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


The hegemonic power of capital sometime visible, sometimes invisible propagates an increasing gravitation to English as the common global language. The spread of English seems to be analogous to the spread of capitalism. Within the United States the country most responsible for the global expansion of capital, following in the footsteps of imperial Britain 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. In 1990, E.J. Hobsbawm labeled a movement to declare English the official language of the United States "absurd" and wrote: ". the idea that the supremacy of English in the USA is, or is likely to be, in jeopardy, is political paranoia."1 The absurdity of such a notion notwithstanding, 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.2

So widely popular a movement is bound to enjoy legislative successes. Recently, Iowa became the twenty-fourth 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.

This paper is not a pedagogical analysis, although pedagogical issues are an important aspect of my research. Rather, this essay is an attempt to explain why the agenda of the English-only movement emerged on the American political landscape in the 1980s, and why English-only notions garner widespread support among Americans.

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 an overtly racist group like the Ku Klux Klan. Those who support the English-only movement do not typically classify themselves as racist. The KKK never achieved widespread legitimacy and could only dream of an 80% approval rating. Many liberals support the English-only movement and obviously do not understand it to be racist. But this does not discount racism as a root of the English-only 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.

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 denounced opponents of English-only legislation as threatening the "sovereignty and integrity of this nation."3 Miroslava Vukelich, an immigrant and proponent of the English-only movement, speaking before the committee, used language similar to conservative columnist George Will, who wrote of "the connection between the English language and American liberty."4 Vukelich said:

I still believe in America and Thomas Jefferson's one government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Like the Statue of Liberty, English is a tool for unification, a symbol of liberty and justice for all. Having an official language policy will not in any way harm the land of the free.5

In the historical formation of nations, the construction of a comm.on language has been one of the essential tricks the elites have played on the masses to forge "commonalities."6 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."7 This myth is especially important to those who benefit from an American "nation"-a "nation" lacking the real or perceived common ethnicities that facilitated European nation-building.

The role of language in the formation of the imagined communities now known as nations must not be underestimated. One common element in nationalist ideology, as explained by Benedict Anderson, has been the "primordial fatality of particular languages and their association with particular territorial units."8 While this formula is more aptly applied to the historical nation-building programs of Europe, it is very relevant to current discourse in the U.S. It is assumed that people north of the arbitrary border that divides Mexico and the United States will speak English if they are to be considered members of the arbitrary and imagined community that is the Unites States of America.

For many Americans, the symbolism of the English language has become a form of civic religiosity in much the same vein as the flag. This symbolism is not new; it can be found in the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

We must have but one flag. We must also have but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington's farewell address, of Lincoln's Gettysburg speech and second inaugural.9

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."10

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 rebut. The Constitution makes no mention of language. The new American elite of the revolution-self-interested and 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.11

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 nothing more than an empty promise. Among the more damning cases was the experience of the Chinese in the nineteenth 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. Twenty-eight Chinese were massacred in Rock Springs, Wyoming during the summer of 1885.12 American history is full of horror stories such as this; the life of the immigrant was rife with dangerous conditions, restrictive of their freedom.

During World War I, in a time of increased awareness of the dilemmas posed by immigration, Theodore Roosevelt described his concerns:

We cannot tolerate any attempt to oppose or supplant the language and culture that has come down to us through the builders of the Republic with the language and culture of any European country. The greatness of this country depends on the swift assimilation of the aliens she welcomes to her shores. Any force which attempts to retard that assimilative process is a force hostile to the highest interests of our country.13

Mauro Mujica, president of US English, spoke at the 1995 Senate hearings on the Language of Government Act. Mujica, himself an immigrant, evoked the longstanding traditional notion of English as a tool for climbing the social ladder:

It is only through English fluency that immigrants can achieve the American dream. Only a common language can preserve the tradition of diversity in America. Immigrants come here to build better lives. English opens the door to that new life.14

Linda Chavez, member of the Reagan administration and former president of US English, said, "Hispanics who learn English will be able to avail themselves of opportunities."15 Immigrants receive the following message over and over again: "Talk like us and you will succeed like us." The message of Horatio Alger's Rags to Riches endures, regardless of facts.

Underlying the message of immigrant opportunity following language acquisition is the longstanding myth of the melting pot-a myth 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,16 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 economically worse 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.17

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.

Prior to labeling the English-only movement a racist phenomenon, 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."18 After further review, it will become obvious that the English-only movement and its organizations match Memmi's criteria and are in fact racist. As noted by Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza: "US English is to Hispanics as the Ku Klux Klan is to blacks."19

English-only supporters deny the movement is racist. Their claim is 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. Increased English language acquisition is the movement's stated primary goal. 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.

Ron Unz, the foremost anti-bilingual advocate, chairman of English for the Children, and the bilingual partisans' self-designated "personal Bin Laden,"20 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.21

Unz and his organization have been instrumental in dismantling bilingual education programs. California's 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.22

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.23 In her debate with Unz, Snow cited research showing that "learning English faster does not equal learning English better."24 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."25 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.

Racist ideology cannot be supported; it is not a theory, but rather, as Memmi pointed out, a pseudo-theory. Much like the "theories" that propelled the so-called scientific classifications of intelligence according to race, the theories behind the English-only movement are virtually free from the constraints of fact, but their social and political consequences are enormous. What are these consequences? 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.26

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, a large portion of whom were African-American. The measure considered African-American patterns of speech to be more than a dialect; it recognized that 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.27 The New York Times editorialized that "Ebonics" was "black slang," the "patois of many low-income blacks," and denounced the Oakland school board.28 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. Rachel Jones wrote in Newsweek, "Frankly, I'm still longing for a day when more young blacks born in poverty will subscribe to my personal philosophy, my mastery of standard English gave me a power that no one can take away from me."29 But who defines standard English? 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."30 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. In Duval County, North Carolina, 1,400 out of the 1,900 enrolled in the EMH program are African-American.31 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. Who reinforces this racist ideology? 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 Linda Chavez, U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa, Alistair Cooke, and 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. A number of anti-immigrant and population control organizations have been linked to US English. John Tanton, the founder and original chairman of US English is the architect of this network. Tanton 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."32 Tanton displayed his racist intentions in a 1986 memo, where he stated that the U.S must work to stem the "Latin onslaught." His anti-Hispanic message continues:

Gobernar es Poplar translates "to govern is to populate." In this society, will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile? . As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!33

His rhetoric may betray his racist intentions, but Tanton's roots lie in the liberal agendas of ecology and population control. Tanton worked as an activist for the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood and he was the national president of Zero Population Growth all liberal organizations. This should not be a surprise. Many liberals support the English-only movement. While the liberal supporters of the movement claim not to be racist, American liberalism-a product of Enlightenment thinking-is rooted in racist ideology. Miami is the birthplace of the English-only movement. In 1980 this city, home to the largest immigrant population in America, many of whom were not eligible to vote, approved an anti-bilingual ordinance. The exit polls revealed that 71% of whites approved the bill, while only 15% of the Latino community supported it. At first glance, these results seem predictable. However, Miami is a curious case: a majority of the white community is Jewish, liberal, and votes Democratic, while a large percentage of the of the Hispanic community consists of right-wing Cubans who fled Castro's revolution. Race and ethnicity were the determinants in the voting, not political ideology. The Miami immigrant population is an anomaly-many of the Cuban exiles arrived in the city with capital, and social mobility is a reality for a large number of immigrants in this city. This was troubling to the liberal white community of Miami. Whether liberal or conservative, white Americans expect immigrant subordination, consistent with the racist ideology of the Enlightenment.34 While this is not an attempt to lump all Enlightenment thought and thinkers into one category, and certainly not all Enlightenment conceptions are racist per se (indeed, some Enlightenment convictions most definitely improved the lives of many), the Enlightenment cannot be separated from the racism upon which it was constructed. The same holds true of American liberalism, which is linked to the racist Enlightenment ideology of "progress." The English-only movement constitutes progress in the eyes of many liberal and conservative Americans alike. The movement is not the first attempt to construct a progressive rationale to justify racism. One branch of "modern science" classified races and developed racial hierarchies, attributing to Northern Europeans the highest taxonomic levels. According to historian Robin D.G. Kelley, "The primitive mind was constructed as the very opposite of reason: atavistic, regressive, barbaric."35 The so-called universal humanism of the Enlightenment excluded most other races. Western scholars rewrote history and reduced the entire continent of Africa to savage status, allowing the white societies of Europe and North America to be the sole entities responsible for the progress of modernity.36 Enlightenment thought originating in the U.S. hardly strays from this path; the American Enlightenment, and the resulting American liberalism, is an extension of racist Western ideology. Thomas Jefferson, America's version of Rousseau, wrote in his Notes on Virginia...

The Negro is inferior to the white man in body and mind. Negro men prefer white women to black women much like male orangutans prefer black women to the female of their own species. In general, [the Negro's] existence appears to participate more of sensation than of reflection.37

The white supremacy inherent in the Enlightenment was a necessary tool that operated as justification for its many oppressive ventures. The history of linguistic oppression is a history of civilizing the savage, domesticating the barbarous, and Americanizing the immigrant. Benjamin Franklin, another spokesperson for the American Enlightenment, was critical of the Pennsylvania Germans (taxonomically lower than those of English descent by his standards), who seemingly ignored the hegemony of the English language:

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together, establish their language and manners, to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?38

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.

Franz Fanon wrote: "To speak means to . assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization." 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.39 The English-only movement embodies the colonial model of language as oppression.

The colonized need not disown the values of the colonizer in order to resist; sometimes the colonized avoid aggression by identifying with the values of the aggressor. However, the colonizer must deny the humanity of the victim.40 The oppression of language in the United States follows this logic: the oppressed consistently work to achieve the language of the powerful, and thus recognize the humanity of the powerful, while the powerful, manifested in the English-only movement, cannot recognize the language of the oppressed for they fail to acknowledge their humanity. The United States is a colonial power; the brutality of colonialism remains a constant in the society of the colonizer.

Filipinos learned first-hand about the violence of American colonialism and imperialism. After the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1899, President McKinley had this to say of what he termed "Philippine business":

...we could not leave them to themselves they were unfit for self-government and they would soon have anarchy and misrule. there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.41

The invasion was devastating for the Filipinos. In one province, over one-third of the population of 300,000 died from combat, famine, or disease. The Philadelphia Ledger reported:

The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog.42

The brutality of America's colonial venture across the Pacific necessitated the dehumanization of the Filipino. However, to gain a full understanding of the American colonial mindset does not require a trip overseas. According to Ward Churchill, "The very core of U.S. imperialism lies not abroad in the Third World, but right here 'at home.'"43

In its constructed national mythology, the United States has considered itself a revolutionary, post-colonial society since the patriots of the American Revolution overthrew the colonizing power, Great Britain. This, of course, ignores the colonization of the Indians native to North America by the government and people of the United States. While all of present-day U.S. territory was stolen from the Indians, according to Churchill, "the U.S. lacks even a pretense of legitimate ownership of about one-third of its claimed land mass," because of treaty violations.44 Not only do Americans continue to live on land that does not belong to them; they also continue to accept the engineered version of history. In fact, in Orwellian fashion, most white Americans resent the "free ride" the Indians have allegedly been granted by the U.S. government. Blaming the victim is consistent with the psychology of the colonizer. This colonial mindset ignores the realities of Indian life in the United States: the lowest incomes of any ethnic group, the worst housing conditions, the lowest educational levels, the highest rates of deadly disease, and the highest unemployment.45

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. School should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted.46

J.D.C. Atkins, federal commissioner of Indian Affairs, assessed the attack on Indian languages in his 1887 annual report:

There is not an Indian pupil whose tuition and maintenance is paid for by the United States Government who is permitted to study any other language than our own vernacular the language of the greatest, most powerful, and [most] enterprising nationality beneath the sun. The English language as taught in America is good enough for all her people of all races.47

The speakers of the English language traditionally seek to civilize the savage, as noted by U.S. Senator Beveridge in the early twentieth century:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples.48

The U.S. Government sought to "establish system where chaos reigns" through the repression of language in its Caribbean empire. Puerto Rico-of significance to the American Empire for its strategic military locale, investment opportunities, markets, labor force, mineral resources, and as a playground for the rich has been a long-time recipient of English language mandates. An October 1898 U.S. report on Puerto Rico qualified the language of Puerto Ricans as having "little value as an intellectual medium."49

Puerto Ricans, however, resisted English instruction. According to a 1925 Columbia University study, 80% of Puerto Ricans were dropping out of the U.S.-imposed school system that belittled their cultural values. A few years later, President Franklin Roosevelt, attempting to reconcile Puerto Ricans to their condition, stated his hope that they could profit from "the unique historical circumstances which have brought them the blessing of American citizenship."50 It is assumed that this "blessing" entails the responsibilities of civilization. One such responsibility, as indicated by the Brookings Institute, is mastery of the English language: "English is the chief source, practically the only source, of democratic ideals in Puerto Rico."51

The psychological inferiority of non-whites in a colonial society- the U.S. included- is reinforced by the standardization of language, as recognized by Fanon: "The Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is."52 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.

I have asserted that the English-only movement is a form of racism, but one that works well within (and is supported by) American liberalism. The spectrum of racism is much broader than the Ku Klux Klan, and English-only racism does not merely operate on the margins of society. 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 twenty years ago, even college-educated workers earn 7% less than twenty years ago. In 1960, the average American CEO earned 41 times the wage of the average American worker. Today the ratio is closer to 400:1. Full-time jobs are becoming a scarcity, replaced by a nation of temporary workers. Union levels are the lowest since the pre-World War I labor movement.53 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.54 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.

Patrick Buchanan, part-time presidential candidate and full-time right-wing demagogue, has capitalized on the insecurity created by global capitalism to further his racist agenda. Known for his anti-immigrant bias, Buchanan supports the English-only movement; both his 1996 and 2000 presidential platforms included English-only and anti-bilingual ideology. Buchanan draws support from the white blue-collar population-newly insecure and disenfranchised-and he opportunistically couches his agenda in the lingo of anti-globalization, anti-free trade, and social justice. He views rising "delinquency, teenage drug abuse, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and abortions" as the price of a global economy "the brainchild of utopian European intellectuals, none of whom ever built a great nation" like America. He purports to understand America's "true history"-a blend of protectionism and fierce nationalism, symbolized by the Boston Tea Party. Within the formerly secure workforce-ravaged by the excessive greed and competition of the new global economy- Buchanan's half-truths garner sympathy. But for him, rebuilding a strong America involves far more than autarkic policies.55 His vision of "social justice" does not include all Americans.

According to Buchanan, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is "the first step towards a merger of American and Mexican economies, a prelude to the merger of the two countries" a point not far removed from the truth. However, Buchanan ignores the obvious: as a result of NAFTA, American capital has been able to completely overwhelm the Mexican economy. Aside from the creation of a few more Mexican billionaires, Mexico has received no benefits and its poverty has increased dramatically.56 For Buchanan, NAFTA is a drain on the strength of America, grounded in a mythical Protestant work ethic and threatened by Hispanic immigration. Buchanan delights in the racist quotas of 1924-65, and he appeals to "common" (white) Americans to "halt immigration:"

We need a moratorium, or at least a time out, on immigration. There is nothing un-American about that. There is nothing racist, xenophobic, or immoral in this. A country that cannot control its borders isn't really a country anymore.57

Men like Buchanan are not, in and of themselves, the danger for those that suffer as a result of racist ideology. The economic conditions that allow for the support of racist ideology are the main concern.

In 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. Second- and third-generation Latinos are acculturated to view new immigrants as a threat to their attempts to establish themselves in American society, as a large component of this attempt is learning how to speak, read, and write English. 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.

American capitalism has generated many such instances of programmatic stratification. The FBI and its Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) thus targeted leftist groups that had risen during the 1960s to challenge the Establishment. Stratification-the fostering of antagonism among potential allies-was a major COINTELPRO strategy as the FBI attempted to fracture the left through infiltration and provocation. The Black Panther Party, described by the FBI as the "most active and dangerous black extremist group in the U.S.," was a key target. In Chicago in 1969, Panther leader Fred Hampton's efforts to politicize an African-American street gang-the Blackstone Rangers became too successful for the FBI's taste. The FBI sent Ranger leader Jeff Fort bogus letters insinuating that the Panthers were targeting the Rangers in hopes of provoking violent retaliation against Hampton. When the Rangers failed to do the FBI's dirty work, COINTELPRO instead enlisted the Chicago Police, who murdered Hampton on December 4, 1969.58

Violent measures such as the ones employed by the FBI are not the only methods of repression exercised by the powerful. Language is also an instrument used by the capitalist ruling class, often deliberately, to fabricate rifts among those who do not widely enjoy the fruits of the system. In 1897, the state of Pennsylvania imposed an English-speaking requirement for coal miners-language restrictions specifically enacted to divide labor and combat the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a socialist and international union that translated its meetings into twenty different languages.59

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.60

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.

Frances Kellor, writing in 1916, understood the power of the English language as a method of social control:

Strikes and plots that have been fostered and developed by un-American agitators and foreign propaganda are not easily carried on among men who have acquired, with the English language and citizenship, an understanding of American industrial standards and an American point of view.61

The language of the civilized, on this view, is also the language of capitalism. To be American is to understand the benefits of a capitalist system. To understand the benefits of a capitalist system requires the English language.

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 being to immobilize immigrants particularly non-white immigrants through harmful divisions and damaging policies. A concern for social justice requires us to reject it.


1. E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 171.

2. James Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), editor's introduction. Crawford is one of the foremost scholars and activists working to lessen the machinations of the English-only movement, and his research and knowledge have been an invaluable resource. I gained the census data from Crawford's website, 3. United States Senate, Language of Government Act of 1995 Hearings, December 6, 1995 and March 7, 1996. Gingrich and Shelby spoke before the committee.

4. Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, editor's introduction.

5. U.S. Senate, Language of Government Act of 1995 Hearings.

6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991). Anderson details the necessity of the capitalist press in the nation-building process. When people from diverse backgrounds began to habitually read a common newspaper, in a common language, they also began to imagine a common community.

7. U.S. Senate, Language of Government Act of 1995 Hearings. Churchill quoted by Representative Toby Roth of Wisconsin.

8. Anderson, Imagined Communities, p 42.

9. Theodore Roosevelt, "The Children of the Crucible." This wartime appeal was drafted in September 1917 and reprinted in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, p. 85f.

10. US English, "In Defense of Our Common Language," in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties.

11. Shirley Brice Heath, "Why No Official Tongue?" in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, pp.20-31. Heath counters the national mythology of the English-only movement with an accurate historical tracing of the intentions of the Founding Fathers. I don't believe her argument to be fruitful; the rich history of American national mythology can be a tool for both proponents and opponents of the movement.

12. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995), p.260f.

13. Theodore Roosevelt, "The Children of the Crucible" (n. 9), p. 85f.

14. U.S. Senate, Language of Government Act of 1995 Hearings.

15. James Crawford, "What's Behind Official English?" in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, p. 172.

16. For an excellent analysis of the myth of the melting pot, see Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1993).

17. Joshua A. Fishman, "The Displaced Anxieties of Anglo-Americans," in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, pp. 165-170. Fishman researched immigrant patterns of social mobility. The Galloway analysis was extracted from U.S. Senate, Language of Government Act of 1995 Hearings.

18. Albert Memmi, Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 180.

19. James Crawford, "Anatomy of the English-only Movement," conference paper, University of Illinois, March 21, 1996 (can be read at his webpage [n. 2]). This is an excellent essay detailing the socioeconomic roots of current and historical English-only legislation in the U.S.

20. Ron Unz, "Rocks Falling Upward," National Review, October 26, 2001.

21. Nicholas Josefowitz, "Harvard Panel Heatedly Debates Bilingual Education," Harvard Crimson, October 16, 2001.

22. Editorial, "Increase in Test Scores Counters Dire Forecast for Bilingual Ban," New York Times, August 20, 2000. Kenji Hakuta's counter can be read at Crawford's English-only website.

23. David Ramirez, Sandra Yuen, and Dena Ramey, Final Report: Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy (San Mateo, California: Aguirre International, 1991).

24. Josefowitz, "Harvard Panel." (n. 21).

25. Stephen D, Krashen, Condemned Without a Trial: Bogus Arguments Against Bilingual Education (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1999), p. vii.

26. Memmi, Racism (n. 18), pp. 20-22, and Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), p. 54. I adopted Gould's discussion of the political impetus being far more important than scientific fact in the so-called scientific taxonomy of intelligence between races.

27. Laura Lane, "Bootstraps Literacy and Racist Schooling in the U.S.," Z Magazine, January 1998.

28. Editorial, "Linguistic Confusion," New York Times, December 24, 1996.

29. Cited in Lane, "Bootstraps Literacy."

30. Chomsky's reaction to the Lane article, found at

31. Lane cited a study by Thomas Serwatka, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Northern Florida.

32. Crawford, "What's Behind Official English?" (n. 15), p 172. Crawford cites federal tax records (which non-profits must make public) and his interviews with Tanton and other members of US English.

33. Ibid.; also cited in Doug Brugge, "Pulling Up the Ladder," Chip Berlet, ed., Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash (Boston: South End Press, 1995), p. 205.

34. Max Castro, "On the Curious Question of Language in Miami," in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, pp. 178-185.

35. Robin D.G. Kelley, Yo Mama's Dysfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), p. 107f. Kelley defiantly challenges and discredits certain American leftists who belittle American movements based on the politics of identity.

36. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.) Robinson thoroughly alters the Western perspectives of the Enlightenment and Marxism to account for the "Wretched of the Earth" on the periphery, rather than merely the Europeans at the core.

37. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, reprinted in frank Shuffleton, ed., The American Enlightenment (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1993), p.193.

38. Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 4, July 1, 1750 through June 30, 1752, Leonard W. Labaree, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 234.

39. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), chapter one, "The Negro and Language." Fanon's psychoanalysis of European colonialism and its effects on the language of the colonized is very applicable to the English-only movement.

40. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). Nandy's psychoanalytical account of colonial and postcolonial India is impressive, and resembles Fanon's analysis of colonial and postcolonial Africa. The indictment of the racist humanism of the Enlightenment is also noteworthy.

41. Zinn, People's History, p. 305f.

42. Ibid. p. 308.

43. Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), p. x (introduction).

44. Ibid.

45. United States Bureau of the Census, 1990 and 2000.

46. J.D.C. Atkins, "Barbarous Dialects Should Be Blotted Out," in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, pp. 47-51.

47. Ibid.

48. Claude Bowers, Beveridge and the Progressive Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932), p. 121.

49. The Language Policy Taskforce, "English and Colonialism in Puerto Rico," in Crawford, ed., Language Loyalties, pp.63-71.

50. Ibid.

51. Crawford, "Anatomy of the English-only Movement" (n. 19).

52. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (n. 39), p. 38.

53. Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America, cited in Holly Sklar, "The Dying of the American Dream and the Snake Oil of Scapegoating," in Berlet, ed., Eyes Right (n. 33), p. 114. See also the writings of William Greider and Jim Hightower.

54. Daniel Burton-Rose, ed., The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998).

55. Patrick Buchanan, The Great Betrayal: How American Society and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1998), pp. 66-71.

56. Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), pp. 102-105.

57. Buchanan, The Great Betrayal, p. 292.

58. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 1990).

59. R.O. Boyer and H.M. Morais, Labor's Untold Stary (New York: United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, 1955.)

60. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 1-6. Roediger cited the DuBois quote.

61. Frances Kellor, "Americanization by Industry," Immigrants in America Review, 2 (1916), no.1, pp.15-26.