Can a person's race be included in a statement without the statement being "racist"?

The obvious answer is (at one end of the spectrum) “yes,” and it’s equally clear that at the other end of the spectrum, some statements that mention race can be clearly and intentionally racist. For purposes of this question, I make this a given. I’m talking about the fuzzy area in the middle somewhere. Someone’s race might be included in a statement just by way of description, like you might say tall, red-haired, etc.

The thing that got me started thinking about this question is one piece of testimony from the O.J. Simpson trial. (Yeah, this has been on my mind for over 20 years.) This is from my memory of the original trial, which I watched every single day. I didn’t watch the TV show.

One witness near the scene of the crime at the time of the murders said he heard a man’s voice, and he was sure it was a black man.

Johnnie Cochran immediately leapt to his feet and cried, “That’s racist! You can’t tell someone’s race by their voice!” (Or words to that effect.)

But, in fact, some black men do have a way of speaking and a quality of voice that makes them readily identifiable as African-American. I don’t remember whether O.J. did/does, because I can’t recall ever hearing him speak. Some black men don’t. But some clearly do. It probably depends, like most accents and speech patterns, on where and around whom they grew up. I don’t know.

Now if the witness had said, “Yeah, I could tell that was a n—er-boy talking!” that would have been ugly, racist language, but it would have still been very relevant to the case to know whether the witness heard a white man or a black man arguing with Nicole Simpson moments before the murder (if that’s when this happened).

Johnnie Cochran was a showboat/grandstander (IOW a good defense attorney), but was this a racist statement? I don’t think so. I don’t recall how Judge Lance Ito ruled (he morphed into a bit of a showboat/grandstander himself).

I have some other examples in mind, but I’ll wait to get some comments first.

The statement about an African-American voice is plainly wrong, or at least not 100% true – there are accents and dialects and manners of speaking that are largely associated with various groups, including African Americans (and it can be as specific as African Americans from certain regions, cities, and even neighborhoods), but these aren’t hard-and-fast rules – plenty of African Americans can sound different to this, and plenty of non-African Americans can speak in the same manner. There are many celebrated white singers, for example, who are noted to “sound black”.

If the accents don’t fit, you must acquit.

No, it isn’t racist, but he was a defense attorney eager to play the race card. If he were a Doper, he would be yelling "CITE!?!?!?!’ and rejecting all of them because they didn’t prove that 100% of all black men talk that way, and that no other men talk that way, and so on, and so on.


If he said “Sounded black” that would be one thing, but “sure” of it is harder, and I don’t think you can be sure of it.

However…most people aren’t scientists or social scientists. They go by instinct, experience, and gut feeling. They don’t examine everything they say, “Does this fall within 2 standard deviations of this or that,” or, “Is it 99% reasonable beyond all doubt that the voice I heard was black,” etc. Especially in a tense crime situation. It’s unreasonable to expect people not to go by gut feeling but instead take a 100% rational and logical approach.

A way of speaking is never limited to one Group. There are stories of People of different ethnicity growing up in a dominant neighbourhood of a different ethnicity (whether black Kids adopted to a White suburban couple, or White Kids growing up in a black ghetto) who learned the Accent and dialect of their School mates flawlessly.

Second, there is only one human race, homo sapiens sapiens. The rest is ethnicity.

Third, the Statement of an ethnicity can be included, and is, in scientific contexts all the time. When a sociologist studies a cultural sub-Group, he will identifiy the behaviour Patterns, and how they deviate from the larger norm, and speculate as to why and how. The scientist might also follow to how much outside pressure to conform influence the sub-Group behaviour over Generations.

Doctors regularly Point out that African-Americans have higher incidences of certain diseases, like heart Problems, likely because of higher stress (co-factors like less Money for a healthier Lifestyle).

Some diseases also occur higher over Groups that used to be more isolated, like some Jewish Groups, or Amish. A high concentration of a specific disease in a small Population is easier to study to find treatement than if it’s spread out geographically. Former isolated Groups can also be studied for genetic markers that might relate to certain diseases.

But no serious scientist will say that White People have a gene that makes them smarter, because that is not true. Some People will Claim that studies have shown superiority of race X over other races (usually, White People will Claim this for the White race), but looking closer, These were not scientific studies.

And no, taking the IQ scores of White Kids and black Kids and drawing conclusions based on “race” is unscientific, because first other factors influencing education and IQ scores Need to be discounted.

I’m reminded of this incident in which a Chinese reporter asked NBA player Draymond Green a rather nonsensical question and viewers on YouTube were able to recognize his voice as Asian, even though the reporter never visually appears in the video.

What are we using the term racist to mean?

My bold.

I said that.

My question was not, “Do black men have a distinctive, recognizable way of speaking,” because, clearly SOME DO. SOME. Not all. Some.

My question was, “Was Cochran’s assertion that this was a racist statement true?” Shodan addressed that.

Leading to the overall question, in that fuzzy area in the middle, What makes a statement subtly or otherwise racist?

This thread quickly went off the rails. It isn’t a discussion of language, accents, speech patterns, okay?

Your post reminded of that time Harry Reid said Obama spoke with “no Negro dialect”.

“We got a new boss. Has a Harvard Ph.D, but he is a hulking silent beast. Doesn’t talk much. Looks like he just got out of prison. I dread our first staff meeting.”

What if I say, “We got a new boss. Has a Harvard Ph.D, but he is a hulking silent beast. Doesn’t talk much. Looks like he just got out of prison. I dread our first staff meeting. BTW, he’s black.”

Or, “We got a new boss. Has a Harvard Ph.D, but he is a hulking, black, silent gorilla. Doesn’t talk much. Looks like he just got out of prison. I dread our first staff meeting.”

Consider if a white person says this to another white person, or to a black person, or all possible iterations of that pattern.

Can I tell people my new boss is black, as in the second statement, in a way that’s purely informative and descriptive, without my statement being labeled racist?

**ThelmaLou **is right, we (myself included) derailed her thread. But anyway, so, to get back on topic:

I don’t think it is necessarily racist, at all, to include race in a matter where race is relevant. I think this is particularly the case so in criminal/legal matters, which by their nature tend to force certain “inconvenient facts” to the surface - for instance, that women are usually physically weaker than men, that minorities commit more crime per capita, that certain neighborhoods are more dangerous than others, that certain hairstyles are associated with a certain race, etc.

Do continue and finish that thought. You seemed to stop your process in midstream.

I’d start with using the word “race” at all, because it is non-scientific. The correct word is “Ethnicity”.

I’d also say that any Statement referring to the ethnic Group of a Person outside scientific context is suspect.

If I were to describe my coworker to a stranger, and I say “Coworker Alice is the blond one, and Coworker bob is the black-skinned one, and coworker Charles is the bald one”, that would be a quick way to identify them, provided there is only one blond/ black-skinned/ bald Person in the Office. (It still could be offensive to some People, so to be used careful - blond is a neutral term for hair colour, but bald is seen as negative. Saying “Alice is the fat one and Betty is the skinny one” if two are blondes is negative. It might be possible to say “Alice is the tall one, and Betty the shorter one”.)

If I were to talk about how my coworker Bob is lazy/ temperamental/ good-looking because he belongs to ethnic Group X, and that is a clichee about Group X, that is racist. Bob is … not because he belongs to Group X, but because he is that way.

Well how else to discuss it? On the one side, you have science, which says race doesn’t exist.
On the other side you have People using clichees, either deliberetly, or unconsciously because they learned them.

Science tells us that People want quick categories, because it makes life easier (and human Brains want shortcuts to save energy). Science also tells us that quick categories can often be wrong, and that many clichees are part of rumor-spreading and never had a grain of truth to them.
So saying that “Kids from Group X are stupider than Group Y, because they do worse on IQ tests” is racist, if Group X and Y are different ethnicities. It’s Sexist if Group X are Boys and Group Y are Girls.
And it’s wrong, because it makes People look in the wrong place (Group Y is smarter, there must be a smart gene in their Group! Let’s advance Group Y!), instead of looking for a solution (what is the real cause that Group X doesn’t do as well, and what methods to improve them have worked elsewhere?)

If we look not at races, but sexes, we see that Girls can be as good as Boys in math with the right methods (Finland) and only half as good as Boys with the wrong methods (Turkey) and social attitudes.

So obviously it’s not a brain Problem, just as calling one ethnic Group ___ is not a genetic Problem. Yet that’s what racists do: look at superficial traits, and look for the cause as inborn part of Group X instead of the real causes.

Oh no he dint!


Yeah, I’m…working, or should be working my job :wink:
So, actually, that midstream thought wasn’t going much further. What I was saying was that, I think in legal/criminal situations, there needs to be more leeway given with regards to bringing up race or sex, etc. than in everyday conversation. Same for emergencies, or anything that’s urgent - I think the more urgent or serious something is, the more slack people should be cut for expressing what’s really in their minds. Not because it’s right, but because it’s simply unrealistic to expect people not to revert back to what’s more ‘primitive’ (for lack of a better word) in those situations.

Why do you Need to include his Skin colour in that Statement? Esp. with the clichees against big black man in Society, this does Sound problematic. It can lead other People to conclude that you are implying

“He Looks like he got out of prison, and he’s black (because black men are criminals)”. Or that you are implying “He’s from Harvard, and he’s black (so he only got in by affirmative Action, not on his own)”

It’s certainly problematic.

Imagine if your new Boss said about you “Well she’s a White Person, obviously she’s racist and will make wrong judgments about any black-skinned People”. How would you feel? Would you like that, or would you think “He should have waited to get to know me before judging me”?

Comparing black People to apes or monkeys has a bad history in the US, from what I hear. It’s not good to compare People to animals, but esp. not if there’s a Long history of denying them Status as full humans.

Leave out the negative judgments about your Boss in the first place - the “Looks like he got out of prison” (What is that, anyway: short hair, or a bunch of tatooes?) “hulking beast”

“He’s from Harvard; he seems* to be the silent type, his physical size is imposing. He’s also black, so I hope I don’t put my foot in during our first Meeting”.

Or “He’s the silent type and his size is imposing, so I don’t know how our first staff Meeting will go, because I like a Boss who gives clear directions.”

Or even “He’s big and black and silent, but he’s from Harvard - not what you’d expect from the first look. He’s probably often mistaken for a Lobby guard or similar when Meeting People the first time, that must be bothersome”.

  • Seems because if you haven’t met him properly yet, you can’t be sure.

Good answers, all. Super-touchy subject, which I knew going into it.

And, yeah, some descriptors not connected to race/ethnicity/skin color can be “insulting,” even if informative. I like to form a picture of someone, and I like details-- tall, short, fat, skinny, black, Asian, blonde, red-haired, one-armed, in a wheelchair, drop-dead gorgeous, six-fingered, and especially bald (as I have a thing for bald men, not so much bald women, but I’d like to know that, too).

Random thoughts:

  1. I just flashed back to this old blog - haven’t visited it in a long while, but maybe it’s still a handy resource for “Racist? Or not?” type questions. Useful or not, I remember it being very entertaining. Anyway, here it is: (YMMV)

  2. “Is this racist?” is a fraught question, and as Jay Smooth said (again, years ago), it often works better in concrete terms to say (or think about whether) a statement “sounds” racist. Among other hints, it acknowledges the importance of context and audience.

  3. The “blaccent” is a real and well-studied phenom (or so I’ve read), so Johnny Cochran was probably play-acting a bit - I’m guessing he knew what black people “sound like,” generally. But he had a valid point: IDing the race of a speaker by voice alone is probably not reliable enough for a trial.

  4. if any of you lived through and watched the OJ trial, I highly recommend 1) ESPN’s documentary series “OJ: Made in America” (? on the title), and (somewhat less) 2) FX’s dramatization starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Sarah Paulson; et al. Both provide new lenses on this old story.

Very sensible, snoe. Thanks.

If I thought someone spoke in AAVE dialect (or what sounded like AAVE to my deep-fried southern ear), I wouldn’t hesitate to mention it. With some level of comfort, I can replicate AAVE such that I could repeat what I heard so that my hypothesis could be verified. Like, if I were to claim that the defendent said ‘She be my friend’ rather than ‘She my friend’, I’d expect that to raise the eyebrows of any speaker of AAVE in the jury box. And it would not be that difficult to verify whether the defendent speaks AAVE based on audio recordings taken by the police etc.

But I wouldn’t go there with the “blaccent” thing. Yes, it is a thing and I notice it all the time. It is possible that I even have a blaccent. But I am not enough of a linguistics expert to be able to help someone understand what I mean by “blaccent”. If a lawyer pressed me to guess the race of a person based on the inflection of their voice, I’d tell them that I don’t feel comfortable doing that.

Is the question inherently racist? I am totally okay with saying I don’t know. Now, it is undeniable that race maps onto culture, and the way someone speaks is heavily influenced by their culture. But this also means it is subject to perception bias, including racial prejudice. I do not speak AAVE 99.5% of the time, and when I do, it is never with white people since almost none of the white people I meet speak it. Growing up, kids used to tease me for speaking so “proper”–a malady I blamed on having parents from the Midwest. And yet, there have been a couple occasions when a white person (a specific white person) has mimicked me by using some fucked-up hybrid of southern and AAVE dialects with some crazy “angry urban” flavor thrown in. Like, I don’t think I have ever said “Oh, no you di’nt” around this person. I don’t do the swivel neck thingie either. And yet that’s how he tends to imitate me. Is this racist? Yes, of course it is. It’s not KKK, let’s-kill-the-niggers racism. But it IS the kind of racism that two-dimensionalizes black people and portrays us as stereotypes, thereby making it difficult for people to see us as individuals.

I think everyone at this point is biased against OJ. So let’s say the defendent had been Michael Jackson, Bryant Gumble, or Eric Deggans. Does anyone really think the state would have presented that same evidence? Because I don’t think they would have. With these black guys, I think presenting that evidence would have only hurt their case, not helped it. If anyone thinks otherwise, I’d be interested in hearing why. Seems to me if the evidence is perfectly fine and not at all racist, it should be used regardless of who the black man is standing trial.