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Social Justice and Languages

Bill Rivers

Social Justice and Languages

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Reading José Medina's December 18 column on duallanguageschools.org made me very angry, he and I are almost the same age, but have had vastly different experiences. In my mind's eye, I can still remember Holly Ridge ES in Denver Colorado, and Mrs. Louise Bell's class, where nobody suffered what José did, where we had Filipino Day and celebrated Chinese New Year and talked about immigrating from the Soviet Union. To a five year old, this was unremarkable, no more or less interesting than learning that "gym shoes" meant something other than my Uncle Jim's shoes, or that there were 60 seconds in a minute, not 100. Linguistic and cultural diversity were normal in that place and at that time.

José reminded me that healthy diversity then as now depends on location and community; that the increasing tolerance of diversity of a great many kinds in our society has only recently emerged as a real cultural and political force, and that it is still fragile, subject to a terrifying mix of fact-free demagoguery and schmaltzy nostalgia.

We must advocate, we must build on our successes (Tennessee and Michigan with Seals!), we must never accept complacency or resignation.

ProEnglish drove this home last week with their prideful announcement of a visit to the White House on January 23rd. ProEnglish is the rebranded "English Only," and their agenda comes from a dark place in our civic life. ProEnglish wants to overturn Executive Order 13166, which interprets the prohibition of discrimination based on national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to extend to prohibiting discrimination based on Limited English Proficiency.

And of course, ProEnglish wants to eliminate "bilingual education," using the same tired reasoning from 30 years ago. These fact free and selectively nostalgic arguments mask the darkness of an agenda that values other languages less than English, that ignores the proven, lifelong benefits of billingualism, that dismisses the variety and richness of the cultural heritage that tens of millions of us bear.

This brings me back to José's searing column, and why my natural Irish-American optimism is tinged with worry. We must advocate, we must build on our successes (Tennessee and Michigan with Seals!), we must never accept complacency or resignation. Dual Language Schools plays its role, and I hope that your reading this column and others inspires you to take action.

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