Boom to Bust: Official English in the 1990s
By James Crawford

November 8, 1988 should have been a day of celebration for English-only advocates. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Florida turned out in large numbers to approve ballot measures declaring English the official language of their state governments. This brought the total of such laws to sixteen, more than half enacted in the previous two years. To all appearances, the anti-bilingual forces had never been stronger. Yet for the leading English-only organization, these wins proved Pyhrric in the extreme. US English lost its founder and chairman, its president, and one of its best known celebrity endorsers during the 1988 campaign. All were forced to resign in a scandal involving a leaked memorandum, organizational ties, and funding sources that revealed an agenda of anti-Latino prejudice.

For many Americans, these disclosures shattered the facade of innocence surrounding Official English. Clearly, this movement was about more than reaffirming language as a totem of national identity. Its stated objectives of ethnic harmony and minority advancement were now hard to sustain, with US English leaders cracking jokes about fast-breeding Mexicans.

Nowhere was the damage more evident than in Arizona, where editorial cartoons linked English-only proponents to Nazis and Klansmen. The initiative there was especially draconian – ‘This State shall act in English and no other language’ (Arizona Constitution, 1988) – and it polarized the state along racial lines. The measure, known as Article 28, passed with barely one percent of the vote. Immediately challenged as an assault on free speech, it was blocked by a federal judge and was later ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court (Ruíz v. Hull, 1998). This version of Official English stressed restriction, not affirmation, calling on Americans to ‘defend our common language’ against alien forces. Its agenda was transparent, no longer viable as a fig leaf for intolerance. Popular support for the movement declined accordingly.

In the mid-1990s, however, the American political scene was transformed by a resurgence of nativism and the election of the most conservative Congress in half a century. As immigrants came under direct attack by legislators, US English no longer appeared so extreme. Its dream of a national English-only law now seemed within reach. In this new environment, the House of Representatives voted to designate English the official medium of US government operations and to ban most uses of other languages by federal agencies and officials. But the bill fell short of victory when the Senate failed to act before adjourning for the year, and Republicans soon lost interest when the issue brought them no partisan advantage. They also began to worry about alienating Hispanic and Asian Americans, the fastest-growing sectors of the electorate. Although the legislation was reintroduced in the next two Congresses, it was never brought to a vote. English-only advocates returned to esoteric issues, such as a hypothetical language policy for Puerto Rico, should the island’s residents some day opt for statehood. Hardly an engaging issue for non-Puerto Ricans.

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