Anatomy of the English-Only Movement
By James Crawford
English-only activism seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1980s, a phenomenon that few living Americans had ever witnessed. Previously no one had warned that the nation’s dominant language was endangered by the encroachment of other tongues – creeping bilingualism – or that it needed ‘legal protection’ in the United States. Suddenly there were legislative campaigns to give English official status, an idea never proposed at the federal level before 1981, and to restrict the public use of minority languages. Such Official English measures have now been adopted by twenty-three states. In 1996, for the first time, Congress voted on and the House of Representatives approved a bill designating English as the federal government’s sole language of official business.
Naturally the targets of this campaign – linguistic minorities, bilingual educators, civil libertarians, Indian tribes, and others – regard restrictionist legislation as a serious threat to their interests. Also not surprisingly, they have tended to characterize the English-only movement as a creature of the far right fringe of American politics, born of racial fear and loathing. Since the mid-1980s, when I started reporting on such groups and their activities, I have been asked whether they can be linked to identifiable villains such as the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party. Such connections would certainly be convenient for opponents. If the English-only campaign could be exposed as an extremist conspiracy, mobilizing against it would be a simple matter. Already this theme has featured in counter-attacks. For the most part, however, it is a product of wishful thinking.
True, the language-restriction movement did grow directly out of the immigration-restriction movement, appealing to many of the same attitudes and followers. The immigration-restriction movement, in turn, has accepted support from eugenicists, Klan sympathizers, and other defenders of white supremacy (Crawford, 1992a). Unsavory associations, to be sure. As we shall see, these links have raised questions about the hidden agenda of Official English. And rightly so. Yet I have uncovered no evidence that groups promoting this campaign follow the leadership or share the ideology of racial extremists.
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