Between travel bans, burgeoning nativism and increasingly restrictive immigration policies, this moment in our national history doesn’t necessarily line up with the multicultural melting pot ethos of Statue of Liberty fame. But xenophobia in America has a long history.
It goes without saying that American history has cycled through waves of xenophobia and inclusiveness since its very inception. What’s interesting (and maybe not totally expected) is the way languages have historically served as a proxy for the people who speak them. The oppression of various groups of people throughout U.S. history has often been linked to the suppression of their language, and frequently, the outright legal ban of their native tongue.
Here are eight times speaking a foreign language in the U.S. came with consequences.
During World War I, some states made it illegal to speak German. This had the effect of reducing German from being the second most commonly spoken language in America to being a minority tongue, even long after the war ended. Many schools removed German from their curriculum, reducing the percentage of high school students studying German from 25% to less than 1%.
German-Americans themselves went from being the largest non-English-speaking minority group in the U.S. to one of the most pressured to assimilate.
According to legal historian Paul Finkelman, there was a notion at the time that speaking in German was akin to thinking like one, and thinking like one meant thinking like a totalitarian. Germans came under a lot of pressure to “prove their patriotism” (and prove they weren’t spies) by speaking only in English. Meanwhile, the German-American presses were censored, and libraries pulled German books off their shelves.
Remember “freedom fries?” There was a “liberty cabbage” precedent for that.
Just last year, an Ivy League economics professor was escorted off an airplane because the passenger sitting next to him mistook his math notes for Arabic and alerted the flight attendants to his “suspicious behavior.”
The economist had to explain that his notes weren’t the furious scratchings of a terrorist plot-to-be, but were, in fact, a differential equation.
The irony is twofold: the professor was Italian, but many of the ancient texts that significantly advanced the field of mathematics were written in Arabic.
Employer v. Tagalog
In 2012, a group of Filipino nurses in California won a language discrimination settlement against their former employer. The nurses had been mocked, harassed and banned from speaking Tagalog among themselves at work — such that they were even followed by security guards and surveilled by security cameras to make sure they weren’t violating the rules.
Delano Regional Medical Center wound up settling for $975,000, making it one of the largest language discrimination settlements in the U.S. healthcare industry, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
But this victory for the nurses came after years of enduring humiliation and harassment at work. Once, a coworker sprayed air freshener on a Filipino colleague’s lunch to express her distaste for the cuisine. Their language, of course, was usually the most immediate and direct target.
The Babel Proclamation
In addition to the backlash against the German language, the World War I era saw wide-ranging xenophobia that made it dangerous to speak any foreign language at all.
Following the 1917 Immigration Act, which imposed literacy tests on immigrants, and the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, which suppressed the American foreign-language press, Iowa Governor William Harding banned the use of any foreign language in public in 1918. Theodore Roosevelt endorsed this “Babel Proclamation” soon after, declaring, “this is a nation—not a polyglot boarding house.”
Tens of thousands of people were legally charged with violating the “English-only” edicts in the years that followed.
A Ban On Bilingual Education
In 1998, California passed restrictions on bilingual education to curb the rapidly spreading influence of the Spanish language.
Of course, the backlash toward Hispanic immigrants wasn’t limited to one state. Students in other parts of the country have been suspended for speaking Spanish in school, and as recently as 2005.
Today, some Americans continue to take issue with having to press “1” for English, and if anything, the “English-only” movement has intensified over the last year. That didn’t stop California from revisiting the topic in 2016, as 73.5% of state residents voted in favor of Proposition 58, effectively restoring bilingual education to the state.
That’s not to say that dual language immersion programs didn’t exist before that — but those programs were contingent on getting enough parents to sign waiver requests for bilingual programs.
The Erasure Of Native Culture
Back in the mid-19th century, the government corralled Native Americans into English-only boarding schools to “acculturate” them. Effectively, this meant punishing native peoples for speaking in tongues like Cherokee, Ojibwe and Navajo — and subjecting them to all manner of physical abuse.
The boarding schools were more or less established for the explicit purpose of stamping out the native way of life. The students often emerged with “English” hairstyles, clothing and names, as well as Christian religious leanings. However, they didn’t really receive an actual education. Many students reported a heavier focus on discipline than on concepts like math or grammar.
Tex-Mex? Not So Much
California wasn’t the only state to push back against its burgeoning Hispanic population. Many schools in Texas historically segregated Mexican-American students, and it came with the territory that speaking Spanish at school would bring consequences, such as punishment and expulsion.
The first public school systems were established in Texas in the late nineteenth century, but by the time Mexican-American students finally had access to these schools, a pattern of segregation had emerged. The policies that informed the education system were heavily assimilationist, and the Spanish language was one of the easiest targets for those charged with enforcing these rules.
Stifle A Language; Stifle A Rebellion
The African slave population was likely one of the first groups to be the target of linguistic oppression in the newly founded United States of America.
When slaveowners discovered that drums could be used as a secret form of communication among black slaves, they banned them.
There was a wide range of West African languages represented among the original population brought over from Africa. Slave owners frequently banned the use of native languages for fear of organized rebellion, and some purposefully paired slaves with different linguistic backgrounds together to prevent them from communicating with one another.