Spotlight March 2022: "Linguistic profiling: An under-recognized force in the justice system and beyond"

Shawna Shapiro

LCJ Hub member Shawna Shapiro, Associate Professor of writing and linguistics at Middlebury College in the US, calls our attention to an often unperceived influence on our interactions and understandings, including those in the legal field. Read more about Shawna's work at her college webpage.

One of the commonplaces in the legal profession and the criminal justice system is that language matters. Language is what allows us to craft persuasive arguments and coherent narratives, in service of justice and accountability. But language can also be an axis around which injustice revolves, in part because it is something we think of as neutral and changeable. Someone whose speech or writing is thought of as “uneducated,” “inarticulate,” or “non-standard” simply needs to change their language, like slipping on a more appropriate suit of clothes for a job interview or courtroom testimony. What we miss is that language—or languaging, as linguists like to put it, emphasizing a dynamic process rather than a static object—is inextricably linked to our histories, privileges, and social identities.

In this Spotlight, I consider the role that linguistic prejudice often plays in the U.S. criminal justice system, as well as in the legal profession more generally. I focus, in particular, on the concept of linguistic profiling, which is the process of drawing (often tacit) assumptions about an individual or group based on particular features of their speech or writing. Linguists such John Baugh (see here for a more detailed discussion of Baugh’s work) and Rosina Lippi-Green have shown how this profiling process, which is often informed by our implicit biases about race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender, etc., shapes policies and practices in education, housing, the workplace, and other sectors, including the justice system.

One of the most prominent recent examples of linguistic profiling can be seen in the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, a key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin. In their 2016 analysis of how Jeantel was treated by participants in the Zimmerman trial, as well as by public media, John R. Rickford and Sharese King show how Jeantel was belittled and dismissed, often based on misunderstandings and biased assumptions about her manner of speaking. She was seen as sullen, inarticulate, and untrustworthy, largely because some features of her spoken vernacular were unfamiliar to the (mostly White) judge, jury, and attorneys. Rickford and King go so far as to suggest that inaccurate interpretations of Jeantel’s statements before and during the trial may have impacted the eventual “not guilty” ruling.

Yet linguistic profiling does not end with speech; in fact, some of the harshest judgments against marginalized groups hinge on interpretations of their writing. My own interest in linguistic profiling, which I explore in my newly published book, Cultivating Critical Language Awareness in the Writing Classroom (Routledge 2022) has to do with the assumptions educators often make about students—and about each other—based on how they write. Statements like “Clear writing indicates clear thinking” or “If you didn’t proofread, you must not care” seem benign, but can lead to mistreatment of students from linguistically minoritized backgrounds, including students for whom English is an Additional Language and those who use other varieties of English at home, including African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Linguistic profiling of writers is also a prevalent issue in the legal profession, and is one component of the widely documented systemic racism in the field. A 2014 study by Arin Reeves found that perceptions of writing ability in legal memos varied depending on the race of the writer: raters who thought the writer was African American identified more errors (factual, grammatical, and technical) than those who thought the writer was Caucasian. The exact same memo consistently received different ratings based on the readers’ racial biases.

What can be done to combat linguistic profiling? In the field of education, we need to integrate more knowledge about language—particularly about sociolinguistics and Critical Language Awareness—into teacher education programs. A growing number of scholars and practitioners have provided models for doing so, and I am one of a number of people trying to forge alliances among us online. I suspect that a similar shift needs to happen—and may be happening already—in pre-professional and continuing education programs for those in other fields, including law and justice. One first step is to share basic knowledge about linguistic profiling, including the fact that in many cases, it is not even a prosecutable crime, unless it can be explicitly linked to a protected category such as gender, race/ethnicity, or nation of origin.

Lippi-Green has claimed that linguistic profiling is “so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last widely open backdoor to discrimination” (1994, p. 171). If this is still true—and sadly, I am convinced it is—those of us committed to social justice must work to close that door as forcefully as possible, drawing on all we know about language, culture, power, and privilege.