Excerpted From: Zariah Altman, Speech on Trial? An Exploration into the Effects of Lingual Discrimination on African American Vernacular English Speakers, 65 Howard Law Journal 503 (Spring, 2022) (175 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ZariahAltmanWhen Black people speak colloquially, the term “dog,” sometimes spelled “dawg,” very rarely refers to an actual, literal dog. In 2015, when twenty-two year old Warren Demesme was voluntarily agreed to speak to New Orleans police department after being accused of sexual assault by two young girls, he told police officers in the interrogation room, “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.” Later, prosecutors claimed that the police officers interrogating Demesme thought that he was asking for a literal “lawyer dog” and not invoking his constitutionally mandated right to counsel. Because of this, police officers did not comply with Demesme's request and continued to interrogate him. Demesme subsequently admitted to the crime. His treatment directly contradicts the Supreme Court precedent that states interrogations must unequivocally end when the accused asks for a lawyer, yet the Louisiana Supreme Court infamously declined to hear Demesme's case on appeal when he finally did receive an attorney.

Two years prior to Demesme's interrogation in Louisiana, George Zimmerman went on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. One of Martin's friends, Rachel Jeantel, testified as a witness for the prosecution. Jeantel's testimony was critical to the prosecution's case, but it was castigated in the press and on social media due to Jeantel speaking in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) amongst other forms of Black English. This case, in which the vernacular, or non-standard dialect, of a key witness was essentially on trial, highlights an injustice. Not only was Jeantel's vernacular pivotal in the disregard of her critically important testimony in this case, but critics went so far as to make judgements on her intelligence level simply due to how she spoke.

Demesme's and Jeantel's treatment in their respective courts both speak to the same general problem. Jeantel's experience highlights the fact that mainstream English speakers can misunderstand and/or discredit vernacular speakers when they encounter dialectic unfamiliarity. Jeantel's speech was ridiculed, which lead to negative assumptions about her intelligence and credibility. On the other hand, Demesme's AAVE was intelligible enough to communicate a confession, but not enough to secure his constitutionally guaranteed rights. These stories share a theme of vernacular English speakers being misheard and/or maligned. Looking beyond these two cases in the legal system--speaking AAVE, or really any non-mainstream variety of speech, in the United States likely exacerbates biases rooted in race and class in cross-dialect domains such as schools, housing searches, finding employment, and as I will discuss mainly here, the criminal justice system. Non-mainstream dialectic speakers are much more vulnerable to being misheard and misjudged by police, judges, juries, teachers, landlords, doctors, and employers in everyday life than speakers of standard or mainstream varieties.

Even though we can study the effects of linguistic discrimination broadly, the legal system is the necessary starting point. The outcomes of decisions made within the legal arena usually have long lasting impacts. Some of these outcomes (i.e., being found guilty or innocent in a criminal proceeding) can be found to impact not only a person's life but also their families, friends, and the overall system. Since people generally know and interact with people of the same culture/race/ethnicity, the effects of linguistic discrimination are largely felt by insular minority groups. The United States' legal system's emphasis on respecting precedent means that judges are obliged to make their rulings as consistent as reasonably possible with previous judicial decisions on the same subject. So, in this sense as well, the effects of interactions with the legal system mean so much to people who are found in similar situations decades later.

Part II of this note surveys the history of U.S. governmental interference in minority languages broadly and then situates African American Vernacular English (AAVE) within this history. Part III discusses linguistic based discrimination broadly speaking while Part IV offers a narrower look into how bias against AAVE in the criminal context, specifically where a black or AAVE-speaking person is a witness or suspect, can negatively harm those minority speakers. Part V analyzes potential solutions and offers ways to ensure that witnesses and victims are more protected from linguistic discrimination within the legal area. Finally, Part VI concludes the examination of language discrimination.

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Warren Demesme's questioning should have ended after he asked for a lawyer, and Rachel Jeantel should never have been called stupid for speaking in AAVE. Linguistic discrimination against African American Vernacular speakers is still one of the few socially acceptable ways to discriminate against mostly African Americans. Yet, so many people within the legal world are unaware that this problem even exists. Judges, jurors, and police officers have all acted in discriminatory ways regarding language in both the case studies that I focused on. The way to solve this problem is to have all these actors work in tandem to begin to minimize their internal bias.


J.D. Candidate, Howard University School of Law, 2022; B.A., Vassar College, 2019.