English as the National Language? Undemocratic

History tells us the movement to make English the official national language of the United States is misguided. Previous attempts to use language proficiency as an impediment to voting show the dangers to democracy.

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DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Back in 1913, my parents came to the United States from Russia speaking fluent Yiddish and fairly good Russian. They swiftly began to learn English in the way that most of that wave of immigrants did.


NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: I mention this because I just may be predisposed in the recent controversy over giving English some special status, whether it is the official language, the common language, the unifying language, or most recently, national language, in the bill the that Senate passed on Thursday.

This may seem a harmless addition to the immigration bill, but we have learned that language proficiency requirements can be used as a weapon in political campaigns. After the Civil War, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned deprivation of vote, some states responded by instituting especially tough literacy tests.

It is not pleasant to recall that when William Rehnquist came up for confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1971, he had to respond to a series of questions about his actions on behalf of the Republican campaign in 1964. Bill Rehnquist, as he was called then, headed a squad of campaign workers in Phoenix, Arizona who challenged minority voters to read the U.S. Constitution in English before they could vote.

The result, according to one witness, was a line half a block long, four abreast, and some just gave up and left. The test was administered only to blacks and Hispanics.

So what is the purpose of giving the English language some special status? It is not a flag to be waved. It is not an oath of allegiance to be taken on becoming an American.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who had three grandparents come to the United States from Mexico, must have had an uncomfortable moment when he was asked about his position on English. He said it is very, very important for people to speak English. It is the path to opportunity.

Yes, but wouldn't that still be true without needing some special designation for English in an immigration bill?

This is Daniel Schorr.

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