“Nashville listened to its leaders — the governor, the mayor, and a vast coalition of churches, businesses and universities — and defeated an English-only measure by nearly 10,000 votes in Thursday's special election.” That’s the report from the Tennessean the day after the city referendum on an amendment that would have made Nashville the largest city in the nation with an “official English” law.
With financial and logistical support from the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish, Nashville councilman Eric Crafton founded Nashville English First to spearhead a charter amendment that would have obligated the city government to conduct all government business in English. While the main case for the English Only measure was that it would save the city in translation costs, the issue of identity set the tone of the debate.
Did Nashville want to affirm that it was typically white Southern city, or that it was an inclusive, diverse city that was open to residents and visitors who speak other languages? In the end, after heated debate that energized a strong opposition coalition, the city rejected the identity politics of English only. "Voters are not duped anymore," said Maria Rodriquez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "They know when they see bad policy that is going to be costly and that's not progressive. I guess brown can stick around in Nashville." At a time when other cities and states are instituting anti-immigrant measures, the people of Nashville spoke for diversity and inclusion.
It’s likely that the election of Barack Obama underscored the argument of the opponents of the English First measure was “mean-spirited” – as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said – and not worthy of a city that values and promotes its diversity.
The day after the landmark vote in Nashville, ProEnglish with its Liberty Bell logo still had a running banner proclaiming that “Official English is sweeping the nation.”
ProEnglish, the organization involved in the Nashville campaign, is part of a closely linked network of “official English” and anti-immigration organizations that are based in the Washington, DC area and are involved in local and national campaigns to restrict immigration and to institute English as the official and only language for government business.(See TransBorder Profile: ProEnglish)
A central figure of these groups is John Tanton, who was a founding director of ProEnglish and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Among the other groups in which Tanton, a former president in the 1970s of Zero Population Growth, are English First, Immigration Reform Law Institute, and Numbers USA. As the principals of these groups readily acknowledge, the movements to restrict immigration and to restrict the use of languages other than English are closely connected organizationally and ideologically.
If the Nashville vote is any indication, the issue of the increasing presence of other languages in the country may be losing its emotional and ideological hold on Americans. Both at a national and local level, diversity not uniformity has a new power in American politics.
Image from ProEnglish