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Study Shows How 'Talking Black' Can Hurt You In Court

Researchers found that courtroom reporters were inaccurate in transcribing Black vernacular, which could pose serious consequences long term.
“Sounding Black” has often been attributed to being passed up for jobs, getting declined for housing, and a factor for being less successful in your career, but a new study shows that having a “Black accent” is also a problem when giving a courtroom testimony. The forthcoming report found that Philadelphia court reporters accurately transcribed what linguists call “African-American English” only 40 percent of the time. On average, the 27 stenographers who participated in the research, got two out of five sentences correct. In one example, “He don’t be in that neighborhood.” was transcribed to “We going to be in this neighborhood.” In this instance, the exact opposite of what was meant would have been entered into court records. Why is this a problem? Well, courtroom stenographers are the most widely used form of court recordings. What they hear goes into the court records as an official transcript. It can then be referred to by court officials. If somebody’s words are recorded incorrectly, it can hold serious implications and be harmful to defendants. As noted by The New York Times, the courtroom reporters were not transcribing what they heard with any ill-intent, but it did bring to light that many trained transcribers have a limited understanding of Black vernacular. And the misunderstandings are not limited to White professionals in the field. The research shows that Black reporters make mistakes at the same rate as their non-Black counterparts. Jessica Rose Kalbfeld, a co-author of the study who is pursuing her Ph.D. at New York University, told The New York Times that the training law reporters receive does not take into account what they can actually hear in the courtrooms they work in. Their extensive training takes into account “classroom” English which is not always used by those involved in a trial. In an unbalanced criminal justice system, where African-Americans are overrepresented in jails and prison across the country, the study represents another hurdle for the community to overcome.