FEATURE — Summer 2009

John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences, documented discrimination for housing, education, employment, and medical services based on the sound of one’s voice. Government agencies and private organizations now use the technique he pioneered two decades ago to test for fair housing practices. (Photo: Joe Angeles)

Calling Out Prejudice

Professor John Baugh’s international research documents how someone speaks affects outcomes—from being declined housing, to not being promoted or gaining employment at all.

By Kenneth J. Cooper

As he scouted for an apartment while on a one-year fellowship near San Francisco, the black professor detected a suspicious pattern.

“In three or four instances, I showed up and was told nothing was available, even though the landlords had been enthusiastic [when we talked] on the phone,” recalls John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences and professor of psychology, linguistics, English, education, and anthropology, all in Arts & Sciences.

For other African Americans, that realization might have been good reason for venting righteous rage, calling in the NAACP, or filing a discrimination lawsuit. For Baugh, a linguist whose research to that point had focused on black vernacular English, his personal experience represented something else—a scholarly opportunity.


He designed an experiment to determine whether “linguistic profiling” was being practiced against African-American and Latino apartment-seekers. Using three different names, phone numbers, and voices, Baugh phoned Bay Area landlords and spoke, serially, in black, Mexican-accented, or standard English. Sure enough, callers who sounded African American or Latino were more frequently put off or rejected.

Baugh’s research documenting “discrimination based on the sound of someone’s voice” was a breakthrough for linguistics and the law. Government agencies and private organizations now use the technique he pioneered two decades ago to test for fair housing practices. The impact has been far greater than a lawsuit’s would have been.

“I think it shows a very clever, very deep appreciation of linguistics and African-American issues,” notes Edward S. Macias, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. “John’s been able to put his research together in a way that has brought a unique contribution to society.”

From housing, Baugh’s research steadily expanded into education, employment, and medical issues. He also examined linguistic bias against populations not defined by race or ethnicity, including women seeking executive positions . . . “For my work, linguistic profiling is much bigger than race,” explains Baugh.

From housing, Baugh’s research steadily expanded into education, employment, and medical issues. He also examined linguistic bias against populations not defined by race or ethnicity, including women seeking executive positions, men stereotyped as homosexuals because they lisp the letter “s,” and Southerners whom Northerners deem less intelligent because of their drawl. He has even done work on behalf of deaf communities.

“For my work, linguistic profiling is much bigger than race,” explains Baugh, who recently directed the African & African American Studies program.

His exploration of language and fairness also extends to studies conducted abroad in France, South Africa, Brazil, and Jamaica. “I was kind of U.S.-centric in my initial research, then I expanded more broadly,” he says.

Explaining African-American speech patterns
As a graduate student in the 1970s, Baugh focused on the form of English traditionally spoken by African Americans. His doctoral thesis explored the ways many people alter their speech patterns to include more or less standard English, depending on who is listening. William Labov, a prominent linguist who pioneered studies of black English, supervised Baugh’s dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania.

Another pioneer was Robert L. Williams, an early predecessor of Baugh’s as director of Washington University’s African & African American Studies program. At an academic conference in St. Louis in 1973, Williams coined the term “ebonics”—a conflation of “ebony” for black and “phonics” for speech sounds—as an alternative to black English.

Two years later, Williams, now professor emeritus of psychology and African & African American studies, edited and self-published the seminal Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks.

“Bob and I participated in many of the same conferences over the years,” Baugh recalls. “When he introduced the term ‘ebonics,’ as a linguist, I paid attention.”

Many considered ebonics to be just colorful street slang or, worse, bad English spoken by people who did not know any better. Baugh and other linguists see ebonics as a tongue having its own logic and consistent rules, which developed during early exchanges between African slaves and their European captors.

Williams defined ebonics as a byproduct of the Atlantic slave trade, therefore making it international, not solely American. Baugh also embraced Williams’ original concept.

As a young professor at the University of Texas (UT), Baugh produced a seminal book of his own, Black Street Speech: Its History, Structure, and Survival, in 1983. At the time, the prevailing scholarship was that black adults speak standard English. That conclusion was contrary to his own experience, so he decided to investigate.

For four years, he recorded conversations with African-American adults from different cities in various social settings. His analysis of their speech patterns found considerable “style shifting”: more vernacular usage in informal conversations with familiar individuals, more standard English in formal settings with strangers.

At the end of the 1980s, Baugh’s research turned toward applied linguistics, starting with a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California. While at the think tank, he conducted the study of linguistic profiling in rental housing. (He found an apartment midway through his research.)

Baugh departed UT to join Stanford University’s faculty in 1990. There he explored linguistic issues in doctor-patient communications. In education, he concluded that the teaching of phonics would be more effective if adapted to pupils whose first language was ebonics or Spanish. He also came out in favor of bilingual instruction to help ebonics speakers learn standard English.

“John’s research was one of the main reasons I went to Stanford to get my Ph.D.,” says H. Samy Alim, an assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA with whom Baugh co-edited a 2007 book, Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change. “He’s a senior scholar who’s well-respected and at the top of his field.”

As the 1990s ended, Baugh authored two more books: Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice is a 1999 collection of essays; Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice signaled a shift toward broader issues in 2000.

Investigating international profiling
Under a 10-year grant the Ford Foundation awarded in 2002, Baugh has conducted studies of linguistic profiling in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and in the United States, South Africa, and Jamaica. His research in France, for instance, found bias against job seekers who use “African pronunciation” or have Arabic names.

“As soon as someone’s name was Mohammed, he wasn’t getting the job,” Baugh says. “We had that in a report before the cars were being burned” (during the rioting in France by North African immigrants in 2005).

That year, Macias, the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences and then-dean of Arts & Sciences, successfully recruited Baugh after 15 years at Stanford. Baugh became Washington University’s first Margaret Bush Wilson Professor, an endowed chair named for the St. Louis attorney and emerita University trustee who was the first woman to chair the NAACP’s board. (See Frontrunners for more on Wilson.)

“It was a real coup and something we were very proud of,” Macias says. “It’s unusual for someone who’s a long-standing member of Stanford’s faculty to be willing to leave.”

Baugh spent last summer at the University of West Indies, working under the Ford grant with specialists on Jamaican patois, a form of ebonics. He plans to bring Jamaican researchers to campus to continue collaboration on bilingual programs for patois speakers.

“In some classical sense, Jamaica is a bilingual country,” Baugh says. “If you’re going to educate poor kids in Jamaica, it’s not a bad idea to start with their home language and transition to standard English,” without saying their native tongue is wrong.

Also forthcoming is a two-volume set he edited on interdisciplinary approaches to linguistic profiling, based on a Ford-funded conference held on campus in 2006.

Promoting a vision, transforming society
In addition to conducting research, Baugh administered an academic program, where he promoted “a vision of African and African American studies that’s infused throughout the University.” He built academic bridges to professional schools and physical science departments, for instance. Three of the program’s recent majors, he is proud to say, declared themselves pre-med. He also has worked to increase the number of black engineering students.

Baugh acknowledges a paradox about his former dual roles as an administrator and scholar. “I was running a program fundamentally based on race, but my research is trying to get past race,” he notes.

In a 2006 journal article, Baugh presented a rough model of a “historical hardship index” for determining who should benefit from affirmative action.

The main index weighs 10 factors, such as being a standard English speaker, a voluntary immigrant, disabled, or descended from slaves. Three other factors are race, skin color, and hair texture, but those “racial categories” are grouped in an “optional section.”

His preliminary model, which he acknowledges needs refinement, reflects what Alim describes as Baugh’s scholarly goals to “use the tools of social science to transform the society we live in” and “improve the lives of all people.”

Kenneth J. Cooper, A.B. ’77, is a Pulitzer prize–winning writer based in Boston.