Linguistic Racism in the U.S.

by multilingualmania on August 24, 2011

in Language in Society, Language Policy, Linguistic Discrimination

A story out of Denver highlights a growing trend in the United States: linguistic racism. The tale, as reported by ABC 7, involved the arrest and detention of a number of legal immigrants by ICE. Their crime: the individuals arrested were all speaking Spanish. The Colorado American Civil Liberties Union called it racial profiling at its worst. The individuals, all Amway distributors based in Denver, were arrested at an Omaha, Nebraska fast food restaurant after ICE agents heard them speaking Spanish. Apparently, that was probable cause for detention. A lawsuit has been filed, but ICE stands by its agents’ actions, saying that because two of the agents involved were native Spanish speakers, racial profiling simply wasn’t possible. The sad truth is linguistic racism is alive and well in the U.S., and these officers, although native speakers, were just as guilty of it as someone who speaks only English.

If this is how an ICE agent responds to someone speaking Spanish, imagine how the rest of the country is reacting. Hate crimes against the “immigrant” community, in this case the Spanish-speaking or Hispanic-looking community, have skyrocketed. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center says that between 2003 and 2006, crimes against Hispanics rose by nearly 35 percent. The psychology behind the attacks, as the center points out, is the fear of the “invader.”

Reinforcing this assumption that fear of societal change motivates linguistic racism is the English Only Movement. Some recent polls suggest over 85 percent of U.S. citizens support making English the official language of the United States, despite the fact that an official language was deliberately left out of the U.S. Constitution. While John Adams supported the establishment of English as the official language of the United States, the other Founding Fathers nixed that idea very quickly in 1780 during the Continental Congress. Their rationale: it would be undemocratic to establish one official language when the country was made up of immigrants who spoke many.

In fact, there are several nations with not one official language, but many. For instance, South Africa has eleven official languages and Switzerland has four. These nations have created a strong national identity without marginalizing any one linguistic group. Thus, it seems the only way to create a similar outcome in the United States is to combat linguistic racism by creating a linguistically rich, unified society through targeted education, no matter whether the classroom has four walls and a ceiling or is a virtual one at an online school.


The advantages to learning a second language are myriad, but one of the greatest is its ability to open students’ minds to new cultures. According to the Department of Education, when children are young their minds are far more malleable. They are open to new ideas and willing to explore and accept different cultures. Therefore, teaching a second language to elementary school children not only enhances their communication and cognitive skills, but also introduces them to global perspectives that will make them better citizens both abroad and at home. The DOE further explains that children begin moving from a stage of self-involvement to world-involvement (egocentricity to reciprocity) around the age of 10. By introducing children to foreign language study and cultural appreciation before this point, it primes the child to develop world views based upon respect for different cultures and beliefs, even when those beliefs differ in their home country. Rather than being restricted by a narrow set of social mores, these children are free to explore and incorporate those languages and cultures into their understanding of the world. It creates citizens who, rather than being prone to linguistic racism, are encouraged to be accepting of multilingual societies.

Teacher Training

Teachers wear many hats, and one of them is that of change agents. The truth of the matter is that while many children grow up in homes where acceptance of others is encouraged and multiculturalism is celebrated, others grow up in homes wracked by bigotry. Therefore, the only hope for these children to develop an attitude of tolerance is through the influence of teachers, peers, and other community members.

For teachers to truly be instruments of change, however, they must confront their own prejudices. In Revealing the Invisible: Confronting Passive Racism in Teacher Education Sherry Marx confronts the issue of understanding the many subtle guises under which racism can operated. In it, nine women, all white and all teachers-in-training, are asked to keep a journal of their experiences as they tutored students in a second language acquisition course. What was revealed was their inherent racism in thoughts and actions toward these students. It wasn’t that the women were malicious in their intent, but rather that they had never been forced to think about what it would be like to be a student who didn’t speak English, who didn’t come from a privileged background, and who wasn’t white. According to Marx, discussion of racism and teaching teachers to recognize potentially inherent racism, regardless of their own race, is the first step to combating racial disparities in the classroom. Beyond this, it is the first step in teaching teachers how to combat the incipient racism of their students and to teach them to be citizens in a multicultural society.

Combating linguistic racism in the U.S. will involve teaching a new generation to accept and appreciate the variety of peoples who inhabit the country. It also will involve training teachers to recognize even passive racism and to actively work to avoid those tendencies. Most of all, it will involve an active force within the country that is willing to combat the bigotry inherent to linguistic racism and demand that the educational system be changed to eliminate this ugly element of society before it can infect another generation.

About the Author: Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: