Interacial Verbal Interactions & Intra-Race Policing


Molly Babel, Linguistics
Trevor Gardner, Sociology

Why do people who interact  with one another end up sounding similar to each other as well? For scholars of linguistics,  such a deceptively simple observation unfolds into a theoretically rich examination of cognitive, physiological, and psycho-social mechanisms that may illuminate the very basis of human thought and behavior.

Molly Babel presented some preliminary results from her current dissertation study, which examines how racial biases and perceptions of a speaker’s physical attractiveness influence phonetic imitation.  Her study found that, indeed, racial bias did appear to predict subjects’ degrees of phonetic imitation.  She also found that women are more likely to exhibit phonetic imitation if they found the speaker attractive, and that the reverse was true in the case of men. The more attractive a male rated a male speaker, the less they were likely to imitate them.

Some socio-linguistics scholars believe all human actions are deliberate. Babel’s research challenges this notion of pure intentionality by providing some evidence of automaticity.

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According to recent studies released by the Pew Research Center, African Americans are more distrustful of law enforcement officials than whites. This may not be surprising, given the high incarceration rates for blacks, as well as studies which suggests that police officers are more likely to associate crime with blacks than other races.

But what does it mean to be black and a police officer? Black police officers are often perceived as outsiders in black communities because of their institutional roles. They may also find themselves further removed economically because of salaries that are well above the average of the poorer black neighborhoods they patrol.

Trevor Gardner, Sociology, suggests that black officers harmonize their conflicting ethnic and professional identities by adopting and navigating between racial narratives. In opposition to Maxine Water’s position that racial identities are adopted situationally, Gardner would like to argue that racial identities are in fact constant, and that what changes are the narratives that accompany them.

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