Testers Posing as Katrina Survivors Encounter ‘Linguistic Profiling’

Lorinda M. Bullock, New American Media
Tuesday August 22, 2006

As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches on Aug. 29, displaced Americans from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have been slowly rebuilding their lives and looking for a place to call home.  

While Katrina’s black victims shop the housing market, calling realtors and potential landlords, one thing may be standing between them and their new homes even before an appointment is made or paperwork filled out—their voice. 

It’s called linguistic profiling.  

A study of five states done by the National Fair Housing Alliance and linguistics expert John Baugh revealed in 66 percent of phone tests administered by white and black testers inquiring about housing as Katrina survivors, “white callers were favored over African-American callers,” the report said.  

“Yes, people do use the telephone as a screening device in many, many businesses,” Baugh said.  

Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the Washington-based NFHA, said the organization’s report on “Housing Discrimination Against Hurricane Katrina Survivors” showed repeated bias in a number of areas, including black testers not getting return phone calls, and being quoted higher rent prices and security deposits.  

“In Birmingham, a white tester was told that a $150 security deposit and $25 per adult application fee would be waived for her as a Hurricane Katrina victim. She was also told she needed to make 2.5 times the rent to qualify for the apartment. The African-American tester was told that she would have to pay $150 for the security deposit and a $25 application fee for each applicant. The African-American hurricane survivor was also told that she would have to make three times the rent to qualify for the apartment,” the report stated. 

The testing took place in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, and showed instances of white testers being offered free televisions and partially refunded security deposits. But those offers were not extended to black testers, who were often saddled with additional administrative fees that were non-refundable.  

“It’s a different kind of behavior in discrimination from the ‘70s until now where they would just simply say we don’t have anything available. Now they try not to trigger suspicion so they may say, when do you need it or I won’t know until the end of the month, when in fact, they may have three or four apartments available right now. But if you’re the caller that sounds reasonable,” Smith said.  

Smith, whose organization has worked with Baugh since the early 1990s, said another tactic that is used is asking a potential renter or buyer for their name to be put on a waiting list and “Names that didn’t sound middle America White, they didn’t get the return emails about availability.”  

The current trend happening with the Katrina victims is no surprise to either Smith or Baugh.  

Baugh has logged thousands of calls, since 1987, using testers of different races and backgrounds, including himself.  

Baugh, an African-American man, started studying the practice of linguistic profiling after his own personal experience when he was looking for an apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

“I was calling various landlords to go look at apartments and in about two or three cases, I got there and they told me there had been some mistake and the apartments had already been rented. And it just didn’t seem right to me and I speculated that they didn’t realize I was African-American when they made the appointment with me. But once they saw me in person they came up with some excuse. They didn’t say, ‘No, we don’t rent to Black people’ but they came up with some ‘unquote’ legitimate excuse,” Baugh said.  

He found the questions from the landlords varied, depending on the voice they heard, but Baugh, who flawlessly uses three different voices—a “Latino rendition, modified African-American rendition and standard English”—always kept the opening line the same, “Hello, I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper,” he would say.  

“It’s exactly the same phrase. The only thing I’ve done there is modify the intonation. So it isn’t like I used the word ain’t or be or anything. Even if you use a certain kind of intonation, it is possible that somebody might discriminate against you just based on the sound of your voice over the telephone,” Baugh said.  

Baugh who just finished a five-year study with the Ford Foundation looking at the issue in the United States, has started a new two-year project with the Ford Foundation. This time, he’s examining linguistic profiling globally, for people of African descent in places like South Africa, Brazil and France. 

Baugh has also used his expertise in civil and criminal court cases. Many of the civil cases dealing with linguistic profiling have settled out of court. As for the criminal cases, he is developing ear-witness testimony in hopes of having a similar impact of DNA testing used to exonerate the innocent and solidify proof against the guilty.  

While Baugh says Black and Hispanic people in the United States are discriminated against heavily because of their voice, he also makes it very clear that linguistic profiling is not even limited to just those groups. 

“They (southern Whites) think they need to show up in person so the people there don’t think they’re Black. Even within any racial group, there is enough linguistic diversity you get different prejudicial issues coming up,” he said.  

But even Whites seeking diversity find that realtors and landlords are drawing the lines deciding where clients should live despite their wishes, said Smith, who is White.  

“As White people we get those direct comments made to us. I’ve been doing testing where people say, you’re going to like it here. We don’t rent to Blacks. I’ve been told when I’ve asked for housing in interracial neighborhoods, real estate agents will say, ‘well who will your kids date?’ It’s not going to be safe for you. It’s going to be better for you to move here. White people hear this all the time. The problem is they don’t know they can do something about it.” 

Smith said the Fair Housing Act strictly states that truthful information must be given to everyone who calls. 

If people feel they are getting different treatment, Smith suggested they can call one of the 100 fair housing centers in the country or the national office in Washington. The fair housing centers can have a White tester call in as little as 30 minutes and will compare the results. Both Smith and Baugh suggest keeping detailed notes of the experience.  

“We estimate there are close to 4 million instances of discrimination that occurs annually in the U.S. My members only report about 18,000 a year. HUD only gets around 3,000 complaints a year,” she said.  

But the reported numbers are so low because there are only 100 centers and states like California, Ohio and Michigan have multiple centers leaving other states without centers at all. “So you have thousands of cities that don’t have a private fair housing center,” she said.  

While everyone “accommodates linguistically” depending on the situation, be it a job interview or joking with friends, Baugh said people should not have to hide who they are but shouldn’t be naive to society’s biases either.  

“People should not feel they need to mask their linguistic background,” he said. “The United States should be the most linguistically tolerant nation on the face of the earth because our citizens come from everywhere. And because of the fact that all of our ancestors had to go through a transition where English was not their mother tongue … You should be free to speak in whatever way is comfortable for you and your fellow citizens don’t misjudge you.”