Official-English Laws Boost Discrimination, Says UF Law Professor
GAINESVILLE — If you can read these words, chances are you don’t think a law making English the official U.S. language will change your life.
But would you support a law that established one skin color as the official race? Or made one faith the official religion of the country?
More than 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared Jim Crow laws unconstitutional, legislation making English the official language in the United States threatens to cause similar injustices, says a University of Florida law professor who recently told U.S. senators an official-English bill before them is unconstitutional.
Enacted throughout the South following Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in schools, parks, cemeteries, theaters and restaurants. UF law Professor Juan Perea says official-English laws draw similar discriminatory lines. Now the issue isn’t the color of a person’s skin, but the language he or she speaks.
“Today our notion of equality has developed far enough that we know that a law saying white is the official race of America would be struck down as unconstitutional,” Perea said. “Well, official English does the same thing, but with language. A classification based on ethnicity should violate the Constitution.”
Supporters say official-English laws unify a diverse people. Perea, who testified before the Senate last month, says it’s discriminatory and undemocratic.
The problem is that language hasn’t been recognized as an aspect of one’s ethnic identity like race or religion, said Perea, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household.
Just as you can’t have official-race laws or official-gender laws, you shouldn’t have official-language laws for exactly the same reasons,” said Perea, who has edited and contributed to a soon-to-be-published book titled Immigrants Out!: The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States.
The Supreme Court last month agreed to review an Arizona case involving that state’s official-English constitutional amendment, a sweeping measure that would establish English as the “language of the ballot, the public schools and all governmental functions.” An appeals court struck down the amendment.
Already, 23 states have some form of official-English laws. Such laws, Perea said, arise from fear among white, English-only speaking Americans, who perceive changes happening in the country. The facts, however, don’t support such a fear, Perea said. He points out that 97 percent of Americans are proficient in English, and 99.94 percent of government publications are in English.
“The basis of this law is really fear, a kind of cultural fear,” he explained. “It’s not rational and it doesn’t correspond to facts about language.”
After all, Perea said, the United States has a long history of multi-lingualism. After the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress published the Articles of Confederation in official German, French and English editions. Few people today are unaware of the growing number of Spanish speakers in Florida and the Southwest, but, Perea asks: Did you know that German was once commonly spoken in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York and Ohio? Or that French was spoken in Louisiana, and Dutch and Swedish could be heard rolling off tongues in New York and Delaware?
And multi-lingualism continues today. In the 1990 census, 34.8 million Americans over age 5 — more than 14 percent — said they spoke a language other than English at home. Supporters of the federal legislation say little would change if English is made the official language. Exceptions would be made in public health, law enforcement, court interpreters, foreign language training, tourism promotion and bilingual education programs.
But when the government makes English the official language, Perea said, it’s telling millions of Americans that their language is “second class.”
“It’s that change in status that creates inequality,” Perea said. “It sends a message that English is the only acceptable form of American identity, and it basically sanctions a lot of private discrimination. People start expressing a lot of hostility toward languages other than English.”
- James Hellegaard