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The Mass Media

Human Rights and Human Wrongs

Note: An initiative on the November ballot in Massachusetts seeks to eliminate bilingual education in Massachusetts. If you vote yes on this initiative you will be voting to deny underprivileged and oppressed children the opportunity to build cultural solidarity and get the education they need to survive and prosper. That is the argument that Applied Linguistics Professor Pepi Leistyna makes in the article below. The article discusses the forces and motivation behind the so called Unz initiative. You can learn more about the fight to save bilingual education and defeat the Unz initiative by coming to the October 16 University of Massachusetts Boston Human Rights Working Group’s forum mentioned at the end of Professor Leistyna’s article.

Capitalizing on the public’s general discontent with k-12 schools, proponents of English-only have worked tirelessly and effectively to scapegoat Bilingual Education, creating legal constraints on the daily lives of educators by ensuring that languages other than English are stomped out of school life entirely. They have also capitalized on public fears over national unity. For example, E.D. Hirsch Jr. insists that linguistic pluralism on a national level would bring about “cultural fragmentation, civil antagonism, illiteracy, and economic-technological ineffectualness.” Echoing this sentiment, the U.S. English Foundation, Inc. believes “that a shared language provides a cultural guidepost that we must maintain for the sake of our country’s unity, prosperity and democracy…” Not only do these dehistoricized positions presuppose that the country has at some point been united, but they strategically say nothing about a system within which people are relegated, and not by choice, to live on the margins of economic, social, and political power.

Anti-bilingual proponents tell the public virtually nothing about the fact that three out of four linguistic-minority students live in low-income, urban areas and attend crumbling, highly segregated schools. Instead, the English-only coalition serves up myths of meritocracy and life in a melting pot where the patterns of a ‘common culture’ and economic success miraculously emerge.

Ironically, some anti-bilingual advocates insist that instruction in languages other than English is “un-American”. This paradoxical twist disregards that the Constitution of the United States protects linguistic pluralism, and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 Lau vs. Nichols Decision and United States Court of Appeals Castenada vs. Pickark Decision — which agreed that plaintiffs were denied their rights secured by the 14th amendment, the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 — were intended to protect the rights of linguistic-minorities in public schools. It also seems more unpatriotic for a democracy to exclude (or mark as “foreign”) languages that are now indigenous to the United States: the native tongues of Puerto Rico, Native America, Hawaiians, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. Recognizing that English-only plans severely limit the possibility of a participatory democracy, the states of Alaska and Oklahoma recently struck down state-wide monolingual initiates, ruling them unconstitutional as they violate free speech and citizen’s right and ability to petition the government.

What’s particularly interesting about the rhetorical strategy that calls for “assimilative policies” is that the mainstream that supports U.S. English-only is not the least bit interested in the assimilation of racially subordinated groups into their neighborhoods, places of work, educational institutions, clubs, and communities; i.e., in equal rights and universal access. As has been the case historically, under a xenophobic climate clouded with anti-immigrant sentiments (e.g., Proposition 187), the main concern of whites (and others who have bought into the purger) is with “unwelcomed outsiders” taking over of jobs and affordable housing, and flooding public schools and other social services.

The harsh reality is that beyond the concocted hype about the usurping of quality employment by ‘outsiders’, the job opportunities that are intended for migrant workers, the majority of immigrants, and the nation’s own down-trodden, consist of manual labor, cleaning crews, the monotony of the assembly-line, and farm jobs that require little to no English — as with the Bracero Program (1942-1964) when more than 4 million Mexican farm laborers were “legally brought” into the U.S. to work the fields and orchards. In 1964, when the Bracero Program was finally dismantled, the U.S. Department of Labor officer heading the operation, Lee G. Williams, described it as “legalized slavery”.

According to government data: by 2008 the U.S. economy will have some 161 million jobs but only 154 million workers to fill them. The biggest need will be in the low-wage, low-skill jobs. In response, George W. Bush’s White House is currently looking into another guest worker program. Thus, being pro-immigrant, as Ron Unz claims “Nearly all the people involved in the effort [English-only] have a strong pro-immigrant background”, does not necessarily mean being pro social justice.

As the founder and Chairman of a Silicon Valley financial services software firm — Wall Street Analytics, Chair of the national advocacy organization English for the Children, and the originator of California’s Proposition 227 which in 1998 effectively outlawed Bilingual Education in that state., Unz’s insistence that an English-only approach will ensure “better jobs for their [linguistic-minority children’s] parents” doesn’t seem to ring in solidarity with organized labors’ concerns with the systematic exploitation of workers, both documented and undocumented. Simply shifting to a one-year sink or swim Sheltered Immersion Program for what would now be “legal” workers (who won’t be going to school as they’ll be working long hours) will not eradicate the problems of economic abuse and subjugation.

For those linguistic-minority students in school, conservative English-only programs provide limited access to language and learning and prevent most of these children from attaining academic fluency in either their native language or in English. Even after three years in California’s Unz-initiated immersion programs, more than 90% of linguistic-minority children were still not ready to be mainstreamed.

Taking away the native tongue while never really giving access to the discourse of power is a common practice in any colonial model of education. This strategy effectively works to deny oppressed peoples access to the mainstream, while simultaneously taking away any tools that can be used to build the cultural solidarity necessary to resist and transform dominating forces. This is a smart move if you are trying to silence the largest, and demographically growing, political force in the country — Latino/as. And this is the type of linguistic imperialism that the United States is forcing down the world’s throat as neoliberalism goes global.

The most significant place to begin these debates over Bilingual Education is to inform the general population of the spectrum of issues at hand when dealing with the cultural and racialized politics that surround language acquisition and teaching. As Susan Dicker argues, “Together we must turn the tide of hatred around, and show those outside our profession that the ills of society will not be solved by making the already challenging lives of immigrants and language minorities even more difficult and devoid of human rights and dignity.” What is key to our failure as a nation in achieving quality and effective education, democracy, social justice, and unity in diversity, is how we systematically deny so many people’s language, culture, and humanity.

For people who are interested in informing themselves about these issues, there will be a forum on the U-Mass Boston Campus on October 16th from 4-6pm in the Ryan Lounge. Come join the debate and get the facts as to why the realization of Question 2 on the ballot in Massachusetts would be a violation of Constitutional, Civil and Human Rights.