Bilingual Education, Politics and Race

A presentation to the Bilingual Forum sponsored by the Bilingual
Education Committee of the United Teachers Los Angeles on September 16,
2006

The controversy around bilingual education is fundamentally a conflict
about language, about democracy, and about social justice. It is not
primarily a conflict about pedagogy, although the question of
pedagogical efficacy is an element of the debate. To understand why I
make such a definitive assertion we have to begin by asking ourselves a
very basic question: How did (Standard) English become the dominant
language in the United States?

The answer to this question is rooted in a history of colonialism,
genocide, enslavement, annexation, and oppression that is often
obscured in the debate about "what will help non-English speaking
children learn English." The answer is not a pretty one, because it
includes the genocide of millions of Indigenous Indians, the
enslavement of millions of Africans and the murder of millions more,
the annexation of half the territory of Mexico, and the oppression of
its conquered peoples. Let's put it this way, the hundreds of North
American Indian languages that have been lost were not lost because the
Indians loved the sound of Chaucer's Tales and decided therefore that
they would give up their own languages and adopt the King's English.
The tens of millions of Africans who were brought in chains to the
shores of the United States did not give up the languages of Yoruba,
Bantu, and Swahili because they were enraptured by the lilt of
Shakespeare's sonnets. Those languages were lost, and others (like
Spanish) were subsumed to English at the point of a gun, the lash of
the whip, and the power of empire.


Addressing this question in a serious way helps progressives and revolutionaries concerned with educational and social justice to understand the very oppressive, even bloody, foundation upon which rests the current dominance of “Standard English” in our schools and in US life, a fact that I would characterize as Eurocentric white supremacy in the realm of language.

Answering my question correctly also helps us to understand that the struggle around language — whether it takes the form of bilingual education, Ebonics, or opposition to laws that would establish English as the official language of a state or the entire US (as was proposed in recent federal anti-immigrant legislation) — is part of a very broad, very deep and historically rooted movement of oppressed peoples in the United States for complete equality, self-determination, and sovereignty.

We also need to understand that in our country the struggles around language, as well as the overall struggles of oppressed peoples for freedom and social justice, are deeply interconnected with factors of race and class. This is different from, say, the struggle of the Qu

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