Monday, February 20, 2012

Republican Racism Example #21: Newt Gingrich Calls Spanish "The Language Of The Ghetto"

According to Newt Gingrich, classic Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes wrote in "the language of living in a ghetto." (Illustration from Wikipedia at

Newt Gingrich has a future as a headline writer for

Earlier this week, an editor and writer for ESPN got fired for a story at the sport website about a loss suffered by the New York Knicks of the NBA and their Chinese-American phenom Jeremy Lin.  “Chink In The Armor,” an headline briefly screamed until fans noticed the old-school anti-Chinese slur.  After readers fired off complaints, ESPN took the offensive header down.

As racial slurs go, “Chink” is almost a quaint echo of an earlier era of American intolerance, a nostalgic relic like a Model T car.  Similarly, Gingrich has dipped into the oldies-but-goodies bag of racist slurs during the length of his unfortunate political career.   In a 2008 speech to a typical Republican, monochromatic audience, Gingrich declared that, “We should replace bilingual with emergence [sic] . . . with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country, so that they learn the language of prosperity, and not the language of living in a ghetto.” 

Realizing that Latinos vote and many of them speak Spanish. Gingrich soon panicked and apologized in a message partly delivered in clumsily delivered Español.  Gingrich admitted his words were “not the best” but said that, “In the United States, it is important to speak English well in order to progress and have success.”  Gingrich hoped to repair the rift with Latino voters, but by that point the racist gato was out of the bag.  (For a clip of the speech, see here:

Where do we start with what’s wrong with characterizing Spanish as “the language of the ghetto?” I assume that Gingrich meant the same Spanish language that was the mother tongue of such brilliant novelists, poets, and philosophers as Miguel de Cervantes, George Santayana, Federico García Lorca and 11 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, including José Echegaray Y Eizeguirre (1904), Jacinto Benvente (1922), Gabriela Mistral (1945), Juan Ramón Jiménez (1956), Miguel Angel Asturias (1967), Pablo Neruda (1971), Vicente Aleixandre (1977), Gabriel García Márquez (1982), Camilo José Cela (1989), Octavio Paz (1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (2010).  Apparently, writing in the “language of the ghetto” has not prevented authors like García Márquez or Latinas like Isabel Allende or Nina Serrano from crafting exquisite imagery,  dense and beautiful symbolism, fully realized characters, or compelling plots.

If we accept Gingrich’s notion that Spanish is the language of the barrio, then the ghetto is also an awfully goddamn big place.  About 45 million Americans – about 15 percent – speak Spanish as their primary or secondary language.  And they don’t all live in grueling poverty.  Two days before I wrote this post I had a rather typical day in Plano, Texas, listening to a middle-class father emerging from his middle class car in the parking lot of a city recreation center in an upper middle class to upper class neighborhood speaking on a cell phone in Spanish. 

It’s also not just the janitorial staff and gardeners who speak Spanish at my community college, Newt, it’s the ambitious students as well.  The same was true at the University of Texas at Austin where I taught as an adjunct during and after graduate school, an institution that because of tuition hikes has become mostly a rich person’s school and where, because of economic maldistribution, Latinos are sadly underrepresented.  Nevertheless, I heard conversational Spanish every day as I walked across the campus from undergraduates, graduate students and faculty who were native speakers.  Newt thinks Spanish is the language of the ghetto because he doesn’t get out much.

I said at the outset that Newt reached into an oldie-but-goody bag of racial fears and resentments.  Fear of immigrants speaking foreign languages undermining “American” values” and threatening the very existence of the English language are as old as Ben Franklin.  In the 1750s, Franklin fumed over the German-speaking immigrants who settled into Pennsylvania, calling them “swarthy” and complaining that they were taking good jobs away from white people.  He didn’t like their “language of the ghetto” either.  He wrote, in words that could have been uttered by Newt Gingrich (though with less eloquence):

“Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”

Founding Father Ben Franklin groused about "swarthy" German immigrants who refused to learn English and who took away jobs from "white people."  His terrible xenophobia was the only thing Franklin shared with Newt Gingrich.  (Image from  

Franklin’s comments provide several useful lessons for today.  People see racial difference – a social construct completely alien to legitimate science – where their politics and their prejudices guide them.  Few Americans would consider Germans today as differing in complexion from other so-called “whites.”  This racial difference that Franklin felt divided Germans and “white people” is no more real than that perceived today between Anglos and so-called Latinos and African Americans.  Secondly, contrary to Franklin’s fears, German did not crowd out English (which, ironically, is itself a Germanic language.)  The Germans contributed to English, altered it, but ended up speaking it, just as Spanish adds to modern English.  Like an earlier generation of German immigrants and incumbent Anglos, primary Spanish and English speakers in the future will in the future speak in an ever-morphing common language that will borrow from both ancestral grammars.

There was a xenophobic ‘English-only” crowd in 19th century America – the Newt Gingriches of their time -- fearful of the pernicious effects on American society of immigrants who not only spoke German, but Yiddish (the language of Eastern European Jews), Polish, Italian and so on.  These earlier English-only types railed against the newspapers and books and plays these immigrants produced in their native tongues.  ‘Why don’t they just learn English?” an earlier generation of xenophobes railed.    All these immigrants, by the way, were accused of the same charges leveled at today’s Mexican and Central American immigrants – that they were lazy, promiscuous, and drunk criminals.  Immigrants speaking these foreign tongues were indeed poor and crammed into ghettoes, but that was because of exploitation and desire by the managers of the late 19th and early 20th century industrial America to create a split labor market in which workers divided tribally to compete for mere scraps from the capitalist table.  The languages of the ghetto they spoke wasn’t what held them back.  It was the greed of the Robber Barons. 

Enough Anglos were terrified of their German-speaking neighbors that Wisconsin in 1890 threatened to implement a law shutting down German language schools. As the website for the TV special, “Do You Speak American?” notes, in the anti-immigrant, English-only hysteria of the early twentieth century:

“Nebraska's open meeting law of 1919 forbade the use of foreign languages in public, and in 1918 Governor Harding of Iowa proclaimed that, ‘English should and must be the only medium of instruction in public, private, denominational and other similar schools. Conversation in public places, on trains, and over the telephone should be in the English language. Let those who cannot speak or understand the English language conduct their religious worship in their home.’” (For more, see

Like Newt Gingrich, an earlier generation of bigots feared that immigrants would destroy America.  In this 19th century cartoon, an Irish and a Chinese immigrant threaten to "swallow" Uncle Sam.  Image from 

That earlier generation of immigrants didn’t immediately surrender their native language either.  In spite of the fact that Germans and their descendants had lived in the United States since Ben Franklin’s lifetime, when the United States entered World War I in 1917 there were still more than 600 German language newspapers in the United States.  When I visited Los Angeles in the 1970s, an LA radio station still broadcast a program in Yiddish and the Yiddish language newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, could still be bought in Fairfax and other Jewish neighborhoods even though most immigration of Yiddish speakers had ended in the early 1920s.

They've spoke the language of the ghetto in The Jewish Daily Forward since it was founded in 1897.(Photo from Wikipedia at

English is still such a powerful force in world culture and commerce because it has been so flexible and has so readily absorbed outside tongues.  As The Story of English by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran points out, the original inhabitants of the British Isles spoke Celtic and absorbed Latin from their Roman conquers, German from their Anglo, Saxon and Jute conquerors, and French from their Norman conquerors.  As they colonized and enslaved much of the world, they filched words from Arabs, African slaves, from their colonial subjects in India and China, and from Native Americans.  The other day I was listening to an ad for home physical fitness equipment on a Dallas radio station.  The announcer said, “You probably don’t want to schlep to the gym,” using a Yiddish phrase for “drag yourself.”  English itself is not “English-only.” 

Newt Gingrich, with his Ph.D. from Tulane, would know all this if he were a competent historian.  Instead, he is a manipulative and dishonest political hack who thought he could coast to the Republican nomination in the Obama era by riding a tide of racist resentment.  He found to his sorrow, and the relief of sane people, that this appeal is not enough even to win a GOP nomination.  This kind of talk warmed the hearts of rednecks voting in the South Carolina GOP primary but it proved a serious obstacle in Florida soon thereafter. Spanish is not the language of the ghetto, nor will English disappear.  We face a Spanglish future and we’ll be richer for it.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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