Linguistic profiling: The sound of your voice may determine if you get that apartment or not

Linguistic profiling: The sound of your voice may determine if you get that apartment or not

By Patricia Rice

Feb. 2, 2006 — Many Americans can guess a caller’s ethnic background from their first hello on the telephone.

However, the inventor of the term “linguistic profiling” has found in a current study that when a voice sounds African-American or Mexican-American, racial discrimination may follow.
John Baugh, Ph.D., the inventor of the term “linguistic profiling,” says that when a voice on the phone sounds African-American or Mexican-American, racial discrimination might follow.
John Baugh, Ph.D., the inventor of the term “linguistic profiling,” says that when a voice on the phone sounds African-American or Mexican-American, racial discrimination might follow.

In studying this phenomenon through hundreds of test phone calls, John Baugh, Ph.D., the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor and director of African and African American Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has found that many people made racist, snap judgments about callers with diverse dialects.

Some potential employers, real estate agents, loan officers and service providers did it repeatedly, says Baugh. Long before they could evaluate callers’ abilities, accomplishments, credit rating, work ethic or good works, they blocked callers based solely on linguistics.

Such racist reactions frequently break federal and state fair housing and equal employment opportunity laws.
John Baugh
John Baugh

In the first two years of his linguistic profiling study, Baugh has found that this kind of profiling is a skill that too often is used to discriminate and diminish the caller’s chance at the American dream of a house or equal opportunity in the job market.

Baugh’s study is backed by a three-year $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.

Racist telephone tactics

While Baugh coined the term linguistic profiling, many who suffer from twisted stereotypes about dialect have known for decades about the racist tactic. His mother knew and took protective action. When he was a youngster in Philadelphia, he could tell if she were talking to a white person or a black person on the telephone.

His study shows that some companies screen calls on answering machines and don’t return calls of those whose voices seem to identify them as black or Latino.

Some companies instruct their phone clerks to brush aside any chance of a face-to-face appointment to view a sales property or interview for a job based on the sound of a caller’s voice. Other employees routinely write their guess about a caller’s race on company phone message slips.

Such discrimination occurs across America, says Baugh, who is also a professor of psychology and holds appointments in the departments of Anthropology, Education and English, all in Arts & Sciences.

If the availability of an advertised job or an apartment is denied at a face-to-face meeting with a person of color, employers and renters know that they can be accused of racism. However, when accused of racist and unfair tactics over the phone, many companies have played dumb about racial linguistic profiling.

Had you from ‘hello’

Baugh has found racist responses in hundreds of calls. He tests ads with a series of three calls. First someone speaking with an African-American dialect responds to an ad. Then, a researcher with a Mexican-style Spanish-English dialect calls. Finally, a third caller uses what most people regard as Standard English.

Many times researchers found that the person using the ethnic dialect got no return calls. If they did reach the company, frequently they were told that what was advertised was no longer available, though it was still available to the Standard English speaker.

In no test calls did researchers offer company employees information about the callers’ credit rating, educational background, job history or other qualifications.

“Those who sound white get the appointment,” Baugh says.

Lack of response or refusal to offer face-to-face appointments was higher for Latinos than for African-Americans, Baugh adds.

When challenged in lawsuits, many businesses deny that they can determine race or ethnicity over the phone. However, Baugh’s ongoing study shows that over the phone many Americans are able to accurately guess the age, race, sex, ethnicity, region of heritage and other social demographics based on a few sentences, even just a hello.

Baugh has prepared to be an expert witness in several court cases but so far all have been settled out of court.

Celebrating all dialects

Recognizing heritage in a voice does not make a person a racist, Baugh says.

In October 2002 on MSNBC, Baugh debated the late Johnnie Cochran, then one of the nation’s best-known defense attorneys, about dialect recognition. In the O.J. Simpson case, Cochran had argued that speculation about a speaker’s race based on hearing a person’s voice was inherently racist.

Such recognition is often made by many intelligent listeners. Millions of Americans speak with the lilting cadences of their ancestors.

~ by jeanehistoria on December 29, 2009.

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