Bias against African American English speakers is a pillar of systemic racism. In the national conversation taking place about systemic racism in the United States, one important element should not be overlooked: linguistic prejudice.
African American English, like other dialects used in the U.S., is a legitimate form of speech with a deep history and culture. Yet centuries of bias against speakers of AAE continue to have profound effects on employment, education, the criminal system and social mobility. To attack systemic racism, we have to confront this prejudice.
Of course, some of the greatest examples of American oratory and literature have roots in AAE, also known as African American Vernacular English. The works of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison are infused with AAE. Its significance cannot be understated when examining the speeches of orators like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama. In American music, it has moved beyond African American communities to influence all genres, from blues to hip-hop.
None of this, however, has prevented the dialect from being used to justify the marginalization of its speakers.
The history of AAE, spoken by many Black Americans, is complex. Some linguists suggest that the dialect has roots in West African languages and shows striking parallels with Caribbean Creoles. Others argue that older varieties of AAE resemble the English dialects spoken by white indentured servants who lived in close proximity with enslaved people. Some of the modern features of AAE overlap with aspects of Southern dialects, carried by African Americans in the Great Migration from Southern rural communities to Northern urban areas.
Like any dialect, AAE is a part of the cultural fabric of its speakers and has its own accent and rule-governed grammar. But despite its legacy in shaping American culture, this historic language is often derided as ungrammatical and linguistically less than other forms of American speech. The result is that AAE speakers are denigrated and discredited based on their speech. Read More