What is the color of a voice?
To build stronger cases in court,fair housing advocates are teaming up with scientists to show how easily humans can distinguish attributes including race,gender and age using only verbal cues.
John Baugh,an African American professor of linguistics and education at Stanford University,began studying linguistic profiling in the late 1980s after he says he was discriminated against while looking for housing for his family in California.
Because Baugh was raised in inner-city communities in Los Angeles and Philadelphia by two parents with a Ph.D,he speaks African American vernacular English,Chicano English and standard American English.
Using these three dialects in an experiment,he made hundreds of phone calls to landlords advertising apartments for rent in areas around San Francisco with varying concentrations of African Americans,Hispanics and whites.
In one predominately white area,he was offered a chance to view apartments with 70 percent of calls he made with standard English while he got appointments with only 28.7 percent of the calls made with African American vernacular and 21.8 percent of the calls he made while speaking Chicano English. In another area,with more African Americans than Hispanics or whites,he received appointments with 79 percent of the calls he made with African American vernacular,61.9 percent of calls with Chicano English and 57.6 percent of standard English calls.
From these two experiments and two others published in a 1999 Journal of Language and Social Psychology article,Baugh and two other scientists working with him concluded: “The ability to discern the use of a nonstandard dialect is often enough information to also determine the speaker’s ethnicity,and … housing discrimination based solely on telephone conversations occurs.”
Baugh is working on expanding this research by creating a Web site that will be used by fair housing advocates and feature voices of American English speakers from “diverse linguistic backgrounds” to evaluate how well people from all parts of the world can distinguish race,sex,age and education level by voice alone.
“I want to see how people are judged,” he says.
According to Baugh,the Web site is being developed with testing just prior to public release,scheduled to begin by the end of next year.
The National Fair Housing Alliance will be collaborating with Baugh to integrate this social science research with professional fair housing testers.
Testers’ voices will be among those on the Web site so that they can be identified by a certain percentage of people as a certain race to bolster fair housing cases in court.
“It reinforces that we’ve selected the right voices for the testing,” said Shanna Smith,the alliance’s executive director.
She said sometimes landlords will lie to blacks and Latinos about the availability of housing and that many times answering machines are used to screen calls based on race. A common defense in a race-based housing case is that the landlord never got the message; so,for example,fair housing testers with each ethnic sounding voice will place phone calls to the landlord to see if only the “white” messages are returned. In other cases,testers place calls in close proximity to each other to a housing provider to determine if the provider is discriminating by telling minority callers that a unit has been rented or sold when,in reality,it hasn’t.
“That’s how subtle and sophisticated housing discrimination is getting in the country,” she said.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed housing discrimination based on race or national origin.
Baugh’s research backs up the claim that you can know race by the sound of a voice and,thus,discrimination can occur,said Smith,who says fair housing advocates plan to use his research as backup to evidence already amassed for a case.
George McCarthy,a program officer for the Ford Foundation,which is providing a $500,000 grant for Baugh’s research,said linguistic profiling has become more of a problem as “more and more automation is beginning to dominate marketing (processes)” such as applying for housing,insurance or loans.
“That’s an unknown,” he said of how big of a problem linguistic profiling is in the nation. “It’s significant enough to do something about.”
The online aspect of the project will reduce the need to call expert witnesses in court cases,McCarthy said.