The English-Only Movement Legitimizes Attacks on Brotherhood and Tolerance

<i> Mary Nichols is the California director of People For the American Way</i> , <i> a nonpartisan constitutional-liberties organization</i>

Brotherhood and good will can be protected only by being alert to challenges to them. Some of the challenges--like ethnic slurs, hate-filled graffiti and racist violence--are crude and obvious. Others are subtle but no less dangerous. In particular, an ugly strain of prejudice against immigrants and other “foreigners” has emerged in California, slickly packaged and with an innocent-sounding name: the official-English movement.

This movement, more accurately called the English-only movement, wants to pass local and federal laws making English our “official” language nationwide, as Proposition 63 did for California in 1986. The movement’s representatives argue that English is in danger of being displaced by other languages, especially Spanish. The movement likes to paint itself as a moderate, common-sense effort striving only to promote national unity by preserving America’s English-language heritage.

The English-under-siege argument is simply wrong. According to the 1980 census, 98% of American residents over 4 years old speak English “well” or “very well.” A 1985 RAND Corp. study found that among first-generation Americans whose mother tongue is Spanish, 90% are proficient in English and 50% of their children can’t speak Spanish.


The claim that the English-only movement was moderate and promoted national unity could have appeared plausible until the passage of English-only laws at the state and local levels. But, in the aftermath of Proposition 63 and similar measures elsewhere, it is clear that English-only policies only encourage hostility toward immigrants and increase intolerance toward citizens, especially Asians and Latinos, whose first language is not English.

A continuing legal battle in Monterey Park is a case in point. In 1987 a slate of candidates was elected to the Monterey Park City Council pledging to put teeth into Proposition 63 at the local level. After taking office, some of the council members expressed concern over the number of non-English (mainly Chinese-language) books on the Monterey Park public library’s shelves, despite the fact that the books made up less than 10% of the library’s stock. In October that year, the council dissolved the library’s independent board of commissioners and took control of library management. Although the council used “financial account-ability” as a justification, its subsequent actions made clear that its real motivation was contempt for the rights of language minorities.

The council slashed the library’s 1988-89 budget for foreign-language materials from more than $11,000 to about $3,000. Mayor Barry L. Hatch was surprisingly frank about his view that the public library’s services should be extended only to citizens able to read English. “I don’t think we need to cater too much to foreign languages,” Hatch said. “I think if people want a foreign language they can go purchase books on their own.”

This intolerant rights-for-some-but-not-for-others attitude outraged other members of the Monterey Park community and led to a lawsuit filed by Monterey Park citizens and civil-liberties groups in Superior Court. The suit seeks to reinstate the library board as a way to ensure that the public library serves all of Monterey Park’s citizens.

Similar incidents have occurred in other cities, too. In Huntington Park, municipal-court employees were forbidden to speak to each other in Spanish, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court ruled the ban illegal. English-only supporter S. I. Hayakawa has said that Proposition 63 prohibits government workers even from discussing their lunch plans in Spanish. At a hospitalin Los Angeles, the head nurse forbade workers to speak any language but English and urged employees to report anyone who violated the ban. The manager of an insurance company ordered employees not to converse in Chinese unless they were dealing with a Chinese-speaking customer.

English-only laws were adopted last November in Colorado, Arizona and Florida, and are already being used to harass Latinos. In Miami a supermarket clerk was suspended after he spoke Spanish to another worker. When a woman called a department store to place an order and began speaking in Spanish, the clerk cited the English-only law and hung up. In Grand Junction, Colo., a school-bus driver told a student that speaking Spanish was no longer allowed on board.


The idea that laws like Proposition 63 are merely symbolic, or just common sense, or only promote national unity, is a fantasy. The record of English-only legislation demonstrates that it legitimizes attacks on brotherhood and tolerance, encouraging an ugly strain of bigotry that has no place in American society.