Friday, January 23, 2009

Changing times

No, not more inauguration. Rather this news:

NASHVILLE — Nashville voters rejected a proposal on Thursday that would have made it the largest U.S. city to require all government business be done in English.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial results showed the "English First" proposal was defeated on a vote of 41,752 to 32,144. Proponents said using one language would have united the city and saved money, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worried it could give the city a bad reputation. Similar measures have passed elsewhere. ...

About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data.

Nashville is 5 percent Hispanic and home to the nation’s largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The article's remark that similar measures have passed elsewhere is an understatement. As far as I know, this is the first time such an English-only law has been defeated by a popular vote.

The idea that government can enforce monolingualism on us is very comforting to most electorates consisting, as they usually do, of predominately of older whites (and sometimes people of color as well) who are rendered anxious by demographic change. In hard times, anti-foreigner feelings also can become acute. The New York Times explained several weeks ago:

'There are high levels of support for these types of measures if people don't view them as punitive against immigrant communities," Mr. McDonald said. "The trick is, you don't want to somehow motivate your opponent's voters with emotional rhetoric."

From far away without any actual contact with the campaign, I can only surmise how Nashville's voters were persuaded to kill this one.
  • The campaign against the measure seems to have rallied Nashville's business and political elite who don't want their city portrayed as unfriendly or even racist. They have ambitions to be part of the global economy. Optics matter to elites. Hence the "Athens of the South" graphic at the head of this post.
  • Opponents seem to have successfully branded proponent Councilman Eric Crafton as a crank. He's been beating the English-only drum for several years.
  • And in the context of a special, low turnout, election, the "no" side got their people out more effectively than the "yes" side. Only 19 percent the electorate turned out. The slightly cynical Nashiville Scene warns

    ...let's not get carried away here. It's not the dawn of a new day in Nashville or anything close to a crippling blow to ignorance or intolerance in our city. In fact, had English Only been on the ballot for a regular election, it would have passed overwhelmingly.

Still -- let's celebrate our victories where we find them and move on.

1 comment:

Jane R said...

Wow. Thanks. I would have missed this news without your blog.

I attended a regional academic conference in Nashville at couple of years ago and was hugely impressed with the folks from Vanderbilt and their work unearthing the history of regional civil rights religious leaders -- the many people who did work like King's in their local settings in Tennessee, Florida, and other parts of the Southeast.

And the First Amendment Center is in Nashville. It's a terrific resource.

Your post is all the more helpful that we are in the midst of change on the immigration front in North Carolina. Some reactions here are ugly, some hopeful. Stay tuned, and again thanks.

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