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.