Broader Movement Part Deux

You probably didn’t hear this story about “Hizzoner” Mayor Vincent Gray.  Heads are rolling at the Wilson Building, making for a continuous media frenzy around the investigations at the expense of most else. [No, ribbon cuttings don’t count, Mr. Gray]. But regardless of being yesterday’s news by now, this “story” is worth re-examining for a few reasons. What am I talking about? See for yourself:

There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city. (Alan Suderman, Washington City Paper)

One reader commented, “Is this even legal?”

Good question. I’ll be honest: I’m not a lawyer, and despite having read the DC Language Access Act more times than I can even recount, it’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. What I can say though, is that it’s extremely, extremely shady.

Let’s examine the evidence:

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

We have a few problems here:

1) DC government was interacting in an official capacity (i.e. “enforcement visit”) with constituents who are protected under the DCLAA, 2) knowing full well that “they don’t speak English well.” But here’s the clincher: 3) In saying “we always get [immigrants “pretending” not to speak English],” DCRA and other government agencies have found an excuse to unilaterally violate the Act.

I bring this issue up not to draw any more attention to Gray’s administration, but to think about the implications of this and other anti-immigrant discourse in the public sphere. How can Gray, or any Mayor for that matter, achieve “One City” with this kind of behavior and rhetoric? How can people like me hope for a “broader language access movement” (as the title suggests) when we can’t get basic things right?

New Report Finds “Access Denied” r/ DC’s Immigrant Population

Last week the DC Language Access Coalition released the much-anticipated results of a two-year comprehensive report on the state of language access in the District.  Whether by chance or choice, the timing was such that this one came out right after DC government released its own yearly report.  Comparing the two, it is clear government and language access advocates have different ideas about what compliance and accountability look like.

The event began with what I recognized to be a popular education technique – the Director speaking in a foreign language, gesturing with her hands, and having a conversation that few could understand.  Once she switches to English, it is explained that the experience was meant to get the audience thinking from the perspective of.

Next they played a short documentary featuring the some of the faces behind the Chinese Service Center and Wah Luck House, one of the last footholds of affordable housing in Chinatown and a testament to community organizing.  The last part of the event was a panel discussion of people involved either involved in the production of the report, representing the Coalition (AU Wash. College of Law, Legal Aid Society, Vietnamese Community Service Center), or DC government (DCOHR, HSEMA).

Overall this event was extremely helpful in that it was an opportunity to reengage with my professional network and past colleagues, which is great for the soul!   But perhaps biggest takeaway I had was the realization of a huge gap in the language access program that a linguist with anthropological training could fill.  As the panelists (government and not) discussed the “challenges” in language access compliance, they all addressed the issue of not understanding the client’s perspective.  What do they need?  How do we reach them?  What problems are they having?  Where are they and who are they? Government holds big expensive community forums to fill quotas and can’t fill the seats.  They collect demographic data from Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, you name it.  LEP/NEP individuals do have a minor legal recourse if they’ve been maligned (the “language access complaint”), but since there is no private right to action, clients cannot appeal a negative finding.  Considering the social service / minority affairs budget isn’t blossoming at this point, I don’t think this is an immediate career opportunity, but I left feeling pretty strongly that what language access really needs is a sociolinguist / linguistic anthropologist.  They need someone to do extensive ethnography, perhaps even on a team for a several year project.

Occupy vs. Decolonize: Semantics or More?

Perhaps the so-called Occupy Movement has fallen out of the public eye in this world of the 24-hour media cycle.  But last I checked, even the DC Occupiers are alive and well, planning weekly actions, teach-ins and even producing a nightly radio show.  Nevertheless, considering I’m both in student mode, and presently studying linguistics, I’m curious: What does a linguist have to say about the Occupy (Language) Movement?  What can the field contribute?

Professor H. Samy Alim from Stanford University wrote an op-ed for the NYT calling for  an “Occupy Language” movement.  In the same way that Occupy has transformed the way we think about politics today, shifting the public discourse to issues of government corruption, corporate greed and environmental degradation, he proposes that the Occupy Language movement could “expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.”

But Alim asks, “What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like?”

  • Reconsider the use of the word occupy itself.

Alim could not have predicted this, but just recently, several committees of the Occupy Oakland movement joined together to form what they are calling Decolonize Oakland, citing Occupy Oakland’s “failure to fully address the ways that race, gender, and sexual oppression intersect with capitalism in the lives of Oakland’s communities of color.”  In this case, it wasn’t just that appropriating the word Occupy aided in the erasure of a history of White occupation of indigenous lands, but that it also “continues through gentrification, military occupation by OPD and ICE, predatory practices of Wall Street banks.”  Other regional encampments are now reconsidering their own use of the term.  As Alim so dutifully noted, we must be “ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.”

If there’s anything you pick up from anthropology 101, it’s the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our language influences our thought, and ultimately our behavior.  Whorf’s 1956 article “On the relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” he shows that the way we think about words influences the way we behave toward their referant.  Drawing from his work at a fire insurance company, he noticed for example, that when someone sees a gasoline tank labeled “empty,” they might be more inclined to smoke nearby them or even flick a cigarette in that general vicinity, despite that full tanks are far less combustible than empty ones.  The point here is that language is powerful, influencing our thought and behavior.  Calling someone an “illegal” or “illegal alien” is not only pejorative, it is dehumanizing.  It is no coincidence that hate crimes toward Latinos have spiked so dramatically in recent years, no thanks to polimigra campaigns initiated by Arizona’s Sheriff Arpaio and other copycat legislation.

But he says this Occupy Language movement should concern itself with more than just the words we use, but also with “eliminating language-based racism and discrimination.”

With this suggestion in mind, I would add a third action item to the list, namely:

  • Promote language access awareness and advocate its legislation at your local level

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination of the basis of race, color, or national origin in government (or government funded) programs.  Since then the national origin clause has been interpreted to include discrimination on the basis of language (see Clinton’s Executive Order 13166).  But language access advocates working on the ground know that enforcement on the federal level can be a tangled and messy process.  And despite these legal protections, their clients were still unable to access critical services due to language barriers, affecting their ability to speak with teachers, police, healthcare providers and more.  That’s why in 2004, a group of concerned social service workers came together and were able to successfully advocate for the passage of the DC Language Access Act, in many ways a model piece of legislation that has been replicated in only a handful of other local jurisdictions.  What this example illustrates is that denying someone access to public services because of their language preference is a clear form of language-based oppression and discrimination.  Certainly an Occupy Language movement could get hip to that…

With a keen awareness of the connection between language and discrimination, (applied socio)linguists could play a key role in working with others toward a more just linguistic ecosystem, by continuing to “speak to the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future.”