Blacks, Latinos, and the push to learn Chinese

Over at my academic page I’ve written about racialized language ideology and a new mandate in the US state of Georgia to have all students learn Chinese.

Update 9/11/12: I have reposted the text here. Thanks to Racialicious for quoting me on their Tumblr. This post seems to have gotten a bit of attention there. 

I include the trailer for Speaking in Tongues because although the bilingual education debate in the United States is usually focused around Spanish speakers, the filmmakers chose to emphasize Mandarin and Cantonese and play into viewers’ perceptions of Chinese as an increasingly valuable language.

In the past few years, the American press has written hundreds of feature stories about the push to learn Chinese, and since this is what I study, I pay close attention to these articles. Until this morning, I have not encountered an article in which the arguments for and against Chinese language learning have been so revealing about the US racial order.

Yellow peril fears are noticeably absent in this National Public Radio piece on the Chinese language mandate in Bibb County, Georgia. Asians are not a major presence in this county: according to the 2010 Census, Bibb County is 52% black, 43% white, 1.6% Asian, and just shy of 3% Hispanic or Latino of any race.

Except for a few boilerplate lines about “a Communist regime enacting its geopolitical agenda on their children” and “China and India will have 50 percent of the world GDP,” the commentary here is not about Asians, but rather about blacks and Latinos. For example, let’s take a look at this quote from a Bibb County resident, whom I assume to be white, judging from her English phonology:

“Bibb County is not known for producing the highest-achieving graduates,” says Macon resident Dina McDonald. “You’ll see that many of them can’t even speak basic English.” (emphasis mine)

Here in the bolded text you see McDonald’s language ideology, specifically her ideology about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). While sociolinguists recognize AAVE (often pejoratively referred to as Ebonics) as a rich dialect of American English in its own right, many Americans consider AAVE to be a substandard slang of the ignorant, loaded down with the twin stigmas of blackness and poverty.

When McDonald claims that Bibb County residents “can’t even speak basic English,” she is clearly not talking about immigrants who speak English as a second language. Only 3.6% of Bibb County is foreign-born, matching up well with the percentage of Asians and Latinos. McDonald’s claim is about the county’s majority black residents speaking AAVE.

Black students have to learn to speak standard American English to get ahead in a white-dominated society, and generally learn to switch between the two dialects depending on the social context. Though they may or may not speak standard American English to her, they likely speak AAVE amongst themselves, fueling this perception that they “can’t even speak basic English.”

In the next quote, she argues that some students would find Mandarin more useful than others. I do not have the tools with me to run any statistical analyses on the Census and American Community Survey data from Bibb County, but knowing what we know about black-white gaps in educational attainment, occupational mobility, and income, we can see an implicit racial division here:

McDonald herself has a ninth-grader in the public schools and says she can imagine some students going into fields where Mandarin could be useful, like international business, technology or law. But with lower achievers, she says, “Do you want to teach them how to say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ in Mandarin?”

The article says that Georgia’s Latino population has doubled over the last Census period. In fact, the Latino population has been increasing throughout the South. Why not offer Spanish, which would be more immediately useful and relevant to students’ lives?

[...] “it is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.” For that future, Dallemand says, there is no choice but Mandarin Chinese.

Dallemand seems to ignore the fact that Spanish is not just the past but the present and long-term future for Bibb County, for the South, and the US as a whole. Mexican immigration has essentially stopped, but the Latino population is still growing rapidly and the US still has strong economic, political, and military ties to Spanish-speaking Latin America. (Have we forgotten that we still hold on to a Spanish-speaking colony in the Caribbean?)

Learning a language requires learning cultural sensitivity. Furthermore, for native speakers of the world’s dominant international language, attempting a foreign language is a symbolic act bridging a gap of privilege with their interlocutors. In calling Spanish “our past,” Dallemand implies that Latinos and Latin Americans are not worthy of engagement on equal terms. Spanish speakers are backwards. They are no longer important. Chinese offers more opportunity to our children.

But does it really? Can learning Chinese open doors for everyone? While I strongly believe in foreign language education for all, and in the cognitive, social, and occupational advantages that foreign language study brings, using Chinese on the job or in everyday life is not necessarily practical or imaginable for all students, especially lower-income students in a largely black-white part of the country. When you don’t reinforce language through use, the skills wither away. When opportunities for using the language seem out of reach, the motivation disappears.

The push to learn Chinese is framed in purely economic and geopolitical terms. When these motivations are rendered moot by the inequality of opportunities, what is left?

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