2004-06-09 Grand Rapids Press MSU professor links language to housing discrimination

MSU professor links language to housing discrimination
Grand Rapids Press

Language is almost the last haven of discrimination, according to a Michigan State University professor. Dennis Preston explained how linguistic profiling can play into housing discrimination during a Holland Fair Housing luncheon Tuesday.

“The idea of a landlord who says he can’t tell the difference between a black and white person just on the phone is a bold-faced lie,” said Preston, a professor of English and linguistics and a leader in the field of dialectology.

Federal law prohibits landlords and lenders form making housing decisions based on race and nation origin-and yet those things can be indicated by the sound of a person’s voice. The laws don’t reflect the ability of Americans to identify people on the basis of language. In his presentation, Preston showed the results of studies indicating most people use speech to determine the race and socioeconomic status of the speaker. Dialect, intonation and even subtle nuances in the pronunciation of vowels can signal a person’s ethnicity, national origin or age.

People who wouldn’t dare say anything derogatory about an ethnic group don’t hesitate to insult people linguistically, Preston said. People connect speech patterns to intelligence level, which isn’t accurate, he said. “We assume that when people speak a certain way that reflects their intelligence rather than paying attention to what they say,” Preston said.

The event at Hope College, which was attended by 90 people mostly representing banks and real estate companies, was the kickoff of fair housing services in the Holland area. The Steelcase Foundation provided a $25,000 grant for the program, which required a local match. Raising the money from corporate donors and those in the housing industry took 18 months, said Gail Harrison, director of Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

While the city of Holland has indicated an interest in financially supporting a Fair Housing Center, officials have said Holland can’t be the only governmental entity being tapped for money. “It’s an important statement to make in a community that we value fair housing, and we are going to support it financially,” Harrison said.

The group soon will begin looking for a part-time coordinator, said Al Serrano, director of the cities’ Human Relations Commission and a member of the fair housing board. Housing discrimination affects where people can work, shop and attend school, said Haynes, adding that 80 percent of people who are discriminated against have no idea they are victims. “So the people who file complaints are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Her office handles 150 complaints a year. The organization is not only a resource for people who feel they have been discriminated against but for the housing industry. The center helps landlords and lenders understand the law, she said.

“Fair housing laws tell you what you can’t do, but not what you can do, so it presents a lot gray,” Haynes said.