Anti-Bilingual Initiative

Does Prop. 209 Deliver a Knock-Out Blow to "English Only"?

by Jack D. Forbes
Department of Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

September 1997

Some of the people who supported Proposition 209 have also expressed a desire to handicap the teaching of languages other than "English" in the schools of California, and, in fact, an initiative campaign will shortly seek to do just that. But what effect will the extremely equalitarian language of 209, which is now (at least temporarily) part of the State Constitution, have on the ability to discriminate against non-"English" idioms?

209 says: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

Clearly, in spite of bilingual programs here and there, California has overwhelmingly favored the English dialect spoken by Anglo-Americans from the upper Middle West. Other dialects of English, such as Jamaican, Black, Chicano, Southern, and Newyorkian, not to mention Cockney, Irish, and BBC, are not usually recognized or taught in the schools of the state and all testing is done in Middle Western (so-called "standard") English, except in so-called "foreign" language courses.

State policy has also favored the teaching of a few western European languages such as Spanish, French, and German over American, Asian, Pacific Island, Middle Eastern, African, and less-influential European tongues. The state has consistently discriminated against American languages such as California Native tongues, as well as against Tagalog, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and countless other non-western European idioms.

There can be little doubt but what the state's policy of language favoritism, entrenched since the 1880's, has given a huge boost to the upward mobility and educational/financial success of Anglo-Americans speaking Middle Western English, making it possible for them to achieve without ever having to really master a second language.

Can this "head start" and preference for Anglo-Americans be legally continued, since Prop 209, now part of the state's supreme law, prohibits discrimination and preferences when "on the basis of" such characteristics as ethnicity and national origin? Does language constitute part of ethnicity or national origin? Does culture (a way of living) constitute part of ethnicity or nationality?

This is a key question, because if one answers in the negative then it would mean that preferences would still be legal under 209 if they are based on language and/or culture and that would, of course, gut 209 of any legal significance. One could continue to, for example, offer affirmative action for African-Americans based upon their cultural and/or linguistic identity.

In any case, the answer is bound to be positive, since ethnicity (one's ethnic identity) and national origin (one's nationality or national identity) would consist in absolutely nothing if we were to take away culture, and language is always a significant part of any group's culture. Can one imagine an Anglo-American without some dialect of English? To discriminate against the Vietnamese language is to discriminate against the Vietnamese ethnicity. To discriminate against Mixtec, Zapotec, and other American languages from Mexico is to discriminate against the Mixtec and Zapotec ethnic groups. At the same time, to give English-speaking children a head start by empowering their linguistic capital is to grant them an individual and group preference of immense value.

The Constitution of California now makes English the official language of state, but it does not specify which dialects of English are so recognized, nor does it authorize discrimination against other languages. 209 now amends the Constitution it make such discrimination illegal.

What must be done? First, there must be a level-playing-field for all children speaking all languages. This requires that all languages be taught whenever a child requires such instruction. But it means more: it means that all children must face the same number of linguistic challenges. Thus, all youth must be required to learn at least two languages fluently. Thirdly, all testing must be done in at least two languages for every child, the preferred home language (such as Mixtec) and a mandatory second language (which must be different from the home language).

This will have to apply to all admission exams, such as the SAT, the ACT, and the LSAT and GRE. The California Bar exams must now be offered in non-English languages, as well).

No longer, thanks to 209, can Anglo-American students sail through admission tests by using only their home language. They must, like everyone else, demonstrate their ability to master at least one other language or idiom.

The changes will make California a truly multi-lingual state, and one better able to compete in global markets.

Jack Forbes, winner of the 1997 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, is the author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans, and a new novel, Red Blood. He encourages the reposting of this commentary: "I do wish to get wide dissemination because the mainstream press refuses to publish my articles. Thanks, Jack Forbes."