Speech, Race, and Earnings: Testing Alternative Explanations

Project Date:
Dec 2013
Award Amount:
$33,960
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Race and speech combine to affect the lives of minority workers in many important ways. Linguists have analyzed the differences between Standard American English (SAE) and African American English (AAE), a dialect spoken by many blacks in the United States. Many African-Americans are bi-dialectical, tending to use more AAE features in casual settings, but more SAE features in formal settings. Switching between AAE and SAE, known as “code-switching,” is believed to be widespread, although nationally-representative data have never been used to measure its prevalence.

In a small pilot study of one hundred African American respondents, economist Jeffrey Grogger showed that young African American workers with racially distinctive speech suffer substantial wage penalties as compared to similarly skilled whites. In contrast, African American workers with racially indistinct speech earn essentially the same as their white counterparts. What explains these speech related differences in earnings? What role does code-switching play?

Jeffrey Grogger and speech expert Holly Craig hypothesize that employers use speech as a proxy for skill early in the worker’s career, much as they do educational attainment. If so, speech may have less effect on the black-white wage gap as workers gain experience and employers learn more about their true productivity. An alternative is that prejudice involves not just race by itself, but the interaction between race and speech. In the presence of such differentiated prejudice, racially indistinct speech should reduce the racial wage gap over the entire life course. Moreover, Grogger and Craig hypothesize that code-switching may help predict labor market success given Craig’s previous work linking code-switching to academic achievement among children and the positive relationship between school performance and wages. To further address these questions, Grogger and Craig will construct a measure of code-switching for about 1030 respondents in a sample group.

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