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Ebonics Misinterpreted in Court Transcriptions

A recent study was released that has put the courts, especially in Philadelphia, on the hot seat. The focus of the study was on the court reporters and their transcriptions of African Americans who spoke in court cases. The biggest issue was not that they couldn’t understand the people speaking, but that they changed the phrasing and interpreted the meaning of their testimonies in ways that were almost never what the person was actually trying to say. This study is shining a light not only on the consequences that inaccurate transcriptions can have on people’s lives, but also the racial divide within the justice system that has been seen on minorities being oppressed by any means since the beginning of time.

Now that there are videos and recordings, it’s harder to get off on crimes committed against minorities, that is, until they rely on testimony from witnesses. In which case, the information and nuances of the black language is used against the person on trial to twist the words of the people testifying in order to help make sense for the outcome that the majority of the public and prosecution agree with is correct.

Some of the arguments are that this is not a serious problem as it is simply a grammatical change to correct grammar. This is not a reasonable train of thought in this situation as the linguistics of the black dialect is just as strict and clear to those who speak it as the English language. Another issue raised is the fact that the reporters are improperly trained for their jobs. As black people are incarcerated and brought into the justice system at a higher rate than any other population, it would make more sense for the training for the reporters to include learning black dialect and how to interpret it correctly. This unfortunately is not the case, as most training is done using ‘classroom English,” which is not spoken by most people of color.

This study shows the continued lack of training and education within the justice system on different cultures, customs, and languages. These misinterpretations and inability to correctly transcribe and understand the black language shows the racial divide that is still heavy within this country, and the abuse of this divide to put colored bodies in cells in order to make others feel safe. The words and meanings are twisted in a way that later makes people seem incompetent or as if they were not truthful, which can lead to not only a failed justice system, but young men and women being torn from their families simply because people refuse to learn to understand the nuances and subtle differences in the black language that make it so distinct. Until our justice system no longer places the blame on those who are, more often than not, misrepresented and unjustly charged, we will never see a difference in the treatment of black men and women in the justice system.


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Ashleigh Griffin

Virginia Tech '19

Ashleigh is a graduate from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  She received a Bachelor's of Science in Food Science and Technology. Her future career will hopefully combine both her knowledge of the food industry and the importance of marketing and brand management. 
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