Seeking Unity in Diversity

By Rolando Flores
Volume 7, Number 1 (Fall 1996)
Issue theme: "'Anchor babies' - the citizen-child loophole"


After House approval this month, the English Empowerment Act of 1996 awaits a Senate vote on a similar measure in September. [The Senate has adjourned without acting on the measure.] The bill, which would require the federal government to conduct most of its business only in English, has been consistently rejected by the civil rights lobby and openly criticized by academics and supporters of Spanish. Yet its provisions have already been adopted separately by 23 states, and seven other states are in the final stages of legislative debate on the subject.

Mr. Clinton supported a similar measure back in 1987 as governor of Arkansas, but if one passes Congress this fall he will most likely decide to veto it. He fears not that it would divide the nation, but that immigrants and Spanish culture supporters would respond negatively ahead of the coming elections.

Yet to reject this bill before weighing its advantages, as the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has also done, is quite wrong. Mr. Fuentes has erred seriously, I believe, in describing it as racist, xenophobic and fascist. Spanish speakers should dis-regard such paternalism and the instinct to overprotect our language. In the end, such attitudes can only harm those Hispanics they ostensibly seek to defend.

Of course, Spanish speakers all over the world should join constructive campaigns to pro-mote our [Spanish] language. However, we cannot - and should not - see the English Empowerment Act as an anti-Spanish measure that seeks to discriminate against Hispanics or the Spanish language. Rather, this legislation would only help the Hispanic minority, and others, to integrate into American society.

To see why opposition to efforts like the English Empowerment Act leads to unworkable and ultimately discriminatory policies, consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols. Ever since 1974, it has required that each edu-cational district offer classes and special programs for non-English-speaking students. Tiny schools all over America have therefore been forced to take on the enormous financial burden of hiring Spanish-speaking instructors, and of modifying their school programs to facilitate an easy transition for non-English speakers to the Anglo system. Similarly, in states with large numbers of Hispanics, unemployment offices and other public offices must follow strict quotas mandating Spanish-speak-ing staff to allow everyone access to government services, as well as to prevent any imaginable discrimination. Every form, document and item of official information must be available in Spanish as well as in English.

But can we ignore the fact that more than 300 languages are spoken today in the U.S.? In Los Angeles, for example, there are more Mexicans than in any city other than Mexico City, and more Koreans than any place in the world but Seoul. In one L.A. school district alone, teachers have to gather and instruct stu-ents from 80 different national-ities, just 13% of whom speak English as their first language. NON SEQUITUR BY WILEY

1996 Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted by permission.

The inescapable questions, then, are these: In how many different languages should classes be offered? And public services? Would we not be discriminating against other minorities if only one or two languages were on offer? Should government adapt to the multitude of new languages and ethnic groups? Or should the new generations of minorities and immigrants learn English in order to integrate fully into American society?

Before answering these questions, supporters of official bilingualism need to consider their past failures. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. explained in The Disuniting of America how bilingual education at schools has retarded, rather than expedited, the movement of Hispanics into the English-speaking world. Placing students in transitional bilingual classes, ostensibly to move them as quickly as possible into mainstream English classes, has instead promoted segregation. This de facto apartheid gene-rates antagonism and separatism, which only serves to emphasize racial differences and animosity among different groups - including, all too frequently, deadly gang violence.

Misplaced concern with identity politics has also corrupted university campuses, so much so that now Hispanic and black professors have laid claim to the teaching of Hispanic or black history, respectively. It's easy to imagine how this will inevitably lead to the absurd conclusion that only Hispanics can teach Hispanic history, only blacks African-American history, and only women women's history. No longer would students in America learn a sense of nation, of community, of e pluribus unum.

Wouldn't it be more advisable to seek unity in diversity, without dispersal, segregation or discrimination? Unity should not be seen as tantamount to rigid uniformity - which is rightly feared and rejected - but rather as an innate feature of American life, one that should exist in any pluralist society without the assistance of social engineers.

According to a document signed by the attorney general and the treasury, education and health secretaries recom-mending the presidential veto, the English Empowerment Act will not only be discriminatory but difficult to implement in those states where many immigrants cannot read English. That can only be seen as self-discrimination. The federal government would not be leaving out non-English speakers by not using their languages. Immigrants, on the contrary, would be the ones discriminating against themselves by not speaking English.

The only reasonable way to achieve the necessary com-promise is to implement a unifying linguistic policy similar to that which has inspired the English Empowerment Act. This would be a law that would enable minorities to protect their political and legal rights and represent their freedoms, as well as their social and labor rights.

America's long-standing multilingual tradition is a natural, spontaneous phenomenon, a private practice encouraged by the state and exercised freely by society, not an artificial creation imposed on citizens by politically correct bureaucrats. The study of our language, and of Hispanic culture generally, can and should be encouraged in a number of other ways. Yet to claim that every citizen has a right to communicate with the institutions of the state in his native language would only lead us back to the Tower of Babel.