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"Language as Oppression: The English-Only Movement in the United States,"

by Andrew Hartman May/June 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

Within the United States resides the largest population of native English-speakers of any country. Despite the huge influx of non-English-speakers from the global South and East since the 1965 Immigration Act (which relaxed earlier restrictions), the domination of English in the United States is not threatened; according to the 1990 Census, 97% of U.S. residents speak English “well” or “very well.” The 2000 Census revealed that, while there has been a growing percentage of non-English-speaking immigration, rates of English fluency are on the rise. Nonetheless, the English-only movement gained momentum in the 1990s and, according to some opinion studies, is currently supported by over 80% of the body politic in the United States.

So widely popular a movement is bound to enjoy legislative successes. Recently, Iowa became the 24th state to mandate English as its official language. Citizens in English-only states must interact with their local and state governments using only English (this includes voting) — a startling development. However, the movement has more far-reaching implications. The structure of education for non-English-speakers is being dramatically altered across the country due to the English-only movement and the resulting backlash against bilingualism and bilingual education. The pedagogical implications of such a trend are dangerous; most serious research supports bilingual instruction as the best means to advance language skills, thus enhancing long-term English acquisition.

The Racist Roots of the English-Only Movement

The English-only movement has its roots in the historical racism and white supremacy of the United States. This does not mean, however, that it can be understood in the same way as overtly racist movements. Those who support the English-only movement, including many liberals, do not understand it to be racist. But that does not discount racism as a root of the movement; rather, it demands a more complex analysis of U.S. racism. Such an analysis should account for the racism of American liberalism, historically rooted in Enlightenment ideology, and should also take into account two other Enlightenment legacies: colonialism and capitalism and their continued roles in American society.

First, a working definition of racism is in order. Colonial theorist Albert Memmi’s study of racism and his concluding definition will serve this purpose: “Racism is the generalized and final assigning of values to real or imaginary differences, to the accuser’s benefit and at his victim’s expense, in order to justify the former’s own privileges or aggression.”

English-only supporters claim that English-only legislation and pedagogy will empower rather than victimize non-English-speakers. If they highlight language differences, it is in a spirit of benevolence. To them, English is a “common bond” that allows people of diverse backgrounds to overcome differences and reach mutual understanding — a theory particularly seductive to liberals. Unfortunately, the English-only movement’s non-racist claims are seriously undermined by their systematic attacks on bilingual education. If English acquisition were indeed their mission, the English-only movement would not partake in these attacks.

The ideology of the English-only movement is constructed upon a well-worn national mythology. In 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Language of Government Act (later defeated in the Senate), intended to mandate English as the only language of the federal government. During the Senate hearings, American nationalist diatribe was prominently on display. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decried bilingualism as a “menace to American civilization” and Senator Richard Shelby (D-Alabama) denounced opponents of English-only legislation as threatening the “sovereignty and integrity of this nation.”

In the historical formation of nations, the construction of a common language has been one of the essential tricks the elites have played on the masses to forge “commonalities.” A classic Winston Churchill quote epitomizes the myth of language and its importance in regard to nation: “The gift of a common language is a nation’s most priceless inheritance.” This myth is especially important to those who benefit from an American nation.

For many Americans, the symbolism of the English language has become a form of civic religiosity in much the same vein as the flag. Similarly, US English—the largest and oldest organization supporting the English-only movement—proclaims in its mission statement: “The eloquence [of the English language] shines in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It is the living carrier of our democratic ideals.”

While proponents of the English-only movement commonly invoke the original institutions of the American nation and its surrounding mythology, opponents of the movement have fertile grounds for a historical rebuttal. The Constitution makes no mention of language. The new American elite of the revolution— distrustful of monarchical forces that regularly sought monolingual policies—did not seek a national policy on language. Jefferson viewed language as a pragmatic tool rather than an ideological symbol; the standardization of English became a cultural hegemonic process— comparable to the current global process—rather than a specific political agenda. The new nation welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the French Revolution and did not try to force English upon them. An English-only nation was not the original nationalist goal.

The framers’ views on language, however, are less important than their doctrines of freedom. Before a citizenry comes to identify the English language with freedom, it must embrace freedom itself as something more than an abstract myth. A population sold on this myth is one of the primary achievements of the American nationalist program; freedom is assumed as self-evident in the United States. The English-only rhetoric in relation to the immigrant experience underlies these assumptions, for it is assumed that immigrants who learn English and assimilate to American mainstream culture will share in the mythical freedom enjoyed by all U.S. citizens.

There are countless instances of immigrants who discovered that freedom was an empty promise. Among the more damning cases was the experience of the Chinese in the 19th Century. Hundreds of thousands of them, brought in to build the railroads, endured backbreaking labor at gunpoint, pitiful wages and continuous attacks, including many cases of mob violence. American history is full of horror stories such as this; the life of the immigrant was rife with dangerous conditions, restrictive of their freedom.

Underlying the message of immigrant opportunity following language acquisition is the longstanding myth of the melting pot cultivated by generations of historians who portrayed the American narrative as the saga of a single people. Although scholars who recognized the distinct, and often conflicting, experiences that constitute American immigrant history have largely discredited this absurd image, the English-only movement testifies to its continuing influence. Through the lens of this fraudulent ideology, the downside of the American melting pot (loss of language and culture) is more than made up for by the upside (social mobility). Economist Lowell Galloway, testifying before the Senate, argued for English-only legislation by citing higher poverty rates among those who don’t speak English. But his argument does not measure other factors that might account for higher poverty in these populations, including higher poverty rates for all Latinos in the U.S., regardless of what language or languages they speak. In fact, mastery of English is not an accurate predictor of social mobility among the Latino population. Surprisingly, Latinos who speak only English fare worse economically than those who speak no English. Spanish language skills offer Latinos a cultural, social and economic community. Latinos who lose the benefits of the Spanish-speaking community do not gain reciprocal rewards from the American English-speaking community.

Immigrant opportunity is an American national myth that, despite a great deal of contrary evidence, is alive and well. Integral to this myth are the assimilative qualities of the English language. But if English acquisition and resulting assimilation do not necessarily produce social mobility, why does this mythology persist? How can it justify the English-only movement? If it is true that English is not threatened in the United States, why does the English-only movement garner huge support and continue to push for legislative change? In order to answer these important questions, it is necessary to delve beyond the rhetoric of the English-only movement and examine its racist roots. Such an examination might reveal a level of complicity most Americans are unwilling to recognize.

Unz and Co.

Ron Unz, the foremost anti-bilingual advocate, chairman of English for the Children, states that bilingual education “destroyed the lives of millions upon millions of students.” In an October 2001 debate with bilingual theorist and Harvard professor Catherine Snow, Unz opportunistically continued his attack on bilingual education and bilingual educators:

A few weeks ago, Americans witnessed the enormous devastation that a small handful of fanatically committed individuals can wreak upon society. Perhaps it is now time for ordinary Americans to be willing to take a stand against those similarly tiny groups of educational terrorists in our midst, whose disastrous policies are enforced upon us not by bombs or even knives, but simply by their high-pitched voices. Americans must remain silent no longer.

Unz and his organization have been instrumental in dismantling bilingual education programs. California’s 1998 Anti-Bilingual Education Initiative (Proposition 227) — passed by 61% to 39% — placed over 500,000 students lacking English proficiency in mainstream, English-only classrooms to fend for themselves. Unz and other anti-bilingual proponents claim English skills are improving among California’s Limited English Proficient (LEP) students thanks to Proposition 227, and use faulty scholarship to justify this claim. Unz argues — and a New York Times editorial parroted his line of argument — that the increase in state-mandated standardized test scores among LEPs is due to Proposition 227. Stanford researcher Kenji Hakuta countered Unz and the Times piece by attributing the increase in test scores to other factors. Hakuta reasoned that all groups of students improved their test scores due to the increased standardization of instruction. In other words, more time is spent “teaching to the test.” He argued that the test itself is a poor measure of English development because the test is geared to gauge native English speakers, not LEPs.

Serious pedagogical research supports bilingual education as the best means to learn English. A long-term national study has documented higher student achievement in bilingual classrooms than in transitional English as second language (ESL) classrooms or immersion (English-only) classrooms. In her debate with Unz, Prof. Snow cited research showing that “learning English faster does not equal learning English better.” The level of a person’s language skills will only be as advanced as the level of his or her first language. According to researcher Stephen Krashen: “The knowledge that children get through their first language helps make the English they hear and read more comprehensible. Literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language.” Abstract thinking skills, such as those ideally practiced in social science classrooms, must first be nurtured in a student’s native language. Children who are immersed and mainstreamed in English-only classrooms prior to developing abstract language skills will only learn functional English. Functional English may be all that is required to enable them, as adults, to work the monotonous semi-skilled jobs that the market demands, but it hinders these future citizens from learning how to think abstractly, which in turn limits their ability to address societal problems.

In order to understand the racism of the elite English speakers, it is helpful to understand the so-called “Ebonics” debate. In December 1996, the Oakland, California school board passed a resolution in order to, as it determined, “change the racist schooling of African-Americans.” Teachers in Oakland were being prepared to understand the linguistic differences between themselves and their students, most of whom were African-American. The measure considered African-American patterns of speech to be more than a dialect; it recognized that many African-Americans speak differently because of a long history of cultural and political segregation. A national consensus against the measure erupted, a backlash spurred by the mainstream media. The New York Times editorialized that Ebonics was “black slang,” the “patois of many low-income blacks,” and denounced the Oakland school board. The media dismissed Ebonics by assuming that it is nothing more than an accent and also theorizing that the Oakland school board was merely looking to acquire extra federal funding earmarked for bilingual education.

But who defines standard English? MIT linguist Noam Chomsky understands the debate to transcend linguistics: “If the distribution of power and wealth were to shift from southern Manhattan to East Oakland, ‘Ebonics’ would be the prestige variety of English and [those on Wall Street] would be denounced by the language police.” Not allowing African-American speech patterns into social discourse maintains white supremacy. The African-American language termed Ebonics is a Creole-based language originating in American slave society, the result of Africans being intentionally separated from tribe-members with linguistic similarities, making it impossible to foster commonalities. African slaves were forced to communicate via a hybrid version of English. Like any language, Ebonics has evolved, and it now more closely resembles so-called “standard” English than during the time of slavery. But for many young African-Americans, their language is labeled a “linguistic deviance,” and these students are forced into “Educable Mentally Handicapped” (EMH) programs. A diploma from an EMH program is rarely even adequate to gain entry to a community college.

This is the crux of the issue: Who is being affected by the language debates? Like the English-only movement, the Ebonics backlash sought to immobilize non-whites. And like the English-only movement, it enjoyed widespread support. Although this dynamic is controversial, and language acquisition does not guarantee upward mobility, in many cases those whose language is determined to be “standard” within their society enjoy an unfair advantage. Although race is hardly the sole determinant in the standardization of English, white Americans are much more likely than non-white Americans to read, write and speak an approximation of “standard” English. The standardization of language is an oppressive and racist agenda that limits social mobility for people of color. Whether through the belittlement of a distinct African-American dialect, or by the dismantling of bilingual education programs, the oppression of language successfully defends a society constructed according to the supremacy of whites.

US English

The English-only movement is not on the margins of American society; it is a mainstream operation. The first order in understanding the English-only movement is to understand the organization known as “US English.” US English claims it does not maintain a racist, anti-immigrant agenda. Many of its original supporters were people of color or immigrants, including former Reagan Administration official Linda Chavez, former U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, according to federal records, US English has had close ties to the anti-immigrant organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and has been financed by the Pioneer Fund, a racist organization that promotes the use of eugenics and also funded Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s infamously racist work The Bell Curve. John Tanton, the founder and original chairman of US English, states that “the question of bilingualism grows out of U.S. immigration policy.” To Tanton, the huge influx of non-English-speaking immigrants overwhelms the “assimilative capacity of the country.”

Colonial U.S.A.

Jefferson, Franklin and their ilk were interested in extending their humanism to those they considered the civilized few, not those defined as “inferior in body and mind.” Manifest Destiny was the maxim of the American Enlightenment; all who stood in the way of progress were doomed to extinction. American Indians represented the savage, who by definition obstructed the path of civilization and progress. The democratic ideals of the United States, derived from the Enlightenment and further expounded by American liberalism, forced the Indians to either assimilate or die. The path of death was born out of a monopoly of force established by the white colonists. The path of assimilation required the American colonial power to embark on a program of linguistic oppression.

In the United States, as in other imperial and colonial societies, the language of the powerful is the language sought by those wishing to ascend into “civilization.” The better one speaks “standard” English in the United States, the more likely one is to be elevated in American society. The speaker of “standard” English is then able to assume the role of a “civilized” being and is entitled the accoutrements of the civilized. The colonial model of language as oppression follows: The colonizer uses language to assimilate and control the colonized; the colonized strive to speak the language of the colonizer and develop an inferiority complex to the extent that they fall short. The English-only movement embodies the colonial model of language as oppression. Albert Memmi argues that elitism desires a seal of approval. The English-only movement offers just this for English-speakers. With English granted elite status, native speakers of other tongues are assigned both real and imaginary differences — a necessary feature of racist ideology. This is merely the beginning of the aggression that racist ideology justifies — aggression that manifests itself in a variety of ways.

The American colonial process includes the oppression of language model. An 1868 commission on Indian affairs concluded:
Now, by educating [Indian] children in the English language … differences [will] disappear, and civilization [will] follow at once…. Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought… Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted.

The psychological inferiority of non-whites in a colonial society — the U.S. included — is reinforced by the standardization of language, as recognized by Franz Fanon: “The Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is.” For the English-only movement, representative of American civilization, Spanish is no longer a Western language but has instead become the language of the savage, of the “wetback” illegally crossing the Rio Grande hoping to steal American jobs. It is the language of brown-skinned and hungry children growing up along a militarized border — militarized in order to block the paths of these millions of needy seeking to “sponge” off American civilization.

The Role of Capitalism

The English-only movement enjoys popular support in the U.S. because American society is constructed upon the racist ideology of colonialism. But something is missing from this analysis — the role of capitalism. The English-only movement operates within a capitalist framework; capitalism is vital to its propagation.

An important feature consistent with a capitalist economic structure is fear and insecurity. Even in times of rapid growth and perceived prosperity, capitalism subjects human beings to the whims of an impersonal market. Globalization has extended this process as never before. The successes are enormous; the failures, apocalyptic. The long and tumultuous struggle to create labor security in the United States is being overwhelmed. Jobs in manufacturing and textiles are fleeing the U.S. in search of cheaper labor. American workers no longer enjoy the economic security they have come to expect — even if this security was more perceived than real.

The statistics are startling: One in four children in America lives in poverty; workers’ average inflation-adjusted wages are 16% less than 20 years ago; even college-educated workers earn 7% less than 20 years ago. Full-time jobs are becoming a scarcity, replaced by a nation of temporary workers. Union levels are the lowest since the pre-World War II labor movement. Predictably, this social insecurity has created a surplus segment of the population engulfed by a prison-industrial complex. Over two million people are imprisoned in the U.S., the highest per capita level in the world. These developments have created a population searching for answers — and an atmosphere ripe for scapegoating. The English-only movement is one example of this process.

Targeting the Hispanic population, the English-only movement reinforces the divisive effects of capitalist stratification, thereby diverting the resentments of those who are on the bottom rung of the ladder. For example, the English-only movement places first-generation Latino immigrants at odds with those Latinos who have been in the U.S. for more than one generation, and who are thus further along the process of assimilation and English language acquisition. The victims are diverted from the economic causes of their insecurity. The victims are then blamed and blame others who are being victimized by the economic structure.

Racial divisions were the most effective method to undermine labor solidarity. According to W.E.B. Du Bois, low-paid white workers in the U.S. “were compensated in part by a psychological wage.” White workers’ struggle with capital was made more livable through what historian David Roediger refers to as the “wages of whiteness.” White workers, while not enjoying the riches of the capitalist class, at least had the benefits of being white, which included access to most, if not all, public facilities: restaurants, theaters, hospitals, parks. This was a benefit not shared by people of color. Roediger writes:
White working class racism was underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms which reinforce racial stereotypes and thus help to forge the identities of white workers in opposition to blacks.

While de jure segregation has been abolished in the U.S., de facto segregation continues through new and innovative wages of whiteness, of which one of the more important current versions is the English language.

Most white Americans can operate from an advantageous social position granted them by their “standard” English language skills. White Americans learn to enjoy this advantage and seek to maintain it. The English-only movement recognizes the disadvantages of those who do not speak “standard” English. This rift in the population creates a fertile breeding ground for the English-only movement.

Sometimes such stratification is intentionally fostered by the powerful. Other times, it is an invisible hegemonic process arising from life in the capitalist system — a system structured to reward the few. Groups perceived to be different from one another are left to fight for scraps, thus forming harmful divisions. The English-only movement, although supported by many government officials and other representatives of American capitalism, is not an intentional stratification program. But its end result is the formation of harmful divisions. The English-only movement is, in this respect, a form of social control.

The hegemony of capitalism is increasing the standardization of American society. Sometimes this process is the result of direct decision-making, such as orders for every young person in America to be judged according to a single set of standardized tests. Sometimes the process is less the result of design and more the product of a capitalist culture that posits technocratic values as primordial. In either case (and the difference between chance and design may be difficult to determine), we must resist the English-only movement, which reflects both the visible and the invisible hegemony of capitalism. The English-only movement needs to be denounced as racist. We must recognize the purpose of this movement as the immobilization of immigrants — particularly non-white immigrants — through harmful divisions and damaging policies. A concern for social justice requires us to reject it.

Andrew Hartman is a Ph.D. candidate in history at George Washington University, working on a dissertation titled "Education as Cold War Experience: The Battle for the American School, 1945-1960." An expanded, fully footnoted version of this article oritinally appeared in Socialism and Democracy (Winter-Spring 2003) and is available from the author.

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