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Victims of voice profiling

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 discriminatory, said Baugh, director of Washington University's African and African-American studies program.

It becomes profiling only 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 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.

Robinson, a mental health professional at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, 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 region's Equal Housing Opportunity 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.