In the Legal System, Talking White Is a Precursor to Justice—and That’s Wrong

In the Legal System, Talking White Is a Precursor to Justice—and That’s Wrong

In the Legal System, Talking White Is a Precursor to Justice—and That’s Wrong

If the legal system keeps treating AAE as a lesser form of English, it can never claim to view black people with the same legitimacy as white people.


In October 2015, Warren Demesme, accused by two underage girls of sexual assault, asked the New Orleans police who were questioning him for a lawyer, which the US Supreme Court has ruled must be provided upon request. In a now-infamous statement, Demesme told them: “This is how I feel: If y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it, so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog, ’cause this is not what’s up.” In response, the police failed to provide a lawyer; Demesme’s interview continued, and he subsequently admitted the crime. He currently awaits trial.

Demesme’s story was quickly passed around the Internet in late October, when the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear the case, stating that such requests must be unequivocal and unambiguous—Demesme’s, they ruled, was not. In a widely mocked sentence from the decision, Judge Scott J. Crichton wrote, “In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a ‘lawyer dog’ does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview.”

While it’s possible that the court may have found Demesme’s invocation of counsel “ambiguous and equivocal” because of his use of the phrase “why don’t you,” which could be taken as a suggestion rather than a demand, it’s surprising that a judge found it confusing for a person to ask for a “lawyer, dog,” and was unsure if Demesme was asking for a literal dog rather than referring to the proposed attorney as “dog,” that is,“friend.” That this could plausibly be confusing raises questions about the status of African-American English (AAE) in our society and legal system. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s part an often-overlooked facet of systemic racism: language discrimination, the unfair treatment of an individual based solely on the characteristics of their speech.

Standard American English (SAE)—the language taught in schools and used in most public discourse—is widely regarded as the “proper” and “correct” way to speak English in the United States, despite the fact that the country has no official language. One needs Standard English fluency to navigate much of the formal economy and government institutions; it is the language of power. However, many linguists have long rejected the idea that any one way of speaking is inherently better or more correct than any other. According to Rebecca Wheeler, language researcher, “Linguists have this saying: ‘As we see a people, so we see their language; as we see a language, so we see its people…. Our attitudes about language and culture and people flow through each other without us realizing the equivalency.”

Language discrimination is perfectly lawful, and may even be cultivated by popular culture. Rosina Lippi-Green’s 1997 book English with an Accent argues that Disney’s animated films teach children to discriminate based on speech because of the frequency with which the “good guys” speak Standard English and the “bad guys” speak a non-standard form of English. But no matter how it’s cultivated—Disney movies could be responsible as much as parents or teachers chastising young children for not using SAE—the consequences of labeling AAE as wrong or incorrect are quite serious. Children who are native AAE speakers are often perceived as less intelligent by their schools and peers and are sometimes mocked for their supposed inability or refusal to speak SAE. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: AAE speaking students do not perform as well as their SAE speaking counterparts because they believe themselves unintelligent, or they don’t receive adequate resources to support their learning. Some English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers argue that if acknowledged as a separate and legitimate form of English, AAE can be used to effectively teach SAE to native AAE speakers, just as ESL teachers use Spanish (or any other language) to teach SAE.

To acknowledge AAE as a legitimate way of speaking could make our nation’s most important social and political institutions more accessible. The legal system, as in Demesme’s case, doesn’t provide equitable support to those who primarily speak AAE, but the inequity also fundamentally discredits the speaker. According to Stanford linguists John Rickford and Sharese King, this dynamic played out in George Zimmerman’s trial. Rachel Jeantel, 19-year-old star witness for the case, testified for six hours in her Haitian-influenced version of AAE (she is trilingual, also fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole) about the night of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Jeantel was on the phone with Martin in the minutes immediately before Zimmerman shot and killed him, making her testimony uniquely valuable. Jeantel was widely criticized on social media and in the comments sections of online news outlets for her speech and demeanor, derided as uneducated and untrustworthy, and incorrectly portrayed as illiterate after she struggled to read a handwritten cursive note in court. Rickford and King, citing evidence that Jeantel’s testimony was not mentioned in the more than 16 hours of jury deliberation, argue that jurors acquitted Zimmerman because they could not “hear, understand, or believe her.” “Her crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible,” they conclude.

That Jeantel’s testimony was essentially ignored because it was delivered in AAE rather than SAE, in addition to numerous transcription errors that Rickford and King catalogue, introduces the question of whether or not justice would be better served by the presence of AAE interpreters in legal settings. The Drug Enforcement Agency posed a similar question in 2010 when it tried to hire what it called “Ebonics translators,” citing their need to transcribe, and presumably translate, recordings of AAE speaking suspects. “The potential benefits derived from the adoption of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] interpreters would greatly outweigh any potential harms,” argues Washington, DC based attorney and Principal of Melanie Bates Consulting, LLC, Melanie Bates. She cites Thurgood Marshall’s assertion, “Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process” to underscore the deep need for reforms like AAE interpreters to address the staggeringly disproportionate numbers of African Americans incarcerated or on parole.

While a bidialectical English speaker fluent in AAE interpreting Jeantel’s testimony at Zimmerman’s trial may have disallowed Jeantel’s critics to claim they did not comprehend her speech, it’s not clear that introducing AAE interpreters into legal settings would be an unambiguous good. Jeffrey Cummings, a Chicago attorney with experience litigating matters related to civil rights, employment, health care, and corporate misconduct, says the concept of AAE interpreters isn’t a clear-cut positive, adding that he finds the idea “impractical and arguably unnecessary.” Aside from logistical concerns regarding funding, recruitment, and certification of interpreters—and the already large number of AAE speakers capable of understanding and speaking SAE—Cummings argues that presenting AAE as speech that requires translation introduces the possibility of law enforcement’s ignoring AAE speakers altogether and later arguing they could not understand AAE in the absence of a translator. Moreover, Cummings says that AAE interpretation may further marginalize African Americans by encouraging the assumption that they cannot speak or understand SAE. Cummings argues that better community education regarding individuals’ rights in encounters with law enforcement would do more to improve judicial outcomes.

While other factors played into the LA Supreme Court’s decision to reject Demesme’s motion, Judge Crichton’s misunderstanding of a common element of AAE is a reminder that AAE is not valued as a dialect, although it is spoken by an estimated several millions of Americans. There is no expectation that a judge in Louisiana, where African Americans make up almost a third of the population, understand common features of AAE. If AAE is not legible in Louisiana’s courts, neither are its speakers—and that’s a serious impediment to justice.

The many complications to the possibility of introducing AAE interpreters to legal settings show that this is not a simple problem to fix. One of the first steps, however, is the acknowledgment that negative attitudes towards AAE are manifestations of anti-black racism. Similarly, a belief that SAE is the correct or best way to speak upholds white supremacy. There can be no racial equity if it’s only acceptable to talk the way white people talk.

This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].

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