Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.
When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”
You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’
He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.
We are a nation of immigrants, after all.
True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.
Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.
“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.
As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.
Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.
Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:
French (including Patois and Cajun)
Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.
“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.
He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.
The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.
Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.
You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.
With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.
“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”
An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.
As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.
Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”
Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.
“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”
But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”
Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”
Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.
In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.
In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.
“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”
Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.
The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.
But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.
“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.
In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.
At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.
“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.
In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.
If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.
Hate has no place in Austin. It has no place anywhere.
Yet we know it lurks and it simmers, boiling until it explodes, jolting us out of our comfort zones, letting us know in no uncertain terms again that it is there, always there.
We were reminded of this again this week when reports surfaced about racially charged and sexist social media posts allegedly coming from the accounts of a Rainey Street bar. Patrons also complained about anti-Semitic imagery.
On Wednesday Brandon Cash, the owner of Unbarlievable, apologized for what he called his “intolerable actions,” issuing this statement:
“To those who I have hurt and offended, I am deeply sorry. My words and actions were wrong, inappropriate and inexcusable. They certainly don’t exemplify the values of a community that I love and care deeply about and my insensitive actions do not represent the views of my loyal and dedicated employees.”
One hopes Cash’s apology is sincere.
Earlier, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it is investigating Unbarlievable over an unspecified incident in March involving language and imagery, KVUE reported.
I’ve heard some say that this proves to us once more that racism is alive in Austin, a city that would like to think it is an exceptional model of tolerance. But we’ve known this for a long time; we don’t need to be reminded again.
Yet, for all the handwringing we do about what incidents like this say about Austin, we should remember that for the most part, our city is a place that welcomes the stranger and the person who might not look like us or vote like us or worship in the same place we do. For every instance of the kind of thing that happened at a Rainey Street bar, there’s more examples of tolerance we can hold up, like the congregations of many denominations across Austin who consistently stand by efforts to bring undocumented immigrants into society.
We can’t begin to understand what goes on in the minds of those who believe they are innately endowed with superiority based simply on the color of their skin, or on their national heritage or their religion, their money or anything else. Our nation holds central the right of free speech, but we also have the right to call out hate and intolerance. Those who took to social media, news conferences and protests this week were right to do so. We should send messages to our community and to our children that we uphold and cherish tolerance and civility.
We should not forget either that the intolerant messages emanated from Rainey Street, for decades a peaceful, working-class Mexican American neighborhood. Now it is one of the city’s busiest entertainment districts, oddly located alongside one of Austin’s cultural jewels, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
The center and the old Chicano barrio were there first, and to many long-time Mexican Americans here, Rainey Street has become a symbol of gentrification, consistent with 1920s city decisions that pushed minority communities east of the highway. Now many older Latino families there are having to move out because they can’t afford East Austin’s soaring property values, propelled by the arrival of new wealth, new condos, new bars and restaurants.
I heard one local radio host say this week that there are greater things to be offended about, and he’s right — there’s a lot in this world that should have us hanging our heads. But we don’t get to be the arbiters of what offends others.
Among the vile images that allegedly surfaced this week was a photo making light at the expense of a Latina toddler selling gum, her eyes brimming with hope. Innocent children can’t begin to comprehend the plight of their circumstances and the depths of poverty that places them on a street corner, trying to eke out a few pennies for their families. You’ll have to understand how an image like that might throw hot water on open wounds.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is likely rolling over in his grave at the news that his esteemed colleagues decided 4-3 to uphold the University of Texas position in its fight to keep its race-conscious admissions policy.
Had Scalia been alive (or a similarly inclined justice appointed in his place), the chances of a definitive win for UT would have been slim. However, despite Scalia’s and others’ attempts to portray the university’s policy to diversify its student body as a mechanism for letting in unqualified minority students at the expense of qualified white students, the majority of the court on Thursday recognized the inherent value of a diverse university environment and the narrow role race plays in UT’s admissions process. At the same time, the majority acknowledged the great impracticality of creating a college admissions system that relies solely on class rank as has been suggested by Fisher’s lawyers.
It’s important to note that Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin was never an affirmative action case in the classical sense.
“Affirmative action” conjures images of quotas and admissions officials stamping applications until they have enough black and brown faces to fill out their classes. That is a practice that has been deemed unconstitutional in higher education since 1978. Since then, the court has continued to deem constitutional the idea of using race and ethnicity as one among many factors in admissions, a practice that the UT policy followed when it denied admission to Abigail Fisher and a practice that it continues to use today.
This is probably where I should disclose two facts. First, I worked at the university for two years and helped craft its media response to the last Supreme Court decision in the Fisher case in 2013. Second, I have long personally objected to affirmative action as a matter of public policy, which is notorious for causing as much harm as good — casting a pernicious shadow of doubt on the abilities of minority students and professionals and, in some cases, setting up students who have been failed by our public education system for greater failure.
It’s the false suggestion of enduring quotas that feed narratives like the one being pushed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in response to Thursday’s ruling: “The University of Texas is one of the finest educational institutions in the world. The opportunities it offers should be available to all students based on their merit, not the color of their skin.”
Exclusion or acceptance based on race alone is inappropriate in government. But recognition of institutional inequities in access to education and placing a value on a multicultural and heterogeneous enrollment is not only constitutionally valid, but essential to the future of higher education and this state.
As I found myself at the age of 17 unwillingly defending affirmative action saying in a classroom of mostly white high school seniors: “What do we replace it with? The playing field is far from level.”
The answer is policies like the one used at UT Austin — policies that give value to our differences, whether they be race, socio-economic status, language of origin, family responsibilities, work experience and relative SAT score compared to others at their school. Taken holistically, there is value in having a student body that is heterogeneous and not allow the fact that one semester of having to work to support a family or discrimination that kept a student from being placed in an honors class for a semester would keep a student out of the University of Texas.
“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’….Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”
Interestingly, Kennedy used the arguments of Fisher’s lawyers against them. Led by her attorney Edward Blum, the team had suggested that if greater numbers of minority students were the university’s aim, then UT should just extend the Top 10 percent rule to the entire student body. (At UT, the top 10 percent is really the top 7 percent, but that’s a whole different discussion.) Of course the upshot for the University of Texas whose enrollment would quickly be 100 percent filled to Top 10 percenters would mean the university would have to decline admission to immensely talented musicians, dancers, athletes, scientists and academics, who in their devotion to a single area of accomplishment would be denied admission if they were in the Top 10.5 percent of their class rather than the Top 10 percent.
“Class rank is a single metric, and like any single metric, it will capture certain types of people and miss others. This does not imply that students admitted through holistic review are necessarily more capable or more desirable than those admitted through the Top Ten Percent Plan. It merely reflects the fact that privileging one characteristic above all others does not lead to a diverse student body.”
While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may thrash in his dissent, accusing the university of deception and railing that Thursday decision is “affirmative action gone berserk,” the reality is that a university charged with training leaders is not well-served by using a single measuring stick for access and the value of diversity is greater than simply measuring melanin.
Studies abound about how black and Hispanic children are less likely to be evaluated for gifted and talented programming, more likely to receive harsher punishments for classroom behavior, less likely to be recommended for honors classes, are less likely to participate in summer enrichment programming, are less likely to be steered by teachers to math and science. I could go on.
Abigail Fisher has spent the better part of the last eight years arguing that her spot had essentially been taken by an unqualified minority. In fact, court documents show that one African-American and four Hispanic applicants with academic and personal achievement index scores lower than Fisher’s were accepted into a provisional admission program, but so too were 42 white students with scores equal to or lower than Fisher’s. Meanwhile, 168 black and Hispanic applicants who had scores equal to or higher than Fisher’s were denied admission.
The Supreme Court landed on the right side of this case, which should have never gotten this far. Although with the failure to replace Scalia one wonders if this ruling will become an asterisk, or if his fiery, anti-affirmative action rhetoric would have compelled Kennedy to come down on the opposing side.
But I can accept UT’s admissions policy as a constitutional bridge for affirmative action until the day we don’t have to have this conversation about the role of race in educational and economic opportunity. Unfortunately, I fear that will be a while.