ST. LOUIS – Does black have a sound?

James Robinson thinks it does. He says his recent inquiry over the telephone about an apartment was rebuffed because of his voice. It made him sound like the black man that he is.

To test his theory, he asked two friends to call about the same two-bedroom apartment. One is African-American, the other white. Only the white person was told about the vacancy.

Discrimination based on someone’s voice, or linguistic profiling, happens more often than people realize because of its subtle nature. Most victims don’t even know it has happened.

“People understood, under Jim Crow, that was wrong because it was overt,” said national linguistic expert John Baugh. “You had a sign that said, ‘Coloreds don’t eat here. Coloreds don’t sit here.’ But when it’s covert, when it’s gone underground, that’s the point it can escape detection.”

Baugh said many characteristics can be deduced about a person based on a voice over the telephone: gender, relative age, perhaps even what part of the country he or she is from.

And most Americans will assume, correctly, a person’s race. That alone isn’t racist or discrimination, said Baugh, director of Washington University’s African and African-American Studies Program.

It only becomes profiling when someone offering products or services denies them to a caller because of that assumption. It could be a restaurant host turning away a caller seeking a dinner reservation despite availability, or a cab dispatcher telling a caller that the company doesn’t service the area when it actually does.

“Many people who engage in this type of discrimination do so with relative impunity because they’re doing so in a context that’s not face to face,” said Baugh, who cautioned that people who sound Hispanic or foreign also can be targeted.

Linguistic profiling has been investigated in a variety of fields, including country clubs, insurance, banking and home lending. It is perhaps monitored the most in the housing industry, though.

Last month, a national fair-housing watchdog group filed a complaint with the federal government about apartment complexes in five states that were alleged to have discriminated against black Hurricane Katrina evacuees seeking homes. According to telephone tests conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance, whites were given incentives to rent and provided more information about some apartments, while blacks were turned away, charged more or given different rental conditions 66 percent of the time.

Telephone testing also is conducted throughout the St. Louis area by the region’s Equal Housing Opportunity Council. The organization recently filed a complaint on behalf of Robinson, the St. Louis resident who was denied a chance to see an apartment offered to his white friend.

Robinson, a mental health professional at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, sought a new place to live in August, shortly after his apartment complex changed management. He noticed a “for rent” sign in front of a nearby building and called the number. He asked the woman who answered about two-bedroom apartments.

The woman paused, then told Robinson she didn’t think any were available. He asked her to check for sure, and she informed him she was just the answering service. Then she put the phone down.

Robinson said he could hear the woman talking to another person, who asked: “What does he sound like?”

A second woman came on the phone, asked him a few other personal questions and told him the building had nothing available. When Robinson asked to speak to a manager, she hung up.

That’s when he got his friends to call the apartment complex a few days later.

James Ladd, who is white, said he also was asked several personal questions, but he was soon told about space in the building and asked to leave a contact number. A manager called him back less than an hour later.

“At that point, I called James and I told him, “I think you’re on to something,”‘ Ladd said.

Robinson said he was shocked.

“Yes, I’m African-American, but it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are – everybody’s money is green,” he said.

The equal housing council conducted its own testing on the complex and found similar results. It filed a complaint on Robinson’s behalf with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, where it is under investigation.

The manager of the complex referred calls to his lawyer, Alan Lobel, who denied the allegations, saying the complex “is a very racially mixed building.” He declined further comment because of the investigation.

Voice profiling cases are tough to win because investigators need a preponderance of evidence to back up claims, said Donna Cavitte, executive director of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

“You’re looking at a scale, and the scale can’t be even. It has to be heavily weighted on the side of the person bringing the complaint, and that’s a hard standard to make,” she said. “You might get enough to even it out to the point of, who do you believe, but that’s not enough to win.”

One suit that did succeed was a case against a Belleville, Ill., landlord who refused to rent to black tenants – and mistakenly said so to Katina Combs, a fair housing specialist with the housing council. Combs spoke to the woman during a telephone audit.

“As the conversation goes on, it’s obvious she doesn’t realize I’m African-American,” she said.

The landlord said “if she rented to one (black), she would get complaints about three or four living in the apartment,” and therefore had to be choosy. She then proceeded to make numerous racist remarks.

“It’s interesting what people will tell you over the phone because they assume you are of a certain ethnic group or a certain race,” Combs said.

The case settled last year, with the landlord paying the housing council $5,000 to reimburse resources used in the investigation and for its “frustration of mission.”

Robinson said all he wants in his case is an apology.

“It was hurtful, and it was degrading. I want this to be exposed. I want education to come out of this,” he said. “I want people to know that this sort of thing exists. Where in years past, it was more confrontational and in your face, now it’s more subtle, and the technique has been redefined, but the outcome is still the same.”


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