Race, Dialect Prejudice & Literacy in the George Zimmerman Trial & Beyond – Presented by John R. Rickford, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University
The testimony of Rachel Jeantel, close friend of Trayvon Martin and the prosecution’s star witness in the trial of George Zimmerman, was the subject of considerable public commentary in the summer of 2013. Social media pilloried her for her “slurred” or “ungrammatical” speech and described her as stupid and ignorant. But analyses of her use of zero copula, absence of 3rd singular present, possessive, and plural -s, and other features, show that she follows the systematic grammar of African American Vernacular English [AAVE] quite faithfully, with some influences from her Haitian French Creole maternal background.
In this talk, I also examine other aspects of Jeantel’s speech that were sources of great interest following the not-guilty verdict, including Juror B37’s report that she couldn’t understand Jeantel “a lot of the time” and didn’t find her credible. The extent to which speakers of AAVE and other vernaculars (including English-based creoles) are misunderstood, disbelieved or otherwise unfairly evaluated in courts, schools and other settings is considered.
Finally, I discuss the evidence of Jeantel’s limited literacy that emerged during the trial, and the poor reading performance of African American students at her school, Miami Norland, and in the Miami-Dade public school district, neither of which came to public attention. Those who clamored for “Justice for Trayvon” after the trial should work assiduously to reduce or remove the inequities African Americans face in US courts and schools. And we know at least some strategies for doing this.
John R. Rickford: J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, and President (2015) of the Linguistic Society of America