English Only Laws
The EEOC recently ruled that requirements that employees speak English on the job violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This led to action in Congress to overturn the regulations, which in turn sparked heated exchanges among the legislators, John Fund reports:
It’s been less than a week since New York’s Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Eliot Spitzer had to climb down from their support of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens. Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has moved to kill an amendment that would protect employers from federal lawsuits for requiring their workers to speak English. Among the employers targeted by such lawsuits: the Salvation Army.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a moderate Republican from Tennessee, is dumbstruck that legislation he views as simple common sense would be blocked. He noted that the full Senate passed his amendment to shield the Salvation Army by 75-19 last month, and the House followed suit with a 218-186 vote just this month. “I cannot imagine that the framers of the 1964 Civil Rights Act intended to say that it’s discrimination for a shoe shop owner to say to his or her employee, ‘I want you to be able to speak America’s common language on the job,’ ” he told the Senate last Thursday.
But that’s exactly what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is trying to do. In March the EEOC sued the Salvation Army because its thrift store in Framingham, Mass., required its employees to speak English on the job. The requirement was clearly posted and employees were given a year to learn the language. The EEOC claimed the store had fired two Hispanic employees for continuing to speak Spanish on the job. It said that the firings violated the law because the English-only policy was not “relevant” to job performance or safety.
Alexander’s framing is, to say the least, disingenuous. A requirement to be able to communicate with customers and other employees in English would certainly be relevant. At issue here are rules requiring people to speak only English while on the job site.
Still, as anecdotes Fund recounts later in the piece make clear, the cultural animus over the language debate is strong. Both English and Spanish speakers are viscerally attached to their language, which is integral to their cultural identities.
To native speakers of the traditional language of the United States, it seems obvious that those who wish to live here should learn and communicate in that language. The idea that people would simultaneously leave their native land for the opportunities available here but still feel the need to maintain their heritage, including dressing and speaking in the manner they did back home, is simply bizarre.
Indeed, not so long ago, it was the official policy of the United States government. My mother immigrated to the United States from West Germany in 1964, by virtue of having married my father, and became an American citizen in 1965. The booklet she was given to study for her citizenship exam was very explicit that there is no such thing as a German-American or Italian-American or any other hyphenated-American; there are only Americans.
That idea has largely been abandoned. Indeed, even native-born Americans whose ancestors have been here for generations often affect a deep affinity for a homeland they, in most cases, have never seen. This has been particularly true in recent years for African-Americans, whose ancestors were often brought here involuntarily and then, to say the least, not integrated into the dominant culture.
The massive surge in Spanish-speaking immigrants, legal or otherwise, has exacerbated this trend. Cuban-Americans have come to dominate parts of Florida. Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens by law but often not by culture, have a major impact in several parts of the mainland. And, of course, Mexican and Central American immigrants have turned communities all over the country into bilingual — or even predominately Spanish — havens.
In the case of Mexican immigrants, there’s also the issue of much of the Southwest having been part of their ancestral homeland once upon a time. While the Reconquista idea is ridiculous and overhyped, there’s no doubt that this history has created a stronger sense of entitlement to maintain Latin culture and to resist assimilation.
Further, the fact that millions of these immigrants are here illegally further complicates the matter. On the one hand, it makes it virtually impossible for them to integrate into the society and encourages them to build community networks with other illegals. On the other, it adds to the resentment of natives, especially those who are competing with them for work and seeing their wages driven down, at those who speak Spanish.
Most of the impetus for rules requiring workers to speak only English at the workplace are visceral. Logically speaking, there’s no reason that Bob should care that Jose and Julio are speaking to one another in Spanish; they’re not talking to him, after all. In fact, though, there doing so makes him feel excluded, paranoid (they might be talking about him!), and angry.
It’s not unreasonable, then, for employers to seek to ward of these conflicts by insisting that workers speak English on the job. There are enough stresses in the workplace without adding in a linguistic caste system.
UPDATE: Some interesting discussions on this are being tracked at Memeorandum.
- Ed Morrissey thinks the Hispanic Caucus is picking the wrong fight, figuring this “will not likely be a winning message in future elections.”
- Pam @ Right Voices believes we break with a tradition as old as our country at our peril.
- Gaius @ BCB believes “The actions of the Hispanic Caucus are against the best interests of the people they claim to represent.”
- Scott Ott writes a parody that’s hard to distinguish from the real news.
- Betsy Newmark “wonder[s] how many positions Hillary can take on this issue?”
Image Source: Vancouver English Centre