Confusing Language and Ethnicity

English Ordinance Opponents Confuse Language and Ethnicity

January 24, 2013

By Suzanne Bibby

Language, ethnicity, and national origin are three distinct concepts that opponents of the official language movement in the United States have consistently misunderstood for the past three decades.  Last month in Carroll County, MD, I witnessed this confusion first hand.  I attended the public comment hearing to address Commissioner Haven Shoemaker’s proposed ordinance to make English the official language of county government.  If Carroll County votes to adopt this  ordinance next week on Jan. 24, it will become the third county in the state to do so in less than a year.

The December hearing drew over 100 local residents.  Those who chose to give a 3-minute public comment were evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the English measure.  Throughout the public comment period, I couldn’t help but notice a blanket theme among the opposition comments, a peculiar neglect of the topic at hand, language.  Instead, opponents focused on topics such as personal family lineage, national origin, and ethnicity.

This misunderstanding of the difference between language and ethnicity or national origin continues to dominate the opposition to official language laws despite the courts’ consistent rejection of its premise.  When Congress debated and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, language was never discussed or included in the meaning or definition of “national origin” discrimination, and rightfully so.  The law simply states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance (Section 601).”

The courts have held that national origin and language are not the same and cannot be treated as if they are, as they did in the case, Garcia v. Spun Steak (1993), where the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the employer (Spun Steak) maintaining its English-in-the-workplace policy.  As I stated in my brief comment in Carroll County, no court has ever held that official English laws violate the civil liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Both Congress and the courts understood that national origin, unlike language, is an immutable characteristic – meaning, it is incapable of changing.   It is self-evident that individuals can choose which languages they learn and speak, but they cannot choose or change their national origin.  As it is becoming the dominant trend in the U.S., an individual’s inability to speak English does not necessarily indicate that the person is an immigrant.

We know that over the past decade, English proficiency has become less common for high-school graduates in the United States.   A 2009 Lexington Institute report found that 59% of U.S. elementary school children who are not proficient in English (or, English is not their primary language) were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.  In California today, one out of every four school students is an English Language Learner. Continuous mass immigration and the resulting increase in government-sponsored translation services have accelerated the decline of English in America over the past two decades.  These two factors are transforming the language assimilation issue away from an immigrant concern and into a native-born phenomenon.

The commissioners in Carroll County can, no doubt, feel confident in voting to approve the English ordinance next Thursday.  They can rest assured that if the opposition actually believed its own argument, that official language laws violate the 1964 Civil Rights law or the U.S. Constitution, a flood of lawsuits would follow from the likes of the ACLU.  But where are the lawsuits?  Thirty-one states, to date, have official language laws on the books and not one is being challenged.