Sandra Bland: Talking While Black

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Below is a guest post by Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler:


Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and the tragic series of events that occurred afterwards have been the subject of many recent think pieces, but few authors have examined why the initial traffic stop went wrong in the first place. The most obvious explanation might be simple racial profiling, which almost certainly played a role, but the dash cam video of the event also shows an interaction that escalated at an alarmingly rapid pace. The conversation between Sandra Bland and police officer who stopped her, officer Brian Encinia started out relatively calmly, but clearly didn’t stay that way. Amid the frustration, heartbreak, and demands for justice, everyone wants to know, how did a seemingly simple traffic stop turn into verbal and physical violence, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Bland’s death?

As linguists trained in analyzing variation in people’s speech, including the distinct ways African Americans talk, we believe that language and linguistic discrimination played a role in the failure of the interaction between Sandra Bland and Officer Encinia. In particular, we believe that Officer Encinia’s (mis)perception of Bland’s language style contributed to the escalation of the situation: Encinia’s perception of Bland’s “non-compliance”, which led to his pulling her from the car, was triggered not just by what Bland said, but also by how she said it. Several conservative commentators and proponents of respectability politics have blamed Bland for this escalation, essentially claiming that had she talked more “politely” she would still be alive today. That argument is problematic since it doesn’t hold the officer accountable for his actions and over-emphasizes the little control Bland had over the outcome of the situation. Instead, we argue that officer Encinia suffered a series of racially-influenced misreadings of Bland’s speech that led him to see her as especially emotional and uncooperative. It’s clear from Bland’s choice of of words that she was unhappy with the stop, but we claim that it was her tone, and not just her words, that was perceived by the officer as hostile, defiant, and threatening.

Sandra Bland’s traffic stop occurred in a social context where African Americans suffer racial discrimination in everything from employment opportunities to interactions with the police. And as has been well-documented, language often plays an important role in this type of discrimination. Research shows that not only can listeners tell the difference between someone who “sounds black” and someone who “sounds white”, but that this ability to guess someone’s race based on how they talk has profound social consequences. Linguist John Baugh has shown that, for example, sounding black can be detrimental to a housing search, with landlords telling a caller that they hear as black that an apartment had already been rented out, but then later offering to show the still-vacant property to a caller who they hear as white-sounding. Much as African Americans are racially profiled (e.g. “driving while black”), many are also profiled on the basis of their speech.

One element that varies between voices which are perceived as black and those which are perceived as white are differences in rhythm and melody. For example, scholars who study African American English (a cover term for a wide variety of ways of speaking commonly associated with African Americans; sometimes known as “ebonics”) have shown that black speakers may use more words with stressed accents on them (which we’ll write in ALL CAPS), and that those accented words are often louder and higher in pitch. This results in a variety of English that sounds distinctly African American, even if a speaker doesn’t use many of the stigmatized grammatical features commonly associated with African American English: a person can say a sentence that, on paper, is quite standard, but still be heard as sounding black. Sometimes this distinctive way of speaking is praised and seen as powerful: both Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama use features of African American English in their speech. But often, the distinctiveness of African American English is heard negatively, feeding into stereotypes that African Americans are “loud” or “dramatic”. These stereotypes are often aimed at black women in particular, and this can have negative effects: for example, a recent paper has shown that black girls are twice as likely to be suspended for the nebulous crime of “defiance”, a category that includes “talking back” and “having an attitude”, perceptions that were likely fueled by their distinct speech patterns.

Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, as caught by the dash cam video, occurred in a world where African American English is identifiably different, and often leads to more negative perceptions of its speakers, regardless of what is actually said. In her interaction with officer Encinia, we can hear Bland using distinctly African American intonational features, even though her grammar is not necessarily typical of African American English. In the beginning of their second interaction, after Encinia has returned to her vehicle, Encinia says “You ok?”. Bland responds,

“I’M WAITin’ on YOU, YOU. THIS is YOUR JOB. I’M WAITin’ ON YOU.”

Bland not only uses more stresses than a typical white speaker might use in this context; these stresses are louder and higher. Then, after Encinia says “you seem very irritated”, Bland responds,

“I REALLY am, ‘cause I feel like it’s CRAP what i’m getting a TICKET for. I was GETTING OUT of your WAY, you was SPEEDING up, TAILING me, so I MOVE OVER, and you STOP me.”

Bland continues to use more stresses than linguists might expect from a comparable white speaker in a similar situation. We think this may have contributed to Encinia hearing Bland as more emotional or combative than she really was. To compare, in Encinia’s speech, he only uses a similar stress patterns to Bland’s later in the interaction, when he begins to shout at her:

“GET OUT of the CAR NOW”

In Encinia’s own speech, and likely in his perception of Bland’s, more stressed syllables means a tone that is angry and combative. While Bland is obviously upset about a potential ticket, she is likely not as angry as Encinia perceives her to be. The differences between Bland’s and Encinia’s dialects and speech styles contributed to his misperception of her. And at the moment when Bland declines to put out her cigarette, the groundwork of misunderstanding has already been laid, leading Encinia to treat Bland as if she were being hostile.

Sandra Bland was highly educated, with a college degree, and a new job at her alma mater, so if any black speaker would ever be safe from damaging stereotypes, it would probably be her. In many ways, Bland’s speech style doesn’t trigger the open hatred and disdain that people have towards the more stigmatized and mocked features of African American English. For example, she doesn’t use habitual be (The be in “He be running”). Nonetheless, the melody of her speech clearly marks her as an African American woman. And this melody is often perceived as angrier and more irritated to those who are unfamiliar with African American English intonation. The result is that all the negative stereotyping associated with African American English is triggered for Encinia, and for him, Bland quickly becomes a stereotype— just another “angry”, “defiant” black women whom he needed to control. It seems that this is what Encinia is testing when he asks her to put out her cigarette. When Bland refuses, his expectations are fulfilled of her as the defiant black woman. It’s at this moment— when she explicitly acknowledges that she’s refusing to play his game—that he orders her out of her car, and the situation escalates out of control.

As we mentioned, there are those who continue to blame Bland for the situation’s escalation, claiming that she shouldn’t have “talked back” to the officer. But, as so many authors and activists have pointed out, it’s likely that no amount of “respectable behavior” would have prevented this escalation. The fact is that Sandra Bland was at a disadvantage the moment she opened her mouth. The officer saw and heard her, and likely formed an opinion about her based on both her race and her language. Whether Bland had the right to ask the officer why she was being apprehended and to demand her rights (to stay in her car, to call her lawyer), isn’t up for debate. All people have those rights. But part of why Sandra Bland’s behavior was interpreted as “talking back” is that the officer heard her as “talking black”. And it is clear that in this climate of increasingly tense interactions between the police and black Americans, “talking black” might be enough of a crime to be arrested for.


Above is a guest post by Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler.



69 Comments

  1. Brian Ogilvie said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 10:02 pm

    Thanks for the guest post. I’m commenting in order to follow further discussion.

  2. Paul said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 10:07 pm

    I agree 100%.

    I’m surprised no one has said this before now, actually. It was very clear to me that he heard her talking Black, and reacted as a white person who has no black friends would.

  3. K Chang said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

    I’ve been pulled over by cops several times, white, black, Asian, I’ve never had any problems even as I walked away with citations in my hand. Part of which I attribute to my fluent and accentless English and cooperative behavior.

    Part of the problem I think with Ms. Bland’s case, and this “black lives matter” movement is there’s a lack of respect for the uniform in the Black American community, and this is an observation by a 25-yr veteran BLACK retired police officer recently on OnPoint with John Ashbrook. His white partner didn’t even bother getting out of car in some black neighborhoods. Other call-ins (non-LEO) justified fleeing from police as “it’s a matter of survival”. Any one running away from cops is automatically assumed to be “unarmed” and cops have to release video proving otherwise.

    There can be no “community policing” if the community don’t trust the police to be among them, muchless do their jobs, and this is not a language problem or even a cultural sensitivity problem. It’s an attitude problem… on both Ms. Bland AND the cop. I can’t tell what portion of blame to assign, and it’s rather irrelevant.

    I was going to talk about something else but it really had nothing to do with language, so I’ll stop here.

  4. Allie said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 12:11 am

    Incredible analysis! Very interesting and insightful read. Which made it all the more disappointing when the authors veered from their area of expertise, Linguistics, into that which they are apparently much less familiar – Constitutional Law:

    “Whether Bland had the right to … demand her rights (to stay in her car … isn’t up for debate. All people have those rights.”

    No, one does not have the right to remain in ones vehicle during a traffic stop, no matter how minor the infraction which precipitated said stop. See Pennsylvania vs Mimms. If an officer orders you out of your car during a traffic stop, regardless of whether or not she has a valid reason, or any reason at all, you are required to comply. Not doing so is likely a criminal act, depending on the state in which the stop occurs.

  5. Ben said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 12:39 am

    “In her interaction with officer Encinia, we can hear Bland using distinctly African American intonational features, even though her grammar is not necessarily typical of African American English. In the beginning of their second interaction, after Encinia has returned to her vehicle, Encinia says “You ok?”.”

    This is why I’m skeptical of your argument. People don’t normally ask “are you okay” unless you’re sending a pretty strong signal with your body language. If she’s sitting there glaring at him, that has nothing to do with intonation. We don’t know what he saw, of course, but I don’t think it’s fair for you to make those claims in the face of potentially contradictory evidence.

    “But, as so many authors and activists have pointed out, it’s likely that no amount of “respectable behavior” would have prevented this escalation.”

    I don’t follow this train of thought, that these events were inevitable. Police pull black people over all the time without incident, so it is clear that ordinary adult behavior works for them the vast majority of the time.

    In particular, there was not simply one escalation. The first was when he demanded she get out of the car. She refused, was deliberately defiant, and he escalated again, pulling her out, etc.

    And then she escalated to a total meltdown, calling him a motherfucker and a pussy. Given her vitriol, the cop may not have picked up on “talking black” so much as barely contained hatred.

  6. neko said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    I’m gonna take the bait.

    Classic blaming the victim there, k chang. The whole point of the post is that bland said nothing illegal or in anyway justified her treatment. Would a white person talking like that have been treated differently? The correct answer is “we will never know what would have been.” But based on data of police interactions in the US there is every reason to believe that blacks are treated differently, even when age gender tone education and socio-economic status is accounted for. Attitudes like yours perpetuates a feedback loop, a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
    Talking back to cops is not a crime. It is a scotus affirmed right and millions do it everyday. Only most of the time they dont die or get shot and end up on the news.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 2:22 am

    @Ben:

    > This is why I’m skeptical of your argument. People don’t normally ask “are you okay” unless you’re sending a pretty strong signal with your body language. If she’s sitting there glaring at him, that has nothing to do with intonation.

    That’s a reasonable point, but of course, body language is as influenced by culture as speech patterns are, and is as liable to misinterpretation, in a very similar way. (For example, someone who’s gesturing more strongly will look like they’re in the grip of stronger emotion, even if it’s just that they’re from a culture where people tend to gesture more strongly.) This being Language Log, the focus on speech patterns presumably should not be read as “this is the only factor”, but rather as “this is an important factor”.

    And while not necessarily directly relevant to Officer Encinia’s own motivations, the post mentions that some people “continue to blame Bland for the situation’s escalation, claiming that she shouldn’t have ‘talked back’ to the officer”; these claims are obviously referring to her recorded speech, not any possible glaring.

    > “But, as so many authors and activists have pointed out, it’s likely that no amount of “respectable behavior” would have prevented this escalation.”
    >
    > I don’t follow this train of thought, that these events were inevitable. Police pull black people over all the time without incident, so it is clear that ordinary adult behavior works for them the vast majority of the time.

    The train of thought isn’t that the events were inevitable, it’s that Sandra Bland was not the one in control of them. Your counterargument presupposes that Officer Encinia was behaving exactly as all police officers behave in the situations that proceed without incident.

  8. Breffni said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    K Chang: if you’re right that your “fluent, accent-free” English is a factor in your trouble-free interactions with police officers, then there surely is a serious problem in the professionalism of the police officers in question. Apologies if I’m failing to pick up on deliberate irony.

    Ben: when a police officer reaches in to try to physically pull an unarmed driver out of her car, does that not count as a meltdown for you? The first meltdown you registered was the driver’s swearing?

    A general question, for cultural context: is “getting pulled over by cops” a relatively routine experience in the US? Something that happens at least a few times to most drivers? I’ve somehow picked up the impression that it is. I wouldn’t have much faith in that kind of impression, but it seems to be corroborated by K Chang’s experience.

  9. John Swindle said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 4:04 am

    Breffni: Yes, relatively routine and probably happening to most drivers a few times over years of driving. Is it different somewhere else?

    [(myl) According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

    An estimated 17.7 million persons age 16 or older indicated that their most recent contact with the police in 2008 was as a driver pulled over in a traffic stop. These drivers represented 8.4% of the nation’s 209 million drivers.  
    A greater percentage of male drivers (9.9%) than female drivers (7.0%) were stopped by police during 2008. White (8.4%), black (8.8%), and Hispanic (9.1%) drivers were stopped by police at similar rates in 2008.

    A 2011 study from the same source concludes that

    Relatively more black drivers (13%) than white (10%) and Hispanic (10%) drivers were pulled over in a traffic stop during their most recent contact with police. There were no statistical differences in the race or Hispanic origin of persons involved in street stops.

    The reason for the large difference in cited percentages (between 2008 and 2011) is not clear — presumably it reflects different survey methodology or random variation rather than an actual increase in traffic stops or a change in police behavior.

    Note that since the survey deals only with the “most recent” contact with police, the actual rate of experience of traffic stops must be somewhat higher, perhaps substantially higher.

    Although I haven’t found any systematic statistics on the topic, it’s clear that there are very large geographical differences in the frequency of traffic stops. In particular, it was well documented in the wake of the Ferguson incident that cities and town in the area derived a large fraction of their income from traffic-stop-derived fines, and that police there had quotas for the number of citations to be issued. And it’s both general lore and my personal experience that there are some (mostly rural) areas where nearly every out-of-state vehicle is likely to be stopped on one pretext or another, or where there may be “speed traps” consisting of poorly-marked sudden decreases in the speed limit, watched carefully by police with radar guns.

    See also “Stop and Seize“, WaPo 9/6/2014.]

  10. pd said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 6:53 am

    This is an interesting thesis. The thing I kept waiting for was the evidence presented that we know that similar levels of agitation in the inner being of white and black speakers actually result in much more inflection in black speakers than white speakers?

    How would we be able to tell that black speakers who seem agitated via more inflection are just as agitated as a white speaker?

    Does that apply to all white speakers? Does it apply to body language? I’m skeptical. If there were studies done, can we have a link to any of them?

  11. pd said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    And, are there class differences? Or does the inflection difference carry across classes?

  12. Breffni said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    John Swindle and myl: thanks for the information. In Ireland, getting pulled over seems to me to be less part of shared experience, not the kind of thing where you could readily swap anecdotes from personal experience. Not counting checkpoints, I’ve been stopped once in about 30 years of driving (the Garda thought one of the kids in the back wasn’t wearing her seat belt; he was wrong, and that was the end of it). But I put up less mileage than a typical Irish driver, so that might not be representative.

    So I don’t know for sure that people get stopped less here than in the US, though from what Mark says, I would estimate it happens an awful lot less. Even supposing there is a difference, I don’t know what it means. It’s just that in these discussions of US traffic stops and the behaviour of police officers and drivers, I always feel I need to do some cultural recalibration, but I’m not sure what kind. For example, maybe there’s some commonly understood (even enforceable?) etiquette of dealing with traffic cops that Bland clearly infringed. But to my unrecalibrated senses, Encinia’s behaviour looks like a self-evident abuse of authority, and I would have located the start of the problem at the point where he asks “You OK?”, thus overtly putting on the agenda Bland’s demeanour or (as yet verbally unexpressed) “attitude”. Our police force is far from perfect, very far, but I think telling a driver to put out their cigarette would be perceived by any Irish driver as a form of harassment and is unlikely to happen.

  13. Rose Eneri said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 8:50 am

    Since the link to the video on this site does not work for me, I went to YouTube myself. The video I saw begins with the officer first approaching Ms. Bland’s car on the passenger side. He explains to her why he pulled her over and asks for her license and registration. After a few seconds, he asks her if she has a license to drive. So presumably, she did not hand over her license when first asked to do so. At this point both the officer and Ms. Bland are being polite and respectful.

    The officer goes back to his patrol car and returns to Ms. Bland’s car on the driver side. To me, things were fine until the officer asked Ms. Bland to put out her cigarette. I would assume the officer did this because as Ms. Bland reaches over to the ash tray, he could not really know that she was not reaching for a weapon. With this request, Ms. Bland got belligerent and the officer ordered she out of the car and she refused. Ms. Bland refused a direct order from an officer of the law, so I would interpret her behavior as deliberate defiance and possible bating.

    I see absolutely nothing in the video that has anything at all to do with language. If I deliberately refuse to obey a direct order from an officer, I would expect to be dealt with in a most severe manner. And if there is any prejudice here, it is Ms. Bland’s apparent belief that being black gives her the right to disrespect a cop.

    Instead of listening to whoever told her she did not have to obey a cop, Ms. Bland should have listened to Chris Rock in his video “How not to get your ass kicked by the police” on YouTube.

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 9:08 am

    @John Swindle

    Yes, relatively routine and probably happening to most drivers a few times over years of driving. Is it different somewhere else?

    Being required to stop by a policeman is relatively routine here in the UK though I would guess it is not as frequent as in the US. I’ve been stopped 7 times that I can remember in 49 years of driving. Each time I was in the wrong: twice it resulted in a moderate fine. I never found it confrontational. Drivers here are not required to carry their driving licence.

  15. Carol said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    I’m a middle-class white woman. If I got pulled over for “failure to signal lane change,” I would be so astonished that I’d forget to be angry.

    On a ride-along a few years ago, the officer I was with talked to me about her car-stopping calculus: no front license plate (because they are removed from stolen cars and backed into parking spaces to escape detection), heavily-tinted windows and “one more thing” TBD.

    Sandra Bland was at least driving while black. Would that count as two things or was there something else? I suspect that her failure to signal lane change was the “one more thing.”

  16. Ron said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

    @Rose

    You watched the Chris Rock video but missed (or aren’t commenting on? not sure) the subtext that, from the perspective of a young black man, the cops may as well be barely restrained dangers looking for an excuse.

    http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/02/us/chris-rock-pulled-over-police-selfies-feat/

    I’m also reminded of the time that Chris and Seinfeld were pulled over when Seinfeld was speeding, and Chris comments that he’d be scared if Jerry wasn’t there.

    And as @Breffni said above, many Europeans would view much of the cop’s behavior as abuse of authority and/or a deliberate provocation. To look only at that one deliberate refusal but to view everything that led up to it as simply “business as usual” is what makes interactions between US citizens and cops so weird in the first place.

  17. Rose Eneri said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    It’s interesting to me that you perceive Boand as becoming “belligerent” after Encinia asked, “you mind putting out your cigarrette, please?” Her response was “I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarrette?” and I wouldn’t describe her as “belligerent” at this point, at least not any more belligerent than when she told him that she was annoyed (after he observed that she seemed annoyed). Encinia then says “well you can step on out now.” Pragmatically, most people would likely interpret this as a command, coming from a police officer, but it’s phrased in a way that I could imagine a court as considering compliance to be “voluntary”. It’s not at all clear what legitimate reason (that is, as a matter of good police practice – it’s possible the laws of the state permit him to order people in traffic stops out of their car without any reason) he had to make this request. My impression is it’s him retaliating against her for her perceived rudeness or combativeness. I would consider this to be the key point of escalation. She refuses and he rephrases as an unambiguous imperative “Step out of the car”. At this point there’s a brief period of silence followed by Bland becoming (it seems to me) alarmed when Encinia opens her door.

  18. Guy said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Oops, the above post was me, I intended to put @Rose Reneri at the top of my comment and misplaced it in the name box. Hopefully someone can fix that.

  19. Guy said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    I mean @Rose Eneri… This is what I get for commenting without coffee.

  20. Pat Barrett said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    To pd: Thomas Kochman’s Black and White Styles in Conflict, 1981. U. of Chicago Press.
    This reminds me of: in the early 60s as a White working-class kid entering the Black community (marriage + segregation), I found myself learning a verbal culture that was different from my own.
    To Eneri: you remind me of the interview with a White high school girl in Boston during the unrest in the 70s there describing Black kids as “walking around like they own the place.” My wife was described as “aggressive” b/c she laughed too loud. Ah, the joys of all the perceptions.

  21. Doug said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

    Holliday, Burdin & Tyler wrote:

    “Whether Bland had the right to ask the officer why she was being apprehended and to demand her rights (to stay in her car, to call her lawyer), isn’t up for debate. All people have those rights.”

    Nolo.com thinks you don’t have the right to stay in your car:

    “An officer who stops you for an alleged traffic violation has the right to insist that you and your passengers get out of your car.”

    http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/police-stops-when-pulled-over-30186.html

    I don’t know who’s right here.
    I appreciate the linguistic insights in the post, but I’m not sure if we can rely on the assertions about the law.

  22. Jeff W said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

    @Breffni

    It’s just that in these discussions of US traffic stops and the behaviour of police officers and drivers, I always feel I need to do some cultural recalibration, but I’m not sure what kind.…But to my unrecalibrated senses, Encinia’s behaviour looks like a self-evident abuse of authority…

    Well, just as one person driving in the US for close to 50 years, I’ve been pulled over twice and both times I was in the wrong. (I think my friends would say something similar.) I wouldn’t view being stopped as “routine” in the sense that when I go out driving I’d expect to be stopped every so often but certainly the stops themselves were pretty routine.

    I agree with you completely that the behavior of the police officer looks like a self-evident abuse of authority and that, if the hypothesis in the post is correct, that indicates a serious problem of professionalism. A person, generally, even in the US, is under no obligation to follow a “direct order” from a police officer; he or she does have to follow “lawful orders.” (Since it’s usually difficult for a person to ascertain whether a given order is lawful or not, it’s not unwise for that person to assume that any direct order is lawful.) And the Supreme Court has said that a police stop “may last no longer than than is necessary to effectuate the purpose” of the stop, which would be to address the violation, if any, that warranted the stop.

    From my point of view, it seems like there’s been a bit of a shift in the US—when a police officer stops you, you are “supposed to be” more submissive and not talk back—which, on the one hand, evinces a troubling sense of authoritarianism, and, on the other, is a recognition of the “abuse of authority” issue you mentioned.

  23. Pat Barrett said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    Back when lots of Russians were emigrating to the U.S. they were given helpful hints for getting along in America. One is “do not jump out of your car when an officer stops you and rush at him yelling and waving your arms. OK in Russian, not here.” So not all police are so tender-hearted as here.

  24. 400guy said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    The term that comes to mind is “selective dissemination of information”. I know it only from academic study some (too many!) decades ago.

    It was implicitly assumed that the recipient of the information was the person whose interests were controlling the dissemination; I have no faith that the technology is routinely used that way now. And the way to determine those interests was to ask explicitly.

    How naive we were, eh?

  25. K Chang said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

    @Doug — I’d trust Nolo, but it’d also depend on individual state.

    If one chooses to be uncooperative, one must be prepared to pay for price for such behavior.

    There was the story about how off-border checkpoints operated by Border Patrol (an hour or two from the border, but on a major highway) was frequently trolled by people who refused to roll down their windows AND refuse to hand over their ID for inspection. They simply repeat. I am a US citizen and I am on US soil. Am I clear to continue? (or something like that)

    More than a few had their side window smashed and hauled out by force. Others are kept in the sun for hours then released. Most of those taken into custody were never charged.

  26. Ray said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

    I think it’s interesting that the “misperception” of tone or rhythm or melody or variations in speech or whatever seems, according to ms. holliday, to matter (to be worthy of scrutiny, to be questioned and analyzed) as something that happens in one direction, especially in an exchange where both parties have, equally, obligations and perceptions to consider and consequences at stake, and where both parties, equally, sound just like who they are the moment they open their mouth. ???

  27. Jeff W said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

    Holliday, Burdin & Tyler wrote:

    “Whether Bland had the right to ask the officer why she was being apprehended and to demand her rights (to stay in her car, to call her lawyer), isn’t up for debate. All people have those rights.”

    “An officer who stops you for an alleged traffic violation has the right to insist that you and your passengers get out of your car.”

    I don’t know who’s right here.

    Well, as a matter of federal constitutional law, Nolo is. I doubt, given the Supreme Court rulings on the issue, that Holliday, Burdin & Tyler are also right in a legal sense (i.e., the driver can lawfully demand that he or she remain in the car in response to a police insistence to exit).

    Pennsylvania vs. Mimms (1977) held that the government’s “legitimate and weighty” interest in officer safety out­weighs the de minimus additional intrusion of requiring a driver, already lawfully stopped, to exit the vehicle. Maryland v. Wilson (1997) held that passengers may be required to exit a vehicle stopped for traffic violation.

    (On the very few occasions that I’ve been stopped in California, I was, in fact, told to stay in the car.)

  28. neko said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    I doubt anyone disputes that it is generally a good idea to be polite and pleasant, whether you are talking to an LEO or not. But it doesn’t mean it’s free game once you become unpleasant. It is a constitutional right to mouth off or talk back to LEOs. LEO are not overseers, citizens should not have to cower to placate them in this country. They are there to protect and SERVE the community. They are PROFESSIONALS with training to act as such. The citizenry is not paid or trained to sooth officer egos. The power vested in LEO is not a tool to bludgeon citizens into submissiveness, it places a greater responsibility on them to “rise above” petty annoyances.
    In any case, people who keeps trying to move the discussion back to Bland’s responsibility is missing the main point of the article: Do police react differently to AVE? I see very little discussion on THIS topic, which arguably should be the focus on a blog that focuses on linguistics. If there’s good evidence that the answer is no, then case close, thought provoking article, but no dice. BUT, if the answer to that question is yes, then we have a lot of soul searching to do. All men are not created equal if one section of the population has to engage in some sort of “submissive speech mode” in order to avoid run ins with the law.

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 11:54 pm

    Just as a datapoint, in the last 11 years (prior to which I lived in Manhattan and did not own a car and was thus rather atypical of the general US population) I’ve been pulled over by police 4 times, at least once for something I would consider pettier than not signaling for a lane change (I challenged the ticket, and after lengthy delay and procedural confusion I finally turned up in court and the charge was dropped because they’d “lost the file”).

    To echo at least one comment upthread, I’m having some difficulty evaluating claims that speakers of language variety A may *sound* angry or aggressive to those used to the default/unmarked version of the same language but they’re really not, because that’s not what certain prosodic features indicate in their language variety, because they seem to assume away other possible hypotheses like “speakers of language variety A are typically members of a cultural subgroup having somewhat different norms from the default/unmarked/elite subgroup of that society regarding when it is and is not socially acceptable to be verbally aggressive and/or display anger.” (Cf.: the old lawyer’s joke where the judge asks angrily “are you trying to show your contempt for this court” and the lawyer answers “no, Your Honor, I’m trying to conceal it.”) There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg, of course, if in such-and-such subculture verbal aggression is more culturally acceptable in a wider variety of contexts and thus more frequent, its presence is a less reliable signal that that this particular interaction is highly outside the ordinary.

    This still doesn’t tell you where to assign blame for a failure of effective communication across cultural lines, of course, or even whether it is appropriate to seek to put blame on one side or the other (as some are inevitably eager to do) rather than just noting that it is often the case in human affairs that both sides may have missed opportunities to avoid the misunderstanding. While it makes a lot of sense to expect police officers to be familiar with the characteristic verbal/communicative styles of cultures whose members they have frequent occasion to interact with (this cop apparently was quite new to the force fwiw), it is also worth remembering that, fairly or unfairly, it is often the speakers of non-standard language varieties in a given culture who learn how to code-switch. I’m not sure if the authors of this guest post have ever spent a day sitting in a criminal courtroom in Manhattan or a similar jurisdiction with a high percentage of black criminal defendants, but if you do that you will hear a fair amount of code-switching and, in particular, hear young black male criminal defendants with no college degree (highest level of formal education perhaps a GED completed while on Rikers) using their “being-polite-and-deferential-to-authority-figures” voice as when, e.g. pleading guilty and hoping for leniency at sentencing. I suppose it might ironically be the case that they might be better at that voice than Ms. Bland might have been (even without getting into the huge difference in context between an unplanned-for interaction like a traffic stop and a ritualized event like a court appearance you can plan for in advance) precisely because they have more prior experience than she did with the criminal justice system, being locked up, being sent while locked up to mandatory “anger management” sessions and thus learning what verbal styles will elicit what sort of reactions from earnest social worker types, learning either from those social-worker types or from other inmates (or possibly from lawyers) what rote scripts about remorse and acceptance of responsibility may be expected of them in court etc.

  30. JS said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 1:52 am

    I’m uncomfortable with this. Bland’s first remark above rings (to this 40ish white male) of bemused resignation; the latter of, if anything, remarkable calm, given the circumstances. In particular, if the authors wish to suggest that her second remark employs “stress” where CAPS indicate, and is thus “similar” to the Encinia sample, they must supply quantitative evidence: the claim certainly fails the ear test, for as the authors themselves point out, Encinia is heard “shouting at” Bland, while she has to that point done nothing of the sort.

    It would be really weird if, in exploring the “driving while black” phenomenon, a researcher were to suggest that differential treatment of black and white drivers by police was in fact due to some measurable difference in black vs. white driving behavior (“average rate of acceleration”) that white cops, subconsciously generalizing from experience with mostly white drivers, associated with lack of control. Or, in exploring the “apartment-seeking via phone while sounding black” phenomenon, to suggest that differential treatment of black- and white-sounding callers was in fact due to some measurable difference in black vs. white voices (“standard deviation of volume”) that white hearers subconsciously associated with emotional instability.

    SO…
    No, in fact, Encinia did not “hear[…] Bland as more emotional or combative than she really was” by subconscious and thus innocent comparison to “comparable white speaker[s],” he anticipated this combativeness because, uh, he’s a fucking racist. It’s OK, aren’t we all — but his disgraceful behavior during this traffic stop (for which please refer carefully to the first half of neko’s post above) is a textbook example of what happens when we white folks aren’t better at calling on (super)ego to short-circuit id.

  31. Jeff W said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 4:42 am

    @JS

    Bland’s first remark above rings (to this 40ish white male) of bemused resignation; the latter of, if anything, remarkable calm, given the circumstances.

    Listening to those two clips, I have to say, as a mid-50s white male, I agree. If the use of more stresses “contributed to Encinia hearing Bland as more emotional or combative than she really was,” as the authors claim, perhaps they did, but I’m not hearing it.

    @neko
    I agree. Law enforcement officers should be de-escalating conflict, to the extent they can, not escalating it, especially in the context of something like a routine traffic stop. The whole frame of whether the person stopped acted “submissive enough” rather than whether the law officer did no more than what was necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop I find a bit mind-boggling.

  32. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 6:40 am

    @Ben, Ran Ari-Gur: In the South, “Are you okay?” is a common greeting, the equivalent of “How are you?”

  33. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:36 am

    @Rodger C: Ah, that makes sense, thank you!

    So I guess Sandra Bland’s response (“I’m waiting on you, you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you”) means something like, “Let’s just skip the small talk and get this over with”?

  34. Rodger C said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 11:15 am

    ^ That’s what I’d assumed.

  35. Pat Barrett said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    Taking Neko’s point that we aren’t discussing the linguistic aspects that much…….”Do police react differently to AVE? I see very little discussion on THIS topic, which arguably should be the focus on a blog that focuses on linguistics. If there’s good evidence that the answer is no, then case close, thought provoking article, but no dice. BUT, if the answer to that question is yes, then we have a lot of soul searching to do. All men are not created equal if one section of the population has to engage in some sort of “submissive speech mode” in order to avoid run ins with the law.”
    I wrote before that: ” in the early 60s as a White working-class kid entering the Black community (marriage + segregation), I found myself learning a verbal culture that was different from my own.” Maybe I need to make this plainer: my speech was Great Lakes, Northern Ohio, working-class, White with a strong tinge of Appalachian. I had had little contact with Blacks until age 19, living in Phoenix, Az., I plunged totally into it, including marrying into a Black working-class aka poor in those days family speaking a very deep East Texas Black dialect aka AAVE. I had begun reading in linguistics at age 15 and so was much aware of the difference between slang and dialect, registers, code-switching, phonetics, etc. To repeat, I had to make lots of adjustments in my perceptions of people’s emotional tone due to the elements already mentioned in this blog: stress, tone, intonation, word-choice, facial expressions like ‘suck teeth’, not to mention dialect grammar and vocabulary, not to mention the Black slang of the era. My wife, who speaks English (when she wants to) indistinguishable at every level: phonetic, syntactical, lexical, grammatical, from standard (= White) English was labeled aggressive by her building principal b/c “she laughs too loud”. She’s had many experiences like that. Fortunately, the principal wasn’t armed.
    Anent linguistics: is in “run ins” or “runs in”? :-)

  36. K Chang said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    @Jeff W — IIRC, California Highway Patrol’s SOP is to have driver stay in the car while the officer query the vehicle license plate for some initial information, and local cops do the same. If the vehicle’s disabled, then they will request the driver to get out of the vehicle and get to side of the highway lest some other driver sideswipe the cars.

    @Neko — I doubt I spoke more than 10 words during my traffic stops. Did not have to be “submissive” at all.

    I am more worried about blacks demanding to be treated with kid gloves… and getting them. Call it reverse discrimination if you will.

    Blacks in general (based on 2008 data) are LESS likely to believe the police traffic stop was legitimate… by 10 points lower than whites or Hispanic. 74% instead of 86% (white) or 82% (Hispanic) *

    OTOH, 2011 survey shows that if driver are pulled over by a cop of SAME ETHNICITY they are more likely to believe the stop is legitimate (83% vs 74%) **

    Is it really a cop’s job to learn “gangsta talk” , or is it the black population’s problem that instead of educating their way out of this self-reinforcing stereotype they are EMBRACING it instead, and expect everybody, even the cops, to accept them? And call people who do conform to society norms, i.e. NOT confront police with a chip on one’s shoulder, as “being submissive”?

    * — bjs.gov stat http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=702
    ** — http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4779

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    You can’t evaluate a hypothesis with a single incident. If the hypothesis is that “black suspects who use certain distinctive AAVE features when interacting with the police get worse outcomes from those encounters ceteris paribus than black suspects whose language use in that context is less marked/distinctive” that’s an interesting idea and not ex ante implausible, but you would need to think about how it could be tested. How would you get your dataset (in order for it to be representative you would need audio recordings of lots of police interactions with people who got pulled over or otherwise detained *without* things escalating), how would you control for the many possible confounding variables (since degree of AAVE-ishness likely correlates with other factors like social class, level of formal education, etc that might also be salient to outcomes of encounters with police), etc.

    You could also study police encounters in a place like NYC where a quite substantial percentage of black residents use varieties of English that are not standard/prestige AmEng but are also non-AAVE (i.e., they speak West Indian English, or Nigerian English, or Haitian-American ESL, or Senegalese-American ESL, etc etc, to say nothing of darker-skinned Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who do not self-identify as “black” although they might be taken as such if they didn’t give off various cues, linguistic and otherwise, of what racial/ethnic slot they fit into) and see if language-variety-spoken has any meaningful impact as an independent variable in predicting the outcomes of encounters with police.

  38. 400guy said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    I would hope that police training institutions have a significant budget for actors. Is it so? From the comments above, I suspect not.

    [aside] I once worked for a company which imported actors to help train its *computer programmers* to read tones of voice. Of course, the job naturally gives lots of practice detecting fear and anger; but the stakes were never very high. [/aside]

  39. K Chang said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

    @400Guy — I was thinking along the lines of having a “translator service” similar to the call-a-translator available in many hospitals and such, so the suspect can speak with someone that don’t automatically bring up almost reflexive negative reactions. But is that the responsibility of the police… or the suspect?

  40. Matt said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    I’m not sure it is a good assumption that the state trooper is not familiar with African-American English. After all, he pulled Ms. Bland over in Prairie View – a city with a historically black university and almost 94% black population.

    I wonder if there was something about Ms. Bland’s speech that said “not from here.” I’ve lived in Houston and my first thought when I heard her speak was something sounds off – for example, the way she said “your job” as “yo job” instead of “yu-eh job” or “yuh job”

  41. Ray said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

    is there any analysis by ms. holliday et al. about bland’s possible “misinterpretation” of encinia’s “melody and rhythm”? (assuming all this is still about linguistics.) hashtagcuriouserandcuriouser

  42. Pat Barrett said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:13 pm

    To J.W. Brewer: Or, speaking ex cathedra, you might try living with a whole lot of Black people for a whole lot of years and then decide whether or not White (et alii) people react one way or the other to speech identifiably Black….. OR note how Black people who “talk White” on the phone get treated when they show up for an apartment or job (my wife reminded me of some of her experiences along that line).
    And to K. Chang: gangsta talk = AAVE? Are you sure you are on a language blog and not the Ann Coulter blog?

  43. Pat Barrett said,

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    Given Chang’s “gangsta talk” jab at Black English and your “curious” use of quotes, this discussion left linguistics a long time ago.

  44. neko said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    @Pat *knowing look and shake my head* good catch on the gangster comment too.

    @k chang
    Yes, blacks are getting kid’s gloves treatment. 3 times as likely to be shot by cops, harsher punishment than whites for the same offenses, stop and fisk. White guys can flaunt their “open carry” movements while blacks are getting shot unarmed. If none of these were true I’d be much less likely to entertain the possibility that cops discriminate against AAVE.

    It is sad but true that code switching makes life a lot easier. But it’s a short leap from “talk like us or hear the music” to “look like us or hear the music”

  45. Breffni said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:31 am

    The discussion left linguistics a long time ago, but it was a mistake for the post to bring speech styles and intercultural communication into the debate to start with, because it leaves unchallenged the astonishing premise, apparently seriously entertained by some of the commenters here, that if you DO get a bit lippy with a cop, then you’ve got it coming. Never mind “blacks demanding to be treated with kid gloves” (K Chang), the assumption is that citizens have got to treat their *police* with kid gloves – god forbid you should come across as irritated, or question their actions. Rose Eneri is worried about “Ms. Bland’s apparent belief that being black gives her the right to disrespect a cop”. Outside a police state, *everyone* has the right to disrespect a cop.

    It’s as if I’m seeing a different video to some of the commenters here. Ben talks about Bland’s “total meltdown”, her “vitriol” and “barely contained hatred”, while Encinia’s previously threatening to “light her up” with a taser is apparently just an “escalation”. Rose Eneri justifies Encinia’s request to put out the cigarette with a scenario where he fears she might pull a gun on him. For me, this is parallel-universe stuff.

    Of course intercultural communication is in general a serious issue and deserves attention, but explaining why Encinia might have got so irked to begin with, on linguistic or any other grounds, is beside the point: his job was not to police her demeanour, whether he read it right or not.

  46. neko said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 7:45 am

    Thanks for the post Breffni. For a moment there I thought I was alone, or crazy, quite possibly both.

    Well you know, I guess people really do subscribe to the “just world hypothesis”

  47. Lane said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    Well if I could bring it back to the linguists’ argument (about misinterpretation of black speech by non-black Americans), when I read their transcription

    “I REALLY am, ‘cause I feel like it’s CRAP what i’m getting a TICKET for. I was GETTING OUT of your WAY”

    I thought they were being too clever by half: when someone says “It’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for”, and say forthrightly they are irritated, I don’t know why anyone would go out of their way to say her tone might have been misrepresented as more disrespectful and annoyed than she actually was. Just read her words: she says “I am irritated” and tells the officer what he’s done is “crap.”

    But in the name of linguistics, I listened to the clip, and to my surprise found Bland far less angry-sounding than the shouty all-caps transcription had given me the impression it would be. To this white American ear, she sounds calm despite her obvious irritation – I’d say she managed it better than I do when I’m angry with a petty tyrant of a civil servant or cop.

    So now I’m baffled even more by the linguists’ argument that Bland’s stress pattern played a role: I do not hear a black stress pattern that is easy to misinterpret as sassy defiance at all. I hear a woman controlling the annoyance in her voice quite well.

    This makes the eventual escalation and outcome even more tragic to me.

  48. R Steinmetz said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 10:18 am

    I think another possibly more important aspect is different norms of behavior within portions of the African American community that may be misinterpreted by people with different experiences.

    The officers surname suggests he is Latino, probably from a Mexican family.

  49. K Chang said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    @neko — “blacks are … 3 times as likely to be shot by cops”

    Yes, a 2004 study seem to prove that… But can you prove it’s a race issue (or language issue), and not an economic issue?

    >>… when you factor in the population of whites and blacks, the felony rates stand at 330 per 100,000 for whites and 1,178 per 100,000 for blacks. That’s more than a three-fold difference. McCoy noted that this has more to do with income than race. The felony rates for poor whites are similar to those of poor blacks. “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said.

    http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/aug/21/michael-medved/talk-show-host-police-kill-more-whites-blacks/

    @Pat Barrett — Good point, I deserve that call out. Just how much Gangsta talk is there in AAVE though?

  50. neko said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    Can I PROVE? No, I cannot PROVE, which is why there’s a discussion, which is why I am trying to urge others to consider the possibility that, GASP, maybe some cops are not perfect, and a few might sometimes act unprofessionally or discriminate based on race. Can YOU prove that it is all economic and non-racial? Can YOU prove that all economic issues have ZERO racial component*? You haven’t even addressed my other points brought up in the same post, but can you answer why a larger proportion of blacks shot by cops are unarmed? Why are you so hell bent on arguing that Bland, and blacks shot by cops, all had it coming, instead of taking a moment and consider this ridiculous notion that maybe, just maybe, some cops could harbor the same biases** that you so readily display yourself?

    *read this long but informative post about block busting and long term consequences
    http://goplifer.com/2014/11/28/a-vicious-cycle-of-looting-in-americas-cities/

    **Accentless speech as an important component to trouble free LEO interaction? AAVE is gangster talk? AAVE is something blacks should “educate*** themselves out of?”

    Why stop at speaking properly? How about having the proper names***? How about dressing properly? Eating the proper foods? Loving the proper people? Having the proper religion? ALL of these run counter to American ideals.

    ***maybe not all blacks are deadbeats who aren’t trying?
    http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html

    There’s evidence (not proof, sorry) that blacks start getting the shaft even as early as kindergarten.
    http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/03/21/292456211/black-preschoolers-far-more-likely-to-be-suspended

    In face of such curious coincidental factoids, what kind of mental gymnastics does one have to perform to ignore the possibility that, even though we have come a long way, maybe racism is not totally eradicated?

  51. K Chang said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

    @Neko — actually here’s a simple question, not that I know the answer…

    Do poor WHITES have their own language, (i.e. “Redneck-speak”) and if they engage in that how do police treat them? White cop vs. black cop vs. brown cop?

    That should tell us whether it’s an economic problem or a racial problem, when it’s done similar to the other studies, should it not?

  52. Rodger C said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    @K Chang: Where prejudice against Appalachian etc. accents exists, it’s in Northern cities, where the dynamic isn’t so much class as, in effect, ethnicity. I know of no evidence that American police react particularly negatively to local proletarian accents, but someone here may know.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

    If blacks who “talk White” on the phone get treated less well when they turn up in person and turn out, in fact, to be black (even if they are still speaking the way they spoke on the phone), that tells us that people often use language variety as a signal of race/ethnicity, which we already knew. But in a face-to-face interaction, the race of the driver who has been pulled over is already (at least by the time the driver and the cop are speaking to each other) obvious. So that tells us nothing about the question of particular linguistic interest, which is that given that all black people do not in fact talk the same way (pace the contrary reductionist implication of the original post), does language variety (possibly as amplified by code-switching) independently affect how people like cops react to them in contexts where their racial identity is already known. No doubt one could come up with anecdotes that, taken in isolation, suggest that language variety is or is not an independently significant factor — I’m just wondering if there’s any actual serious scholarship out there on the subject, using a well-selected dataset etc. Although Lane plausibly suggests that even the audio of this single incident is not being well-interpreted or explained by people who purport to have relevant scholarly expertise, which does not make one hopeful about the prospects of moving from anecdotes to data.

  54. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

    An anecdote about language variation among people in trouble with the law. Coming on a decade ago a colleague and I spent the better part of a morning in one of the criminal courtrooms in Manhattan waiting for our client’s case to be called. (This was a pro bono adventure – it’s not a courthouse I spend a lot of my professional time in.) The morning was devoted to lots of small five-or-ten minute things on different cases so we saw a lot of other defendants passing through before we were up, and the demographic skew (i.e. they were essentially all black or Hispanic, and of course also overwhelmingly male rather than female) was getting rather depressing. Finally, we figured out that two nervous-looking young non-Hispanic white guys sitting in the “audience” section (which is where defendants wait their turn if they are out on bail and thus not waiting their turn in a holding cell “backstage”) were there because they’d been charged with something (it turned out to be some minor degree of arson, but they plea-bargained to misdemeanor criminal mischief), not because they were someone’s paralegals or something like that. What variety of English did they speak? Well, when I edged over to try to learn more about these diversity-enhancing defendants, they were quietly speaking to each other in Russian.

  55. Jeff W said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    @J W Brewer

    Holliday, Burdin, and Tyler:

    And this melody is often perceived as angrier and more irritated to those who are unfamiliar with African American English intonation.

    They don’t say how they know that.

    Your comment:

    I’m just wondering if there’s any actual serious scholarship out there on the subject, using a well-selected dataset etc.

    With regard to that comment and your other one about how the hypothesis could be tested, maybe there could be some psychology/linguistics experiment, if there isn’t already, with some audio using trained actors reading scripts simulating the standard intonation pattern and the one with the stress pattern Holliday et al. describe and then participants (i.e., law enforcement officers) could rate them on perceived hostility or anger. At least then we’d know how the patterns are perceived by people in the relevant population. (We can then argue about how much and to what extent that plays a role in real-life situations.) If it happened that the one with the stress pattern is perceived as higher in hostility and anger, that information could be used for training purposes—i.e., become familiar with this pattern that is perceived as angrier or more irritated if you are not familiar with it, as a way of not escalating the conflict.

    Of course, that leaves untouched what some commenters (e.g., Breffni, neko and I) regard as, in Breffni’s very apt words,“the astonishing premise…that if you DO get a bit lippy with a cop, then you’ve got it coming.” That’s a bit outside of the purview of an article and blog devoted to linguistics, perhaps, but, if that were addressed, we wouldn’t have to devote as much time to issues of anger and irritation, perceived or not, in what should be routine interactions between law enforcement officers and the people they are presumably acting to serve.

  56. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    Well, if we lived in a world where police never overreacted or behaved badly to people who “got a bit lippy” with them, the question of whether that sort of overreaction occurs in a racially (or dialectically) skewed way or on an “equal-opportunity” basis would likewise be moot. Treating people who are polite to you better than you treat people who are obnoxious to you is very deeply embedded in human nature (bracketing for now the question of whether perceptions of politeness-v.-obnoxiousness are accurate in any given instance, especially one involving interaction across ethnic/cultural lines), and while you can ask people who hold certain sorts of important positions (especially the ones that come with government-issued firearms) to try their best to keep that impulse in check, and even give them training on techniques to maintain equanimity under stressful circumstances, techniques to deescalate confrontational situations, etc., one should try to be realistic and non-utopian about what is achievable.

  57. Pat Barrett said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    So interesting to see this discussion paralleled on a listserv for foreign language teachers. Same arguments, same direction, reflective, I think, of the split in the country.
    No one has mentioned the book I listed earlier, Black and White Styles in Conflict, which deals specifically with interactions between Blacks & Whites (duh). This all sounds to me like the non-controversy over climate-change: the data isn’t in yet. Really? Do New Yorkers have an accent? Yes, but which one? Why do we laugh at Jon Stewart’s shtick? Can we unravel a NJ accent (?) from a NYC accent (?). If not, why do we laugh? But before we risk money on a comedy show using such accents, we’d better find a lab psychologist to do experiments to see if it actually makes us laugh.
    I’ve lived in a Black family for over 50 years now and to me some of these “points” seem silly, but it’s all a matter of perspective. If Trump implements his mass-deportation project, all of this will be moot…… or mute.

  58. neko said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    Ok, what you are saying sounds reasonable… until I asked myself:

    Is it not reasonable and utopian to think that you can exercise your right to not put out a cigarette, or expect not to be dragged out of your car or have a tazer pointed at your face just for asking why you have to get out? There appeared to have been no physical resistance up to that moment, and I still don’t understand exactly what she said that was so threatening or offensive that Encinia flipped his lid.

    He acted unprofessionally, plain and simple. Why do we have to apportion blame or find excuses? In order to appear impartial? In order to appear reasonable? Why won’t more people make excuses for Bland? ( before anyone accuses me, pointing out her constitutional right is not an excuse. Since when did anyone need an excuse or other’s approval to exercise one’s rights? My point is no amount of approval is gonna negate unprofessional, unconstitutional conduct)

  59. neko said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    @Pat

    Yep, it’s too controversial of an idea that some cops, like some people, are racists. Curiously, especially in the minds of the people who already have an opinion formed about the economic status and educational level of AAVE speakers. In a way, wouldn’t we call that……. prejudice? And since it’s related to race, racial prejudice? So racism is hard to fathom for people who harbor racial prejudices? My brain hurts.

    Funny you brought up climate change. Onion just had a spot on article about it, that is on point with what you just posted

  60. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

    I have glanced at bits of but not read Black and White Styles in Conflict, which (a) is rather old (published 1981 based on work going back to 1960’s); and (b) seems to conflate the things I’m interested in figuring out how to tease apart, i.e. “style” in the sense of differing cultural norms about e.g. how-aggressive-versus-deferential a self-presentation is appropriate for a given social context versus “language variety” in the sense of “this person seems to be talking the way I would talk if I were trying to convey aggressiveness, but maybe that’s not what she’s trying to convey because intonation patterns etc. don’t necessarily have the same significance in her variety of English.”

  61. Pat Barrett said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

    At this point, we have come back to language, as we do on the language-teacher listservs I mentioned, because what I want to go to now is what so-and-so was “saying” when he wrote such-and-such. IOW, we are no longer talking about Bland and the officer nor even about the social structure of our society, but about the language we use with each other. When I wanted to respond to how someone wrote something rather than to the topic, I realized it was language I wanted to talk about, as in, “X, when you wrote Y, did you mean that Z?” Interesting. Thanks for indulging me, everyone. Very good, very illustrative, and, to use my new word, LITERALLY blind-blowing (I’m cleaning up the mess as I type).

  62. Ray said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    it’s hilarious to watch how holliday et al.’s analysis and the resulting comments overwhelmingly focus on examining and explaining bland’s speech patterns, but not encinia’s. especially when holliday et al.’s analysis draws conclusions about an EXCHANGE between bland and encinia — an exchange where both parties are (mis?)speaking and (mis?)interpreting, where both parties deserve examination and explanation. this kind of partiality is, simply, flat out bias, and, in this case (focusing on bland’s speech but not encinia’s in a linguistic context), it comes off as ironically (and sadly) racist.

    it’s less hilarious, but just as amusing, to watch how commentators here tend to correct other commentators, rather than offering corrections of the flawed analysis by nicole holliday et al.

    a fun read, though!

  63. Phil Ramsden said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

    Astonished by the victim-blaming here, but in a language context, I guess that’s a digression.

    So to return to language: could someone explain the meaning of the phrase “accentless English”? And then explain its relevance here?

    (To declare an interest: I’m white, English, male and 23 years a driver; been stopped just once, in Spain, for a random breath test on which I got a zero–which, come to think of it, may have shaken a stereotype or two on the Spanish cops’ part.)

  64. neko said,

    August 22, 2015 @ 12:04 am

    @Ray

    Perhaps the reason why we have been focusing on Bland is because the two participants are not on equal footing? Encinia is in a position of authority. One of them can choose to end the exchange at anytime. One of them can choose to leave at will. One of them will suffer less or no detrimental consequences if the other party misinterprets his or her demeanor. In fact, only one of them was ever likely to receive a negative outcome regardless of which one was doing the misinterpreting. Does this seem like a good enough reason for the imbalance of focus to you?

  65. Pat Barrett said,

    August 22, 2015 @ 12:26 am

    It’s not marked and umarked speech? Encinia speaking a relatively unmarked English while Bland is speaking a marked form related to AAVE features?

  66. Ray said,

    August 22, 2015 @ 7:43 am

    @neko

    recently in this forum there was discussion about how studies focusing on vocal fry among women (and not men) were, in themselves, a form of sexism, and how they essentially perpetuate and reinforce the “unequal footing” between men and women — even when that inequality is what’s often being redressed by those kinds of studies! (ironic, right?)

    simply put, it’s important, when conducting or reaching for scientific analyses, to be as carefully neutral and inclusive and impartial as possible, no matter how impassioned or justified we feel about righting societal wrongs.

  67. neko said,

    August 22, 2015 @ 8:11 am

    @Ray
    Fair enough comment to make. I reacted from the gut.

    Pat’s hypothesis is better to discuss.

  68. The Linguistic Color Line | Citizen Sociolinguistics said,

    August 25, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    […] The linguists Nicole Holliday, Rachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler, in their detailed and revealing blog post on the linguistic nuance of this encounter, have, with irony, labeled Sandra Bland’s crime, “Talking while Black.” […]

  69. John West said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

    Bland’s speech, for which she was arrested, is protected by the First Amendment. It may well have been wiser for her to bite her tongue, but a number of rulings in federal courts have affirmed that protection. And unfortunately for the cop, 18 US Code 242 makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment to deprive a citizen of her civil rights under color of law…

    Most attention has thus far been focused on Bland’s subsequent death in custody. For many it would be reasssuring if the Obama Justice Department separated the issues and indicted the cop for violating 18 US Code 242, irrespective of what happened in the jail…

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