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COMMENTARY:

The Price of Scapegoating

by John Hickman
Our national identity is no more about membership in a single language community than it is about membership in a single religious community or single racial community.
Every ambitious demagogue knows that the trick to winning popular support is to give an audience permission to feel righteous in their hatred. Give them someone to blame for their problems. Georgia Sixth District Republican Tom Price is willing direct popular anger at Spanish-speaking migrants. To that end he has introduced H.R. 1588, the “Common Sense English Act,” which would amend Section 703 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to permit employers to require employees to speak English at work.

Why give employers the power to make enforce English-language -nly workplaces? Although there is a reference in the language of the bill to the possibility of “misunderstandings” that “might create dangerous circumstances,” the primary justification offered for the proposed law is that “English has been the common thread to unify the American people.” That linguistic uniformity is the primary goal is evident in the ready to print news article from Price’s office published in the March 19, 2009 Dalton Daily Citizen, which asserts that a common language is necessary to “encourage the promotion of our national identity.” What Price and his Republican cosponsors are promoting is not efficient workplace communication, something that might just as conceivably require giving employers the right to enforce Spanish language only workplaces in some cases, but instead a linguistic nationalism. They want to redefine what it means to be an American.

For a sitting member of Congress to promote a flimsy nationalist alternative to American patriotism is nothing less than tragic, and more than a little dangerous.

Our national identity is no more about membership in a single language community than it is about membership in a single religious community or single racial community. Being an American is no more about speaking only English than it is about being Christian or white. Being an American is about believing in individual liberty, the rule of law and constitutional government. For a sitting member of Congress to promote a flimsy nationalist alternative to American patriotism is nothing less than tragic, and more than a little dangerous. History teaches where nationalism leads. Hundreds of millions suffered and tens of millions died in the two world wars caused by rival nationalisms in the Twentieth Century. If Republicans like Price know no history, surely they remember the tens of thousands of lives lost in the Balkans in the 1990s because of rival nationalisms.

Why attempt to substitute a linguistic nationalism for American patriotism? Part of the answer is that patriotism is too inclusive for effective scapegoating. Notwithstanding our many struggles to achieve social equality, immigrants from every corner of the planet have succeeded in becoming Americans—both in their own eyes and the eyes of other Americans—because they contributed to American society and embraced American ideals. Nationalism, by contrast, is by definition exclusive, and is thus a better ideological vehicle for scapegoating a vulnerable minority group.

Another part of the answer is that there is a great deal of economic anxiety back in Price’s still relatively affluent, overwhelmingly white, suburban Atlanta district. Georgia ranks eighth among the states in the rate of home foreclosures and suburban Atlanta has the highest foreclosure rates in the state. Georgia’s unemployment rate is now higher than the national average. So, for many in the Sixth District, there is palpable fear that they might lose what they have worked to accumulate.

Price could have done the courageous thing by focusing their anger at the economic elites who caused the current economic crisis. But he is a conservative Republican, and thus responsible for having endorsed the sort of “business regulation is always bad” economic policies of the Bush administration that produced the crisis. So instead, he chose the pusillanimous path of directing anger at Spanish-speaking migrants. They make such inviting targets for bigotry. The economic crisis is bringing more of the native born into competition with them for low-wage employment. Some are individually vulnerable to reprisal because they lack legal residence. And, as a new immigrant community in states like Georgia, they are far from mobilizing effectively as a voting bloc.

What makes cheap posturing like the introduction of the “Common Sense English Act” a threat to us all is that it encourages beliefs among the fearful and the unwary that are at odds with an inclusive, patriotic conception of American identity. We are capable of being a better people than that.


John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at jhickman@berry.edu.


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This story was published on March 26, 2009.