Friday, March 31, 2006


Language and the Subtlety of Racism

It's pretty remarkable how differently the House and Senate have approached immigration. While the Senate, with more than 90% concurrence, passed a bill that would open up our country while tightening our borders, the House pushed through a deplorable piece of punitive legislation that looks more like something Turkey would pass to keep Kurds in line. (Liberals who want to get rid of the Senate, which represents people disproportionately, should recall this.)
"It would be like a dinner bell" to immigrants, pronounced Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.). "If you are here illegally and want to fly the Mexican flag, go to Mexico," proposed Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.). "I say let the prisoners pick the fruits," said Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), adding, "I would hope that the American people are smart enough to smell the foul odor that's coming out of the United States Senate."
No one is copping to good, old-fashioned racism. But the fingerprints of bigotry are all over the Capitol. The most common epithet used to describe illegal aliens is "they"--in an emphatic tone that everyone who isn't "we" instantly recognizes. The anti-immigrant crowd has cleaned up their language--you don't hear anyone dropping a "spic" or "wetback" into conversation, but the indiscriminate derision they direct at immigrants--legal, illegal, potential--speaks volumes.

But enough of the overt. One thing that caught my attention was how both sides of the debate readily acknowledge that immigrants should be English speakers. Even the McCain-Kennedy bill calls for this. Why? There's nothing innate about English and American democracy. If the entire country shifted to Spanish over the course of a century, it's hard to see how that would affect our nation's health.

There are a few public policy issues, however small--dual-language agencies have slightly higher overhead. I could imagine that having to hire Spanish and English-speaking employees at the IRS could be more difficult than just English speaking. But come on--no one is seriously making this from a public policy point of view.

Language is a proxy for race. White America is uneasy with the growing ranks of nonwhites. I read the entire immigration debate as a discussion by a majority culture about how to handle the fact that their majority is declining. That's why "they" are different, and why their status--illegal, legal, potential--is beside the point. If making "them" speak English dulls the change, well, it's the least we can ask them to do. Which is why everyone is asking...

1 comment:

Absent Mindful said...

Spanish rocks. I took it throughout high school, and once I moved to Portland I've gotten to use it at every job I've had. Besides being without many of our gringo hang-ups, the Latinos I've worked with tend to be consistently better at getting things done and I've been happy to be able to communicate with them. The idea that the place you're born dictates a certain preconception of your worth (or lack thereof, according to the Republican quotes Alworth put up) is no basis for a labor law. If you can get into this country and get a job, it's not because there's a conspiracy to reduce the number of American citizens working, it's because you really want that job. A good company will value your assets and ethics and I've been privileged to be a part of a few of those. ¡Salúd a mis compañeros!