Monday, February 14, 2011

The Reach of Xenophobia

by Holley Davis

Arizona made headlines last April due to the passing of the strict immigration bill Arizona Senate Bill 1070, also known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” which decreed that immigrants must carry their alien registration documents on them at all times as well as requiring police to question those who are believed to be in the country illegally. This is one of the toughest immigration bills passed in America; many opponents of the bill believe that the bill encourages racial profiling and discrimination against Latin@s, who make up roughly 30.8 percent of Arizona according to the US census in 2000 – a percentage that is likely to have grown in the past ten years.

In an interpretation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which states that in order for the government give funding to schools, students learning English “must be instructed by teachers fluent in the language,” the Arizona Department of Education, “recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.” (Jordan) Teachers who are not deemed fluent in the language either through their pronunciation, writing, and grammar – the idea being that if these ESL students are not being taught English from a fluent English speaker then they will have harder time attaining true fluency in English. Teachers who do not pass the tests or remedy their fluency will either be fired or be taken out of ESL classes and placed into classes with native English speakers. According to the Arizona Department of education 46% of kindergarteners, 24% of 3rd-5th graders, and 16% of 6th-8th graders are English learners.

Ironically, during the 1990s, Arizona had “hired hundreds of teachers whose first language was Spanish as part of a broad bilingual-education program. Many were recruited from Latin America.” (Jordan) Presumably, the same teachers that were brought to America to teach English to nonnative speakers are now having their language skills called into question and now their teaching positions are on the line.

The assigned readings for this week’s class, Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, and Class by Bonni Urciuoli and Homegirls; Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs by Norma Mendoza-Denton deal directly with the controversy in Arizona, as language is often one of the clearest and easiest examples of how discrimination is used and marked. Many within the United States believe that we are an anglophone society – our generic connotation of an American is usually a middle class English speaking white male. Thus, this standard of what an American is, is “unmarked while the non-normative, the racialized or ethnicized [read nonwhite] person is marked.” (Urciouli, 17) As whiteness is the dominant hegemonic rule in America, they strive to keep themselves in power – deeming all deviants from the standard as wrong. It is worth noting that during these hard economic times, xenophobia and nativism within the nation grow as Americans struggling to keep their jobs in a precarious market view immigrants as taking “our” jobs, destroying the ideal of the hard working American. Denton explains that language is a gauge of one’s background saying “language becomes the loud-speaker through which emergent political consciousness can be broadcast: language will advertise one’s acquaintances, and their trajectories…” (Denton, 105) Language other than proper standard English becomes marked, and the users of that language are then subject to intense discrimination. Urciouli elaborates saying, “…language difference with disorder, with images of illiterate foreigners flooding the United States and refusing to speak English or hordes of the underclass speaking an accented English with “broken” grammar and “mixed” vocabulary.” (Urciouli, 18) To preserve our American-ness, the hegemonic powers that be proclaim that we must keep our language pure and to educate new comers to speak our way, as evidenced by the sentiment in America that those who come here should speak English!

Latin@s and the Spanish language are at the forefront of discrimination due to the proximity of the United States to Mexico and other Latin American countries. We can see the connection being made in Arizona, a state that shares a border with Mexico, with the fall of the economy and the rise of stringent immigration policies.

Urciouli furthers this discussion of the tension between English and Spanish saying, “hegemonically Spanish itself is regarded as a barrier to class mobility because it displaces English. Accents, “broken” English, and “mixing” become signs of illiteracy and laziness, which people are morally obliged to control through education. Not controlling language results in “bilingual confusion.” (Urciouli, 26) In trying to assimilate the children in these ESL classes, the Arizona Department of Education clearly feels that they should be learning standard English, that is untainted from these nonnative speakers who pronounce “words such as violet as "biolet," think as "tink" and swallow the ending sounds of words, as they sometimes do in Spanish.” (Jordan)
The prejudice involved in this case is clear; it is incredibly doubtful that native English speaking teachers are fluent in English – who really knows the appropriate time to say who as opposed to whom? Where does one draw the line at what constitutes fluency in English by way of pronunciation and grammar? How do regional dialects figure in to this discussion – you can be sure that if this had been taken up on Long Island where “ou’s” are pronounced as “aw’s” or the common practice of dropping “r’s” in Boston we would have a very difficult situation on our hands. What about the ESL students themselves? Isn’t this new decree performing a disservice to them, by removing teachers that can communicate wit them in two languages, furthering their understanding in a depth that perhaps a monolingual teacher would not be able to provide? And it is worth noting that teachers and schools are not the only place where students develop their language capacity and grammar – what about books, their friends, television, the grocery store clerk, and music? All of these interactions contribute to the development of language – is the next step to ensure fluency and literacy for these ESL speakers to ban all radio and television figures who are not native speakers of English? 

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