Testifying while Black already carries heavy difficulties and obstacles. Now, there’s one more – a new study, which will be published in the journal Language next month, has found that court reporters say they have difficulty “understanding Black people” when they speak African American English (AAE).
It all started after the trial for the killer of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Rachel Jeantel testified in 2013 because he was on the phone with Martin just moments before he was murdered.
Jeantel was degraded in the media as “brutally ignorant” and having a “credibility problem.” But in reality, Jeantel is not ignorant – white people chose not to understand her.
A juror on the case told Anderson Cooper that she found Jeantel “hard to understand” and “not credible.”
After watching what happened in response to Jeantel’s testimony, researchers got together to study the frequency with which AAE is misunderstood in courtrooms.
The study found that court reporters often don’t understand and write correctly testimonies spoken in AAE, which leads to terrible consequences. The transcripts are what’s used by the jury to come to a verdict and attorneys use these transcripts to plan cross-examinations.
The study, called “Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English,” found that on average, the 27 court reporters who participated were only able to record AAE speakers with 82.9 percent accuracy.
The study also found that in 31 percent of the 2,241 transcriptions done during the research, the court reporters’ errors changed the entire contents of what the speaker was saying, misinterpreting who was involved, what was happening, when it happened, and/or where it happened.
Considering these new findings, it’s no surprise that Black Americans are far more likely to be arrested and convicted and face longer prison sentences than white Americans.
“AAE has more complicated grammar than ‘standard’ English,” Taylor Jones, one of the study’s authors and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, told Vice Media. “[But] research consistently demonstrates that non-speakers of AAE (generally but not always non-Black people) tend not to understand these features. AAE is stigmatized, despite being equally valid, systematic, and rule-governed as other language varieties.”