English-Only Proposals Gain Strength

By Tony Baez

The Wisconsin Assembly is considering legislation that would make English the state’s official language, as part of a national effort by anti-immigrant forces for an English-only amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The State Affairs Committee of the Wisconsin Assembly approved the English-only measure this February, and the full Assembly is expected to vote on the proposal in late March. A third of the Assembly already has endorsed the proposal, mostly along Republican Party lines. If the bill passes, Wisconsin would become the 23rd state to adopt English only legislation.

The state initiatives are part of a plan by conservatives to build support for a U.S. Constitutional amendment that would prohibit the use of any language other than English for the purposes of government communication. Such an amendment would not only escalate antiimmigrant sentiment, it would violate the internationally recognized right of ethnic language groups to speak and sustain their language and cultural practices. Federal legislation also specifically calls for repeal of federal mandates on bilingual education. Such proposals have been endorsed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and presidential candidates Robert Dole and Pat Buchanan.

English-only legislation is not new but its resurgence is clearly connected to the growth of the conservative movement. In their most extreme form, such language proposals are part of an ill-spirited strategy by conservative politicians, several national organizations (such as US English) and their state affiliates to wrap a veil of legitimacy around their anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, and anti-Asian sentiment. In their more benign form, such proposals are an expression of ignorance and fear by many Americans concerned with the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversification of their workplace, neighborhoods, schools, and media.

Moderate and liberal politicians have proposed an amendment to the Wisconsin bill that recognizes the contributions of ethnic minorities and the state’s multicultural and diverse heritage. But this amendment does nothing to change the intent of the legislation. It merely highlights the weak ideological and political grounding of Democrats and moderate Republicans — and the ease with which they contribute to the destructive push of conservative extremists in an election year.

What makes the Wisconsin bill particularly annoying is that many critics of the English-only movement thought that such a bill would face more difficulty in a state with an impressive history of linguistic tolerance. In 1848, for example, the territory of Wisconsin published its state constitution in three languages: English, German, and Norwegian. Bilingual school programming in German, Polish, and even Italian were common in places like Milwaukee in the early part of this century.

In contrast to the extreme xenophobia of most of its neighboring Midwestern states, over the years Wisconsin has prided itself on curbing the forces of nativism, and has minimized language discrimination. When a growing Latino population made its presence felt in urban areas in the early 1970s, the Wisconsin legislature enacted one of the most progressive bilingual education bills in the nation.

Language minority groups, progressive educators, and their supporters are now worried because the proponents of English-only have been more successful in Wisconsin than ever before. They fear that the combination of a Republican controlled legislature and a Republican governor with national aspirations may lead to a restrictive law which could be used to suppress the use of languages other than English. In particular, the legislation would have a chilling effect on bilingual education programs and bilingual social services delivery in the Milwaukee area, which has the state’s largest language minority populations.

Tony Baez is an assistant professor at the Center for Urban Community Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.