NEW YORK, July, 24 2013 — A community college nursing student in Arizona was suspended for harassing Spanish-speaking students in her class. Now Terri Bennett is suing the community college; the college states that her rights were not in any way infringed upon.
Bennett, 50, was suspended for harassing Spanish speaking students in her nursing class. Her lawsuit claims that the use of Spanish by other students in class created a hostile learning environment for her. Bennet sued Pima Community College for allowing students to spake Spanish in the classroom.
Is America still free? Perhaps not, if you don’t speak English. Recent headlines highlighted a blizzard of discriminatory, anti-Hispanic remarks on Twitter, targeting American-born Latin/Pop singer Marc Anthony for singing “God Bless America” at the Major League Baseball All Star game. Bennet’s lawsuit is yet another example of hostility to people who use languages other than English.
What happened to America being a melting pot? What happened to the Bill of Rights that affords Americans Fist Amendment rights to free speech? Isn’t speech in Spanish still speech? What’s happened to the “mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome,” as inscribed on the tablet held by our Statue of Liberty?
Conservatives and Libertarians argue against government intrusion into personal life; the government-run college did not interfere in the personal lives of students who were speaking Spanish in the classroom, nor would they impose an English-only rule just because one student in a no doubt crowded classroom had a gripe.
America has faced these challenges before. In 1794, a German-speaking congressman and his constituents from Augusta County, Virginia, presented a petition to Congress to have a “certain proportion” of U.S. laws translated and printed in German as well as English at the expense of the federal government. In 1795 the proposal lost by a very close vote of 42 to 41. Allowing students to speak Spanish in class is a far cry from a congressional petition to have legislation printed in German, so why all the controversy?
University of Illinois linguistics professor Denis Baron observed on PBS that:
“Since that time, American nativists have sought to eradicate minority languages and discourage bilingualism wherever it could be found: in Maine and Louisiana, California and New Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as in Pennsylvania. Complaints about Germans as well as other non-English-speakers became all too common in the last quarter of the 19th century, and again during and after World War I, when the fear of immigrants and their languages prompted protective English-only legislation.
“Many Americans considered non-Anglophones to be less than human: in 1904 a railroad president told a congressional hearing on the mistreatment of immigrant workers, “These workers don’t suffer — they don’t even speak English” (Shanahan, 1989.) Today as well there is opposition to non-Anglophones and bilinguals — this time not Germans but Hispanic and Asian Americans.”
This apprehension toward those who speak languages other than English is not so much about history repeating itself as it is fear of change, a fear of losing our identity or culture. Of course the problem is not just fear of change. Benjamin Franklin said of the assimilation of Germans, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?” Clearly, anti-immigrant sentiment, whether it be culturally preservationist or bigoted and discriminatory has been part of the fabric of our nation from the beginning.
The stakes are much higher now than they have ever been before. The percentage of Hispanic high school graduates enrolling in college has surpassed whites, and Hispanics in politics are increasing in strength and numbers. For evidence of that, look no further than the recent elections Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Governors Susanna Martinez and Brian Sandoval, as well as the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. That Hispanics form families at a rate higher than their black or white counterparts all but ensures that Hispanics are here to stay and grow in the U.S.
The National Council of La Raza posted the following census data on their website: “Most Latinos are native-born Americans, and nearly three in four Latinos (74 percent) are U.S. citizens. As of 2009, 62.7 percent of all Latinos are native-born Americans and 37.3 percent are foreign-born. Another 10.9 percent of Latinos are naturalized U.S. citizens. Hispanic children under age 18 are also more likely to have been born in the U.S., with 92 percent being native-born Americans and 93 percent being U.S. citizens.”
With Hispanics on pace to remain the largest ethnic group in the U.S., this debate is sure to be important to both Republicans and Democrats, who have been strategizing over who can stake claim of this large and growing voting bloc. However, the battle for political real estate will hardly address the fear of change or bigotry that is at the core of the underlying issue in this case and many others like it.
Leadership expert Andy Stanley has said that some problems can be solved, and some perceived problems aren’t problems at all; they are tensions that don’t go away, such as work and life balance, and therefore are tensions to be managed, not problems to be solved. In that vein, we need to manage the tension of discrimination masquerading as fear or resistance to change. We must hope that just as African Americans have succeeded despite oppression, that Hispanics and those who espouse anti-Hispanic sentiment will soon also peaceably coexist and eradicate this “tension” for good so we can progress as Americans despite our diverse ancestries.
About the author: Rich Valdes is a former official in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Administration, an award-winning marketing director, and manager who has led staff and projects for various colleges, state policy initiatives, celebrity entertainers, faith based organizations, and non-profit charities. As a frequent TV, radio, and print media contributor, Rich’s commentary on social issues and popular culture have been featured on Hot 97 FM, CNN Headline News, Telemundo, Univision, HHR and Fox/My9. Rich attended New York University and is pursuing a master’s degree at Lincoln University while raising his two young daughters and caring for his elderly father in the New York City suburb of Bergen County, New Jersey.
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