Brown Can Stick Around in Nashville

Tom Barry
January 22, 2009

Nashville listened to its leaders — the governor, the mayor, and a vast coalition of churches, businesses and universities — and defeated an English-only measure by nearly 10,000 votes in Thursday's special election.” That’s the report from the Tennessean the day after the city referendum on an amendment that would have made Nashville the largest city in the nation with an “official English” law.

With financial and logistical support from the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish, Nashville councilman Eric Crafton founded Nashville English First to spearhead a charter amendment that would have obligated the city government to conduct all government business in English. While the main case for the English Only measure was that it would save the city in translation costs, the issue of identity set the tone of the debate.

Did Nashville want to affirm that it was typically white Southern city, or that it was an inclusive, diverse city that was open to residents and visitors who speak other languages? In the end, after heated debate that energized a strong opposition coalition, the city rejected the identity politics of English only.

About 10 percent of Nashville residents speak a language other than English in their homes, and the city’s Latino population has grown to 5 percent in the past decade. Nashville is also the home to the nation’s largest Kurdish community and is a resettlement spot for refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

While the debate over the “English Only” proposals centered on what values the city wanted to embrace, one of the most persuasive arguments against the measure was that it would signal to tourists and investors that Nashville wasn’t open to outsiders. Many Nashville residents didn’t want to damage their reputation as an increasingly cosmopolitan town in the South.

At a time when other cities and states are instituting anti-immigrant measures, the people of Nashville spoke for diversity and inclusion.

It’s likely that the election of Barack Obama underscored the argument of the opponents of the English First measure was “mean-spirited” – as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said – and not worthy of a city that values and promotes its diversity.

The day after the landmark vote in Nashville, ProEnglish with its Liberty Bell logo still had a running banner proclaiming that “Official English is sweeping the nation.”

The Nashville debate over language and identity pointed attention to the national campaign for English Only or English First , or what other calls “English Only.”

ProEnglish, the organization involved in the Nashville campaign, is part of a closely linked network of “official English” and anti-immigration organizations that are based in the Washington, DC area and are involved in local and national campaigns to restrict immigration and to institute English as the official and only language for government business.(See TransBorder Profile: ProEnglish)

A central figure of these groups is John Tanton, who was a founding director of ProEnglish and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Among the other groups in which Tanton, a former president in the 1970s of Zero Population Growth, are English First, Immigration Reform Law Institute, and Numbers USA.  As the principals of these groups readily acknowledge, the movements to restrict immigration and to restrict the use of languages other than English are closely connected organizationally and ideologically.

ProEnglish is dedicated to “providing pro-bono legal assistance to public and private agencies facing litigation or regulatory actions over language."

Bob Park, the chairman of ProEnglish, was the founder of Arizonans for Official English and is a 30-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He led the effort in Arizona to defend an official language initiative that was approved by Arizona voters in the late 1980s but was later overturned in federal court, striking a blow at the “English only” movement as it was then commonly described.

According to Tanton, whose main interest was stopping population growth and restricting immigration in the United States, the issue of language is an emotional one that mobilizes more people than the immigration question. In 1983 he founded U.S. English to harness the “emotional power” of this identity issue, and later went on to found ProEnglish.

English First is now the less prominent English-only organization. Both U.S. English and English First are clearly situated on the political right, but each organization has its own approach. ProEnglish, unlike its counterparts, explicitly links language restriction, immigration restriction, cultural supremacy, and national unity issues.

 

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, in his "Here come the linguistic fascists" essay wrote that the English Only movement is fueled by the "hatred and suspicion of aliens and immigrants." He said that "making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games."

If the Nashville vote is any indication, the issue of the increasing presence of other languages in the country may be losing its emotional and ideological hold on Americans. Both at a national and local level, diversity not uniformity has a new power in American politics.

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