There is No Racial Justice Without Linguistic Justice

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Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes come from a speech he delivered at a retreat attended by staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in South Carolina, one year before he was assassinated:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (King 1967)

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words compel us to ask whether our own houses are in order, as linguists and as scholars. King’s words compel me to ask: how do linguists view our responsibility to address injustice? And how can we use linguistic knowledge and tools to combat social inequalities? Within this intellectual frame, King rejects the notion that basic research is separate and distinct from research that is applied and/or oriented toward social justice.

As an African-American Southern woman scholar, I have taken King’s message to heart and to mind in considering what my personal and professional responsibilities are.

Despite the fact that so much linguistic research has focused on African-American English, making it the most-studied variety of American English (Green 2004), linguistics faces a major inclusion challenge. According to the Linguistic Society of America’s annual report, “The population of ethnic minorities with advanced degrees in linguistics is so low in the U.S. that none of the federal agencies report data for these groups” (Linguistic Society of America 2017:20). As Rickford (1997) points out, it is a systemic injustice within linguistics that our discipline has greatly benefited from the examination of the languages and cultures of populations that are underrepresented within the field. It is vital to the development of linguistic science to recruit more speakers of African-American English into the discipline.

To address these issues, I’m happy to share information about a new National Science Foundation REU site that I’m co-directing with my colleague Mary Bucholtz. The project would not be possible with out the leadership of my University of California, Santa Barbara African-American graduate students (listed here with their undergraduate institutions): Erin Adamson (Spelman College), Kendra Calhoun (University of South Carolina), Jazmine Exford (University of California, Riverside), Raheem Jessop (Morehouse College), and Jamaal Muwwakkil (University of California, Los Angeles).

National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF REU) Site: Talking College: Increasing Diversity in the Linguistic Sciences through Research on Language and Social Mobility 

The goal of the NSF REU site is to address these issues by increasing the number of speakers of African-American English engaged in linguistics and related fields, such as communication, speech and hearing sciences, and education. Part of the challenge of meeting this goal is that many of the colleges and universities that serve these speakers do not offer undergraduate majors in linguistics. 

The project establishes a direct partnership between the University of California (UC) and Historically Black College and University (HBCU) faculty to establish a pathway for HBCU students to enroll in graduate programs in linguistics. The long-term goal of the project is to establish a sustainable model for cross-campus collaborations that broaden participation in linguistics and related fields. Undergraduate scholars will be recruited each year from three HBCUs in my home state with which I have longstanding professional and collaborative ties: Norfolk State University (NSU), Virginia State University (VSU), and Virginia Union University (VUU). Since linguistics is not offered as a major at the HBCUs, a central goal of the project is to raise students’ awareness of and interest in linguistics as a direction for graduate study. Additional students each year will be recruited from UCSB and other colleges and universities. The project is currently funded for a minimum of three years through both the National Science Foundation and the UC-HBCU Initiative of the University of California.

University of California, Santa Barbara students and faculty at Norfolk State University, Virginia Union University, and Virginia State University

We will investigate the linguistic choices that African-Americans make as they navigate higher education. The research will shed light on the role of language in the social mobility of African-American students. We will conduct interviews with African-American college students and gather samples of their academic writing and social media activity. In 2019, all student participants will attend the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institute at The University of California, Davis.

This work is a direct response to a request that my undergraduate advisor, the late Calvert Watkins made to me for such work in my junior year at Harvard. He believed that a comprehensive examination of how African-American students lived and learned on college campuses would answer long-standing questions of the nature of both the linguistic idiolect of individuals in highly unique situations and also provide information on how to best support the African-American academic speech community during their college years.

The research questions that motivate the project are:

(1) What is the sociolinguistic nature of African-American English on college campuses and how does it vary by region, social class, sexual orientation, gender, and other social factors?

(2) How do speakers of African-American English navigate linguistic choices on college campuses, and what linguistic bias do they face? How do these students perceive the role of African-American English and standardized English across settings on their campuses, and how do their perspectives vary by major, type of institution, and social factors such as gender and age?

(3) What relationship does language play in the social mobility of undergraduate African-American English speakers, particularly in their own perceptions of pathways or obstacles to their mobility via higher education? What challenges and supports related to language variation and education have students experienced, and how do these vary by major, institution, and social factors?

 The project is one of the first studies of African-Americans’ attitudes toward African-American English. Little research has been done on this issue, which is crucial in understanding speakers’ linguistic choices, especially under conditions of social mobility. Given the complex linguistic landscape that African-American undergraduates navigate, this group’s attitudes in particular merit examination. We will also create a free public archive of African-American English by having our undergraduate researchers document the language of African-Americans on college and university campuses.

Rickford and Rickford (2000) describe African-American English as follows: “The reasons for the persistence and vitality of Spoken Soul are manifold: it marks Black identity; it is the symbol of a culture and a life-style that have had and continue to have a profound impact on American popular life; it retains the associations of warmth and closeness for the many Blacks who first learn it from their mothers and fathers and other family members; it expresses camaraderie and solidarity among friends; it establishes rapport among Blacks; and it serves as a creative and expressive instrument in the present and as a vibrant link with this nation's past.” Our Souls are the heart of the diaspora. Our souls are not just expressed through history or identity, but through the action of speaking out and up for students throughout the African Diaspora.

In the true spirit of Martin Luther King and in what I can best describe as a linguistic altar call, I invite you to reach out directly to me if you have ideas to support the project or if you know of students who may be interested.

King valued the contributions that each person could make to the world using their own strengths. He valued the street sweeper as he did the artist and the scholar.

So, if a love of language and linguistics is what has you reading this blog, involvement in this project is a direct way to support King’s legacy using your own strengths.

We welcome you to serve as a volunteer mentor for the students either by visiting us at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, interacting with students at their home campuses, or virtually. Following King’s model, our work dismantles barriers and seeks to re-intellectualize applied and community issues (rather than de-intellectualizing them, as can be common in academia). The more of us that welcome the students in this project into our communities, and discussions, and lives, the more our linguistic houses will truly be in order and our celebration of King will be active and authentic.



Charity Hudley, Anne H. and Mallinson, Christine. 2017. We Must Go Home Again: Interdisciplinary Models of Progressive Partnerships to Promote Linguistic Justice in the New South. In Language Variation in the South IV. University of North Carolina Press.

Green, Lisa. 2004. African American English. In Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford (eds.), Language in the USA: Themes for the twenty-first century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 76–91.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Speech at an SCLC Staff Retreat,” unpublished. Penn Center, Frogmore, South Carolina, (2 May 1967), KCLA, 32.

Linguistic Society of America. 2017. Annual report 2016: The state of linguistics in higher education. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America.

Rickford, John Russell. 1997. Unequal partnership: Sociolinguistics and the African American speech community. Language in Society 26(2): 161–198. doi: 10.1017/S0047404500020893.

Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. 2000.  Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: Wiley.


Anne Charity Hudley (@acharityhudley) is the North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Director of Undergraduate Research for the College of Letters and Science. Her research and publications address the relationship between English language variation and K-16 educational practices and policies. She is the co-author of three books: The Indispensable Guide to Undergraduate Research: Success in and Beyond College, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, and We Do Language: English Language Variation in the Secondary English Classroom. She is the author or co-author of over 25 articles and book chapters. She has worked with K-12 educators through lectures and workshops sponsored by public and independent schools throughout the country. Charity Hudley is a member of the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). Charity Hudley has served as a consultant to the National Research Council Committee on Language and Education and to the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Broadening Participation in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) sciences.


  1. Walt Wolfram said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:55 am

    As Dr. King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Linguistic inequality is social injustice–and must be addressed. We can apply our resources in language science to this injustice. A great project, and thanks to Anne for her inspiration and leadership.

  2. Mike Anderson said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    Aha! Another American institution that has been difficult to integrate. I'll be adding Linguistics to my growing list of intractibles (so far I only had downhill skiers and the Republican Party). Good luck to Dr Hudley and her associates in a worthy "learn by doing" project.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    Mike Anderson: Birding. (I suppose nonlinear differential equations don't count as American institutions.)

    Prof. Charity Hudley: Best wishes for success with your project!

  4. Tom Saylor said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

    [1] I can’t see what the quote from MLK (1967) has to do with academic research. Where in the quote does King reject (or even refer to) the distinction between basic research and research oriented toward social justice?

    [2] I can’t see the “systemic injustice” in the situation that Rickford (1997) describes. Is it unjust for anthropologists to study the culture of a population whose members are underrepresented among the ranks of anthropologists?

  5. Michael Watts said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

    It is vital to the development of linguistic science to recruit more speakers of African-American English into the discipline.

    Why is this more vital than recruiting speakers of Cockney English or Cantonese?

  6. Anne Cutler said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

    It's possibly true to say that if any native speaker of a very-little-studied language anywhere were to express interest in embarking upon study leading to a PhD in linguistics, they* would be welcomed with open arms.

    Very-little-studied languages however tend to be spoken by very-little-privileged communities. No surprise that smart young native speakers prefer to target careers in law, medicine, economics or other fields in which they see ways to change the lot of their communities. Linguistics may first need to become perceived in this light (assuming that S.H. Elgin's vision is unlikely to be realised).

    * yep

  7. Elizabeth said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 12:11 am

    First, Anne Charity Hudley – I am so happy for this new endeavor. Your project sounds like a fantastic way to bring diversity and representation into the linguistic field. I look forward to seeing how this helps the field.

    Now onto those comments….

    @Tom Saylor,

    1. The statement is inferred. The first line in the quote says, "We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society." Essentially, civil rights are human rights. Therefore, the lessons learned during the civil rights movement should be utilized as a tool to go for greater equality of all of humanity.

    I feel like Dr. Hudley transitioned this idea well when she proceeded her interpretations of the above lines with, "how do linguists view our responsibility to address injustice? And how can we use linguistic knowledge and tools to combat social inequalities?" Basic research should be seen as also a tool for application, rather than just mere knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

    2. Yes, it is. There is an unspoken assumption here that the lack of representation is due to something happening among those under-representated population – such as they lack interest in anthropology. In reality, those who are interested are not given the opportunity to represent themselves. The positions are not given to them, but instead to white people. A culture should be able to represent itself, for it'll give insight to the culture that a white person, or any outsider, could not possibly know.

    @Michael Watts,

    Perhaps you missed this part of the above post, "[S]o much linguistic research has focused on African-American English, making it the most-studied variety of American English." Representation matters. And if a Cantonese or Cockney English speaker wishes to be represented in Linguistics, they should have that right. But don't be so asinine to dismiss representation with an off-colored comment.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 1:52 am

    The fact that a particular language has been heavily studied tends to suggest that there would be less, not more, marginal value from studying it further.

  9. Tom Saylor said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 6:49 am


    I posed a race-neutral question using the field of anthropology as an example. You assumed that the anthropologists in my example are white and that the population they study is not white. But suppose that the anthropologists are of different races and the population they study is not defined by race—health-care workers, say, or tattoo artists. Is it unjust for anthropologists to study the culture of tattoo artists if tattoo artists are not well represented in the field of anthropology? The injustice, you suggest, lies in the anthropologists’ not giving the tattoo artists “the opportunity to represent themselves” by becoming anthropologists. What does this mean? If it means that anthropology departments have refused to accept tattoo artists into graduate programs for no other reason than that they are tattoo artists, then I would agree that the anthropologists have done an injustice to the tattoo artists and to their own discipline. But if it means only that anthropology departments have not gone out of their way to recruit tattoo artists into their graduate programs in order to ensure that tattoo artists are proportionately represented in the profession, then I don’t think any injustice has been committed.

    Similarly, if linguistics departments have been systematically rejecting applicants to graduate programs for no other reason than that they speak African-American English, then let us by all means expose and redress this injustice. But if it’s simply a matter of linguists not taking steps to ensure that speakers of each language/dialect studied are proportionately represented in the profession, I don’t see a problem. To call that sort of thing an injustice is to trivialize the true injustices that Martin Luther King so courageously fought against.

  10. JJM said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    "[H]ow do linguists view our responsibility to address injustice? And how can we use linguistic knowledge and tools to combat social inequalities?"

    I have no doubt addressing injustice and combating social inequalities are worthy causes.

    However, they are not the purpose of linguistics and if the field is to be subverted to those aims, then it will most certainly be ideologically subverted in the process.

  11. Emma said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

    @JMM: I disagree. Language does not exist in the absence of language users; it is a social science. It can be studied in the absence of social context, but if that is all we do, our understanding of how languages work is necessarily incomplete. The view highly popular among the well educated in the Western world is that nonstandard language should be met with mockery and scorn and that standard varieties need to be 'defended'. It is not a coincidence that those made fun of for their language are often those without a lot of social power more generally. Linguistic discrimination is deep, subtle, and celebrated. The idea that some people speak ‘better’ or ‘more correctly’ or ‘more properly’ than others – THAT is the ‘ideology’ with which I have a problem. Linguists, but few others, are well-positioned to talk about why it is not defensible either humanistically or scientifically.

  12. Jason F Siegel said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 12:05 am

    Are there any HBCU's in the US that offer linguistics as a major?

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    I would say that linguists thinking they have a mission to combat 'linguistic discrimination' are not only being unscientific (as JJM first wrote above) but making a category mistake. Sure, non-standard varieties of English (or any other language, indeed, but here we focus on English for obvious reasons) are no less worthy of study, and that is one important part of linguistics. But to transfer that from 'equal scientifically' to 'equal morally' to 'equal socially' is hardly logical.

    Indeed, the culmination of that argument is self-refuted by linguists always using standard English themselves to communicate this or any other message. Even granting that all varieties of English are equally valid in principle (itself not straightforward), they are not equal in practice and no change of 'ideology' (i.e. opinions) can make it so. Driving on the left side of the road is 'equally valid', also …

    As for my own 'discrimination', I fell less negatively about someone using a non-standard accent or dialect consistently than about someone apparently using the standard but with blatant mistakes of grammar or pronunciation.

    k_over_hbarc at

  14. Emma said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    @Andrew Usher: No one is trying to argue that non-standard dialects automatically have exactly as much of a social position as standard dialects because we said so nyah nyah full stop.

    The point is that those who use nonstandard dialects are looked down on for it and mistreated both overtly and otherwise, and that shouldn't happen. None of this is separable from historical power dynamics. We're not going to understand language fully if we don't look at the social context. And the social context brings us face to face with deep inequalities in popular perception. Not only that, but the less we acknowledge this, the more we ensure that people who have been on the receiving end of that kind of judgment have a place in the scientific study of language (or any other field).

    There are always going to be lots of dialects. The goal is not to ensure that each of them is used with equal air time or something. The goal is for people to see them not as inferior but as different. All languages have variation and change and that is OK and making it more OK in the public eye is beneficial for the public and for the field.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 1:50 am

    @Michael Watts: At risk of speaking for Ms. Hudley and getting her point wrong, I'm not reading her comments as calling for more study of African-American English, but as calling for more linguistics study by people who speak African-American English. If the same amount of African-American English is studied as before, then a higher percentage of it would be studied by people who speak African-American English. That is not guaranteed of course, as there is nothing stopping these new African-American-English-speaking linguists from studying Cantonese or Cockney English. Anyway, my read was that the underlying ask was that if $$$ are going into the study of African-American English, that some of those $$$ be directed to African-American-English-speaking linguists. In any case, improving the diversity of the linguistics field is a good think and, imo, likely to lead to additional discoveries.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 1:51 am

    Um, let's try that one sentence again.

    Anyway, my read was that the underlying ask was that if
    dollars are going into the study of African−American English, that some of those dollars be directed to African-American-English-speaking linguists.

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