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Posted by on May 3, 2010 in Education, Guest Contributor, Politics, Society | 0 comments

Codifying Bigotry

You can make a marginal case in favor of the Arizona law that cracks down on illegal immigrants by giving police wide latitude to arrest and detain those in the country without proper documentation. The state is under siege, and the federal government refuses to do anything meaningful to stop the flow of drug traffickers, criminals, and economic refugees from Mexico and other Central American countries. The border is in chaos and Arizona residents feel threatened by the human tidal wave of more than half a million unwanted visitors every year crossing into Arizona alone.

Some aspects of the law are objectionable if the statute were to be abused by the police. But until we see how the law is enforced, it makes no sense to gin up hysteria and outrage over what might occur.

But no such defense can be mounted in favor of another Arizona law – HB 2281 – recently passed by the legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature. It is a bill at odds with American values, the purpose of education, and tolerance for other races and cultures.

The bill “would make it illegal for a school district to have any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity “instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

No doubt performances of Riverdance where Irish step dancing is featured, would be banned, nor would any school program teaching ethnic dances, drama, literature, or cooking be allowed.

Or does the law apply only to Hispanic cultural studies?

The insidiousness of this law is compounded by an edict by the state Department of Education who “recently began telling school districts that teachers whose spoken English it deems to be heavily accented or ungrammatical must be removed from classes for students still learning English.”

Heavily accented? What kind of nonsense is this? Under those standards, Albert Einstein would have been prevented from teaching at Princeton.

The ignorance of both the ban on cultural studies and the search for teachers whose English isn’t quite up to snuff is institutional bigotry writ large. These attacks on immigrants – both legal and illegal – is a slap in the face to American tradition and values which has generally welcomed strangers to our shores.

Arizona follows what is known as “Structural English Immersion” in its schools, having abandoned the folly of bilingual education several years ago. It has proved to be more effective and a quicker way for new arrivals to learn English. Using “discrete” cues, the student is acclimated to English in a natural, albeit intensive manner.

The problem, apparently, is that some teachers, while fluent enough in English, have residual accents that make it difficult for some non-Hispanic students to understand them. The emphasis there is on “some” students because studies show that most students will, after a short time, “tune their ears” to the teacher’s accent and have no trouble understanding them. My personal experience in this regard was with a sixth grade nun whose Irish brogue was so thick, it was impossible to process more than a couple of words in every spoken sentence. However, within a couple of weeks my ears became attuned to her accent and linguistic idiosyncrasies and I was able to understand everything she said clearly.

Going after teachers whose accents are deemed unacceptable makes no sense unless one comes to the conclusion that Arizona does not wish to employ Hispanic teachers to teach Hispanic children. It should go without saying that newly arrived students who are having trouble with English in the first place, will not be served by ridding the school system of instructors who can bridge that crucial gap between the period a pupil feels lost and out of place trying to adjust to new surroundings and a new language, and the time when they can participate comfortably in classes where English-only instruction predominates.

It might be interesting to see how the Arizona Education Department goes about defining a teacher who speaks with too “heavy” an accent. How heavy is too heavy? Who decides? And as far as being proficient in English, perhaps the Arizona education big shots should read a little about how teachers all across the country are flunking basic reading and English tests. Are we going to single out Hispanic teachers for punishment even though White teachers elsewhere are as bad or worse in knowledge of English grammar?

The problems associated with illegal immigrants are knotty and will not be solved easily. Perhaps one of the most pressing and heartbreaking issues is what to do with innocent children whose parents have broken the law by coming here illegally. We can pretend they don’t exist and make their lives miserable by keeping them out of school. Or, we can approach the problem in a practical manner and recognize the need to educate them, while working to resolve the question of what to do with the 10 million uninvited and illegal trespassers who call America home.

Every illegal immigrant – man, woman, child – is a potential citizen and while we must stand for enforcing the laws on our books, circumstances also require that we deal with the situation pragmatically, prudently, and humanely as possible. These new laws and regulations promulgated by the state of Arizona’s Education Department accomplish none of that.

For legal immigrants or even native born Americans whose accented English isn’t up to snuff or English proficiency questioned to be treated in this manner should be an embarrassment to the people of Arizona. It won’t be, of course. The good citizens of that state, and plenty of their supporters around the country, are showing an amazing lack of empathy and understanding toward newcomers, both legal and illegal. We can recognize Arizona’s unique problems being on the border. But we cannot and should not condone their methods to deal with the crisis if the way they go about it flies in the face of common sense and the American way.

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