Understanding Linguistic Discrimination: Consequences and Policy Responses

Lena Nour, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Could the sound of your voice be subject to discrimination?

Sounds Black
Source: National Fair Housing Alliance

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a landmark Supreme Court case which declared racial discrimination in public schools unconstitutional. However, many forms of racial discrimination remain prevalent today and some are difficult to detect, identify, and prosecute. One such form of discrimination results from “linguistic profiling,” a term first coined by Professor John Baugh to describe the act of using speech to attribute certain characteristics to a particular group. Linguistic profiling can have devastating impacts when individuals are systematically discriminated against because they are perceived to speak with an “undesirable” dialect or accent. This kind of discrimination can be challenging to address through public policy.

Federal Laws Prohibiting Linguistic Discrimination 

Linguistic profiling can be understood as the auditory equivalent of visual racial profiling. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race and also explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on “linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing this legislation. In 2017, EEOC reported a total of 8,299 charges of national origin discrimination, including linguistic profiling (the lowest number of cases since 2011). National origin is also a protected class under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, meaning that housing providers are breaking the law when they discriminate against individuals based on associations between linguistic characteristics and race or national origin.

Linguistic Discrimination in Real Estate Markets

Linguistic discrimination can affect people in many dimensions of life, but the real estate market has been the focus of much research on the topic. In the 1930s, redlining was a federal housing policy that explicitly denied services to residents of certain areas based on their racial or ethnic makeup. The federal government restricted the practice of redlining with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which prohibits discrimination by housing providers. However, redlining is still prevalent today in a more indirect way that is not always visible to public scrutiny. The real estate industry continues to play a role in “steering” or deterring certain individuals from neighborhoods with distinctly homogeneous racial compositions. A 1999 study published by John Baugh and his colleagues in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology concluded that housing discrimination based on speech characteristics takes place around the world. Often times, very little speech is required for dialect identification; even a simple greeting such as the word hello” can suffice.

In 2015, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) conducted an investigation in Jackson, MS to examine the prevalence of linguistic profiling in real estates markets. In this investigation, white and black individuals posing as homebuyers with otherwise identical qualities and housing preferences were asked to call real estate agents and inquire about specific properties. The real estate agents had no information about the callers’ race or national origin other than the sound of their voice. The agents frequently steered white home buyers away from interracial neighborhoods in Jackson, and black homebuyers who inquired about properties in the area were often never called back. In the investigation, when homebuyers were shown properties in person, the rate of racial steering was 87 percent. In addition, when black and white actors requested information about the same foreclosed property, white homebuyers were shown alternative properties while black individuals were persistently ignored by agents.

Linguistic Profiling in the 21st Century

Discrimination over the telephone may be as old as the invention of the telephone itself; however, legal claims of racial or national origin discrimination based on speech remain difficult to represent in court. In 2015, NFHA filed a housing discrimination complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against Lorgroup and real estate agents in the RE/MAX Alliance. In 2017, NFHA came to a settlement in which Lorgroup agreed to pay a $46,000 award to NFHA, participate in fair housing trainings, and promote fair housing in the communities where it conducts business. While the outcome of this investigation resulted in a win for fair housing advocates, this is not always the case. The NFHA notes that housing discrimination often goes unreported and undetected and that there are an estimated 4 million instances of housing discrimination annually in the rental market alone, some of which involve linguistic discrimination. However, more research is needed to understand the extent and severity of the problem. 

Linguistic profiling remains difficult to uncover and combat. In order to overcome historic patterns of segregation, future public policies designed to promote equity should examine how individuals can be protected from this specific form of discrimination. Future public policies should examine the ongoing presence of linguistic discrimination in housing markets and other areas.

It’s not a problem if someone can infer someone’s race or national origin from a phone call. The problem begins when one’s inherent biases toward a certain group become the reason they don’t call back.

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