PREPARE for another election made racially divisive by the alleged enemies of racism. Chances are, the California June ballot will include the “English for the Children” initiative, which would change the face of bilingual education. The measure would mandate one-year English immersion programs for students who are not English proficient, but allow some parents to apply for waivers to place their children in long-term bilingual programs.
Tuesday’s forum on the measure at UC Berkeley presaged how nasty debate over the measure is bound to become. Opposing the measure were Eugene Garcia, graduate school of education dean, and Martha Jimenez of the Mexican- American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who noted such potential pitfalls as the problems that could result with a wholesale swing to English immersion.
Speaking for the measure were Ron Unz, the millionaire techie who lost the GOP primary for governor in 1994, and Redwood City grandfather Fernando Vega, who told how his grandson was funneled into bilingual classes even though he spoke English. Vega’s story may be anecdotal, but a recent Los Angeles Times poll that found that 84 percent of Latinos support the measure, suggesting that many Latinos feel cheated by the present system.
Most of the students seemed interested in listening to both sides, even if they agreed with MALDEF. Alas, as the event wore on — and wear, it did –the foaming-at-the-mouth element took over. Most vocal were a group of losers who call themselves the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (except apparently, bathing), who branded Unz a racist.
About Unz: The guy looks like he’s put his finger in one too many sockets. His bio lists him as a “theoretical physicist by training,” but he knows little about appealing to people. He actually aw- shucked to the habla-espanol crowd that he took a little French, but doesn’t know Spanish. (Some friendly advice: Estudia espanol, gringo. Pronto.) Fortunately for Unz, he was up against partisans who know even less about persuasion. When it came time to ask questions, they instead delivered manifestos. (Why ask questions when you know all the answers?) It began with a Cal employee who told Unz that he would spend the rest of his life watching Unz to keep him “honest.” Someone called Unz a white supremacist. One Tanya lectured,”We need to learn the lessons of Proposition 209.” (The lesson is that you cried racist too often and lost.)
At one point, Unz looked at the frothers and shrugged, “I don’t think it’s racist to teach little children English when they go to school.” But to many in this crowd, English is a yoke, the hegemony tongue.
Thus, the organized opposition is determined to turn this campaign into another nasty racial melee. They will do their utmost to turn a Latino-supported measure into an anti-immigrant wedge. If they have to ignore the heartbreak of 84 percent of Latinos, that’s peanuts.
I’m not sure that the Unz measure is the answer. But I do know Vega and Unz were right when they complained that many ostensibly bilingual students are really monolingual, because they’re not fluent in English. Most of those kids aren’t going to make it into a nice school like Berkeley. Their parents don’t have the luxury of viewing English as the hegemony tongue. They actually see English as the ticket.
How fortunate they are to have the children of Berkeley to speak for them, to educate them and focus on what’s really important. So some children can’t speak English. What’s that next to the anger that oppresses the flowers of Berkeley?