Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Voting Rights Act

Last week, Congress delayed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a bipartisan effort. Among the reasons cited for the delay, Representative Steve King R-Iowa advocated using the renewal to remove the section of the 1965 VRA addressing removal of an English language requirement.

(e) (1) Congress hereby declares that to secure the rights under the fourteenth amendment of persons educated in American-flag schools in which the predominant classroom language was other than English, it is necessary to prohibit the States from conditioning the right to vote of such persons on ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language.

(2) No person who demonstrates that he has successfully completed the sixth primary grade in a public school in, or a private school accredited by, any State or territory, the District of Columbia, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in which the predominant classroom language was other than English, shall be denied the right to vote in any Federal, State, or local election because of his inability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter in the English language, except that, in States in which State law provides that a different level of education is presumptive of literacy, he shall demonstrate that he has successfully completed an equivalent level of education in a public school in, or a private school accredited by, any State or territory, the District of Columbia, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in which the predominant classroom language was other than English.

According to the CNN article linked above, another representative argued that it was redundant to provide multilingual support for voters, citing that knowledge of English is a requirement for citizenship (which is, of course, untrue). Although Representative Sensenbrenner basically considers the argument irrelevant to the Voting Rights Act renewal, the debate over a de facto national language has raged as an undercurrent to the immigration debate for the last several months, thus making Representative King's comments a rather terrifying concept. The loss of VRA-required language-support affects not just Spanish-speaking immigrants (as has been suggested by mainstream media coverage), but the Asian American community as well, which has a large immigrant population. One study in New York City found that since 1998, several problems were faced by Asian American voters not proficient in English (quoted from article):
  • Ballot translations had faulty transliterations of candidates' names and were too small to read.
  • Interpreter shortages led to limited English proficient Asian Americans being turned away.
  • Poll workers blocked interpreters from assisting voters, or made disparaging or racist remarks about language assistance and Asian Americans.
  • Translated voting materials, such as voter rights flyers, voter registration forms, and affidavit (provisional) ballot envelopes were hidden from voters.
  • Poor notification about election district and poll site changes caused confusion.
  • Telephone hotlines did not provide assistance in both required Chinese dialects (Mandarin and Cantonese) or in Korean, and the Board's website and poll site locator were only available in English, preventing many voters from finding their correct poll site locations.
In a country in which native, English-speaking voters couldn't vote properly using an English language ballot, is it any surprise that voters not proficient in English might be disenfranchised by poorly translated ballots? For that matter, is it any surprise that immigrants for whom English is not their primary language, would feel better equipped to exercise their right to vote in a language in which they would feel less likely to make a mistake? An English-only ballot would not disadvantage undocumented immigrants (who do not have the right to vote). The victims of such a measure are the legal, documented immigrants who have a poor grasp of English. Furthermore, the removal of a literacy test in the VRA of 1965 was one of the primary achievements of that advanced suffrage following this act; prior to 1965, it was the literacy test that was used to deny Blacks the vote, many of whom had been disadvantaged by poor access to schooling, were illiterate and did not receive the knowledge needed to cast their votes properly (if they were allowed to the voting booths at all). Over the past several months, as the problem of undocumented immigration has come under increasing fire, and with this attack launched on language support for voters, the debate has been muddied by opinions that seem to arise more out of xenophobia than out concern over border security. Most troubling are the number of people who seem to suggest that undocumented immigrants are disturbing the culture of America by refusing to assimilate and "be more American". The insistence here is not just that undocumented immigrants refuse to participate in cultural assimilation, but that there is an American culture that comprises entirely of a White American interpretation of America -- for example (but not limited to), an insistence that the language English become a requirement for American citizenship. A few weeks earlier, Fox News picked up a story about an owner of a Philly cheesesteak restaurant who posted a sign on his establishment that read "This is America. When Ordering, Speak English". A number of Conservative pundits and online bloggers have denounced the Press 1 for English trend, stating that in America, a knowledge of English should be implicit. They decry the inconvenience of having to push an extra button to choose one's language when entering into an automated phone system, and demand that all Americans cater to the dominant culture. Indeed, the fights is quickly transitioning into an all out intolerance of non-North American cultures. In Canada, a Montreal school is facing a lawsuit after a teacher scolded a Grade 2 boy for using a fork and spoon to eat his meal (as is traditional in Filipino culture), rather than a fork and knife. The principal of the school is quoted as saying: "this is not the way Canadians eat; you have to adapt to Quebec society." America has never been a country of a single culture. It has never been defined solely by the behaviour and norms of one group. Since its inception, it has been the home to many religions, cultural practices, and, indeed, languages. Despite Conservative attempts to re-write history, there was no language test for incoming immigrants (of all colours), and it was in fact Chinese immigrants who could be considered the first "illegal immigrants"; at a time when America issued no entry visas, the only people not allowed to enter the country were those denied entrance by the Chinese Exclusion Act. While one can only hope that the xenophobia of the masses will fall upon deaf ears in government, last week, the Senate passed a bill officially making English the national language. This flies in the face of not just the efforts of undocumented immigrants from Mexico -- indeed, this event might arguably affect them the least. Instead, the impact that this has will be felt primarily in immigrant populations, where cultures distinct from that of English-speaking, racially White, several generations-deep European Americans thrive. For legal immigrants, including the many communities of Asian immigrants, speaking a foreign language is often a consequence not only of maintaining a rich tie to their cultural practices, but a consequence of poor investment on the part of the American educational system into decent English as a Second Language schooling programs. What these Conservative pundits forget in their fight to rid America of other languages is that immigrants are primarily interested in survival and prosperity. For most immigrants, there is already a huge drive to learn English: it is English-speaking immigrants who will get the better-paying jobs, find opportunities for advancement in the workplace, and avoid hateful discrimination by White nativists and cultural purists. I am reminded of my mother who immigrated to Canada over thirty years ago. In her mid-twenties, she came to Canada with my father. He had a knack for languages and had already picked up functional English before immigrating -- my mother had a harder time, and always spoke English with a thick accent. As she has gone later into her years, her English skills (already shaky to begin with) are fading and I have taken to speaking to her primarily in Mandarin because she can rarely understand complicated sentences in English. As Asian Americans, we have not only fought tirelessly to defend our own right to vote -- also denied to us until the passing of the VRA in 1965 -- but we are closely tied to the immigrant population, both documented and undocumented (Asians comprise the second largest group of undocumented immigrants after Mexicans). Although the language issue has focused primarily on rejecting "Press 2 for Spanish", you can bet that those same pundits would also reject "Press 3 for Chinese". People like my mother, who have proven themselves hard-working citizens of their adopted countries should share in the same civil liberties and basic rights as those born here. They have, after all, worked hard to be accepted as American. They have jumped through every hoop, worked as hard as any native-born American, and have strived to better their adopted country. But, when the government tells its people that those who do not speak English are "less American", they not only challenge our access to basic constitutional rights and civil liberties, but send us the message that despite their best efforts, they -- us, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, our fathers, our aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers -- non-English speaking immigrant populations -- are not welcome here. As we stand at a critical crossroads in which the government has the power to severely alter the Voting Rights Act and undo nearly fifty years of suffrage (which has still seen substantial disenfranchisement of voters of colour in two elections in recent memory, and possibly a third this November), we Asian Americans must take a stand against the White-washing of American culture and demand that immigrant culture not be wiped out by the same xenophobia that would do away with the choice to speak another language. Not only does this affect our right to vote, as established by the 15th Amendment and protected by the VRA of 1965, but our very identities as both American and Asian. Speaking Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog or any other language doesn't make any of us any less American. Being American shouldn't be about the language that we speak, the foods that we eat (or how we eat them), the clothes that we wear, or the Gods that we do (or do not) worship. I've always thought that being American was about something else, something more: an idea. Read more on the Voting Rights Act renewal and the need for multilingual support at the Asian American Legal Defense Fund website. Cross-posted: APA for Progress


Blogger James said...

Excellent post. Part of me wishes that conservative commentators like Michelle Malkin would take the time to read this, but you can't help crazy see reason.

Bilingual ballots expand suffrage into larger and larger groups; this assists Democrats. Those who wish to contract the legal government participation sphere are usually Republican, because they rely on single demographic turnout to win elections. Whenever employed middle class Whites stay home on election day, it's a great day for Democrats, and the House GOP has taken to limiting minority election involvement (again!) in order to soothe electoral fallout from the myriad Bush Administration screw-ups that plague the country.

Personally, language should never prohibit people from voting; any responsible non-White American should know better than to advocate Anglophone hegemony in America. I hope though, that immigrant populations are not surprised that many Americans consider non-English speaking immigrants unwelcome -- remember, those people don't want the non-White English speakers they shipped here.

7/01/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve King is wrong about the Voting Rights Act - and about a lot more. Some of us in his district have created a website to expose all of the terrible things that Steve King says and does in our name. Check it out:

7/02/2006 08:45:00 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

English is in fact a requirement for citizenship.

7/05/2006 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Robert, there are many exceptions by which an applicant can be naturalized without knowledge of English. Also, the "knowledge" of English isn't very rigorous -- one only needs to know how to read and write extremely simple sentences -- easily surpassed by memorization rather than actual proficiency in the language.

Also, this is fairly recently enforced -- during the time when many immigrants arrived (and were processed in Ellis or Angel Island), though there was an "English requirement", it became too onerous a task that most applicants simply read and wrote the required material in their native languages and were passed through.

7/05/2006 04:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the one hand, the English-only folks are driven by fear and racism. They're also, of course, being manipulated by power hungry politicians. People like this have used racism against African-Americans and others for years. Look at the GOP's Southern Strategy, which was a plan to gain racist Southern voters. Fear mongers are also used homophobia to fuel election success in 2004.

On the other hand, it is important for a country to have some shared cultural points for national cohesion. One of the examples you mentioned was a teacher in Quebec harassing a student. Canada has been plagued with separation stuggles for years, with the French-speaking residents of Quebec wanting to become their own nation. Spain has seen similar issues with the Basque Region and now Catalan wanting autonomy if not status as separate countries.

The question is how can the U.S. avoid that destructive path and allow people to maintain parts of their ancestral culture without forming separate distinct communities. This is a real problem. If you look at Europe, France, Holland, and Germany have large immigrant populations that have not been allowed or chosen not assimilate. In the Netherlands, the issue has become volatile after the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.

There is no easy answer.

(And yeah, the U.S. has had a LONG, violent history of rejecting non-whites who speak English as their "native" language--not to mention rejecting the First Americans.)

7/10/2006 10:24:00 AM  

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