Parallel Lives, Two Realities: Rachel Jeantel Speaks

By A. G. Moore

I wrote this blog about two years ago. It addresses the testimony of  Rachel Jeantel, witness at George Zimmerman’s murder trial.

As I listen to the commentary about Rachel Jeantel and her digressions from “standard” English, I wonder about the collective blinders her critics are wearing–and about their determined avoidance of the obvious issue raised by Ms. Jeantel’s usage: parallel cultures exist in the U.S. because of economic, social and racial isolation.

In 1912, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Pygmalion, which has enjoyed more recent incarnations as My Fair Lady. Most of us know the story: a young woman is taken from the poor precincts of London and groomed to pass as a member of the British upper class. Foremost in this process is a transformation of the woman’s almost incomprehensible cockney dialect into the more refined vernacular of the British ruling class. In a sense, Shaw wrote the story of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in a Florida courtroom long before she was born. That’s because the story is as old as social organization itself. People arrange themselves into insiders and outsiders (see my blog on Robert E.Park). Class hierarchies are formed based on conspicuous differences

In 2011, John Logan and Brian Stults, of Brown and Florida State Universities, analyzed the results of the 2010 U. S. census. The researchers came up with interesting results. While a few cities, such as New York and St. Louis, showed a decline in segregation, others showed an increase. Among the more segregated cities was Miami, which, according to the Logan/Stults analysis, became significantly more socially and culturally divided between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The New York Times published its own analysis of segregation trends in the U. S. and the relationship of these trends to social mobility. The article described how some cities had intrinsic geographic barriers to social mobility and how these barriers impeded the ability of groups to move from one income class to another. The city highlighted in the article was Atlanta, Ga, but Miami was also given a poor social mobility score.

So what does this have to do with language? Well, besides what we all know instinctively as we accept Shaw’s Pygmalion story line, there’s a body of research which describes how dialects evolve within a society. Racially and socially isolated communities develop distinct cultures. Linguists look at the isolation of different groups and their social cohesiveness to assess whether or not the trend in that group would be to adopt standard language forms or to adhere to a non standard dialect. One study, carried out in Reading, England, is enlightening.

There is a phenomenon called “leveling” that has to take place if a dialect is to slowly disappear. Leveling simply means that differences between regional dialects and standard forms of language flattened so that one blends into the other. A couple of factors work against leveling. One of them is lack of social mobility: if groups do not have contact with one another then there is not likely to be the influence on language which would bring about leveling. This conclusion pretty much makes sense to even the non-scientist. However, there is another factor which has an impact on leveling: group cohesion.

The researchers looked at groups from different economic sectors who lived in essentially the same geographic setting (Reading). It turns out that lower income people tender to cling more tenaciously to group identity and part of group identity is language. As the researchers see it, this tendency to remain within a group is related to individual survival. Poorer people feel less secure and  need the support structure of their group. As incomes increase and survival becomes more certain, group support becomes less important and people are inclined to let go of group identifiers, such as language. In times of stress, mutual support of group members becomes essential and this is a kind of glue which reinforces group characteristics.

Now, back to Rachel Jeantel, who has lived in Miami for all of her 19 years. As the data shows, Miami is a city with a low social mobility quotient. Group identity is likely to be strong. Ms. Jeantel delivered her court testimony in mostly non-standard English. She delivered it in the vernacular of her group, of her community. Many who heard her took her lack of standard usage as a sign that she was not intelligent. But besides her usage, nothing about her presentation suggested a lack of cognitive alertness. She held her own against an aggressive and demeaning lawyer, someone skilled at courtroom interrogation. She delivered consistent testimony. Her thought process was not muddled.

While I cannot discuss Ms. Jeantel’s individual life circumstance–for I know very little about it–I can say that the English dialect she used is, like all dialects, a product of long-standing social and economic factors.

John McWhorter, linguistics scholar at Columbia University in New York, says of Ms. Jeantel: “…her English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley.” Dr. McWhorter then goes on to explain the rules that govern Black English–rules Ms. Jeantel apparently commands very well.

Black English, the variation of standard English used by Rachel Jeantel, is an established dialect. It is as legitimate as other established dialects, such as Cockney (England) or Hiberno-English (Ireland). What many who listened to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony forgot was this: just because someone doesn’t talk like you doesn’t mean they’re not smart like you. And to think otherwise is to show your lack of sophistication, not theirs.


Growing the Brain

In a previous blog I described a study that suggested creative activity encourages brain growth. Yesterday Nature Magazine published the results of another study that looked at brain development. This one linked income level to infant brain size.

Carried out by two researchers, Kimberly Noble from Columbia University and Elizabeth Sowell from LA’s Children’s Hospital, the study showed that infants from lower income families suffer a reduction in brain size. The implications of this study are that income disparity may have life-long, potentially irreversible consequences for children. These consequences go beyond the obvious disadvantage of diminished opportunity.  Even if at some point opportunity is equalized, children from low income homes may never be able to optimally exploit it.

Most of us are familiar with the nature/nurture debate.  Essentially, this discussion weighs the influence of environmental factors such as parenting, neighborhood and schooling against inherited traits. The Nobel/Sowell study, if it holds up, invalidates the debate. According to the study, nature is not a fixed element that can be juxtaposed against environment; it is a function of environment.

The observed effect of income level on brain size is so marked that even within lower income groups, variations of a few thousand dollars result in brain size disparity. If confirmed, the results of the Nobel/Sowell study ought to have a profound effect on the political dialogue that centers on economic equity.

Of thirty-three OECD countries,Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the United States and Israel were the five with the greatest income inequality.  That inequality may translate into millions of lifetimes of relative disadvantage.  Expand the focus of the results globally and a vast population, much of the world in fact, suffers that relative disadvantage.

It is true that we all want our children to maximize the potential with which nature has endowed them. But what if that potential is not fixed by nature? What if potential is at least partly a man-made artifact, a consequence of political and economic policies that perpetuate income inequality?

The authors of the Children’s Hospital/Columbia study are careful to explain that they don’t know exactly which factors influence brain size in infants.  The researchers guess the factors might be the usual suspects: nutrition, exposure to toxins, poor social stimulation. They suggest that tinkering with manageable factors during gestation and afterwards might have a beneficial influence.

However, it seems to me that the researchers pull back from the obvious remedy: close the income gap. This prescription, though obvious, is one that many people will find ideologically unpalatable.  Whenever wealth distribution is discussed there’s inevitably talk about freedom and choice. Which begs the question, what choice is given to an infant who lies in a crib with a destiny diminished by low income? What freedom does that infant have to forge a successful future?

Of course, there’s a larger issue than the individual tragedy of lost potential.  There’s the societal cost.  Children with less potential become adults who are less able. That is not in anyone’s interest, no matter their income level.

brain development
Credit for this image goes to Van Essen Lab(Washington University in St. Louis), in collaboration with Terrie Inder, Jeff Neil, Jason Hill, and others. The image illustrates human cortical development through gestation and into adulthood.

Who Owns a Child?

What is the boundary between parental rights and state responsibility?  Even avowed libertarians will agree that at some point the state has an obligation to insure a child’s well-being. Difficulty arises in defining how closely the state can monitor that well-being and how the well-being is defined.  These definitions are not fixed.  Ideas about the rights of parents and children evolve.  Often, when the state steps in it does so in the name of the child, or at least that is the rationale given.  When the state fails to step in, it often takes this course out of respect for parental rights.  Unfortunately, both involvement and non-involvement can result in harm to the child.

Even if the discussion about parental rights were confined to the United States, it would quickly become apparent that there’s no universal agreement about where the state’s right to interfere in the home begins and ends.   While federal regulations exist that guide state child protection laws, interpretation of those laws varies from locality to locality.  For  example, the District of Columbia has several criteria for determining appropriate parenting.  One very specific regulation addresses the speed with which a newborn is collected from a hospital. If the child is left for “at least 10 calendar days” despite being medically fit for discharge, then the court might determine parental rights should be terminated.

The State of Georgia explicitly asserts that the preferred placement for a child is in the home:”…each child coming within the jurisdiction of the court shall receive, preferably in his or her own home, the care, guidance, and control that will be conducive to the child’s welfare and the best interests of the State…”

One parental prerogative on which every US state agrees is the right to inflict corporal punishment on children.  This right is exclusively reserved for parents in some states, while others allow corporal punishment to be inflicted by schools also.

Child welfare is something most people think they agree on.  However, ideas about child welfare vary from family to family, community to community.  At some point government steps in and decides when a child’s welfare has been endangered.  Communities decide on the boundary between government responsibility and parental rights.  Once the boundary is determined, a wide range of liberties may be affected.  It is hard to imagine every area where the boundaries might blur.  Certainly government is likely to assert an interest in custodial supervision, medical care and education. How that interest is expressed depends on where a family resides.  A guide to different rules in different states may be found in the publication: Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Many people don’t spend much time thinking about the ways government might intrude into family life. However, conflicts between government policy and family belief is not uncommon. This conflict may arise in families that decide to home school.  It may arise in families that decide not to vaccinate their children, or to forgo medical treatment.

Who owns a child?  All states to one degree or another are committed to protecting the welfare of children. It behooves a parent to understand the laws of the state in which the child resides, because ultimately, government is the final arbiter of where the boundary between parental right and government responsibility falls.

corporal punishment map