of linguistic profiling—that is, because of how they sounded on the phone. He selected five cities with varying racial compositions: San Francisco, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Woodside. Every time he called a landlord, Baugh would say the same thing: “Hello, I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper.” But he used three different accents and kept meticulous notes. When he spoke with an African-American or Latino accent, his calls routinely were not returned, or he was told apartments or houses were no longer available. When he telephoned using what he calls professional standard English, Baugh generally was invited to see the properties.

Since that informal pilot study, Baugh has focused much of his research on what he calls “one of the most interesting intellectual problems” he’s ever encountered. Last year, he won a $500,000, three-year grant from the Ford Foundation to study linguistic profiling and how it relates to housing discrimination. “The National Fair Housing Alliance has found that landlords use answering machines and screen calls racially,” Baugh says. “Their ‘testers’ have found that in many different parts of the country, white callers get returned phone calls, and black callers do not.”

Baugh is now teaching Introduction to Linguistics for Educational Researchers, a new seminar about linguistic analyses of minority populations. His research has implications for the continuing debate about how to pursue educational reform for minority children, and whether to teach them to “talk white.” Because African slaves in the United States were not allowed to go to school, Baugh says, “history did a lot of linguistic pruning.” The verb “to be” is one of the last things many African-American mothers teach their children, he says, and that’s why some school-age children tend to say phrases like “he running” instead of “he is running.”

“Some teachers treat that as a mistake, but the child is conforming to the rules of his heritage language and applying them to [standard] English,” Baugh told students in a recent seminar session. He praised teachers who understand the necessity of helping minority children make the transition to standard English, yet also “want students to not feel a sense of linguistic shame, and to value their heritage language.”

Baugh also has formed a graduate-student research group that will examine issues related to linguistic profiling and launch a national American linguistic heritage survey. Law student Dawn Smalls plans to propose a standard for courts to consider in cases that focus on voice identification, while education and economics student Ashlyn Amaral is looking at patterns of discrimination in West Coast housing.

Linguistics students H. Samy Alim and Renae Skarin are on the phone each week, digitally recording voice samples from “testers” at the National Fair Housing Alliance and from volunteers at state historical societies, to get a representative sampling of dialects and accents from all 50 states. They’ll then put them on a website, where visitors will be asked to fill out an online survey, providing their perceptions of the speakers’ age, region, ethnicity and race.

Baugh’s long-term hope is to compile the results into a database to use in conjunction with expert-witness testimony in antidiscrimination cases—for example, if a landlord claims he couldn’t have discriminated against a particular individual because he had only talked with him on the phone and therefore didn’t know he was black. “The statistical evidence that we plan to generate,” he says, “may make a crucial difference in cases where discrimination is alleged—but concealed by denial.”

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