How’s your Urdu? What about your Tagalog? No idea what I’m talking about? Well, if you do business with the federal government, it’s time you took a crash course — in languages, that is. If you don’t, you may be in danger of violating federal civil rights law. That’s right. If you run a sandwich shop in a government building, a newspaper stand in a hospital built, in part, with federal funds, or run a construction company that works on federal projects, you’d better employ a bevy of translators.
Why? Because it’s the law, thanks to Bill Clinton. And if President Bush doesn’t do something about it, we’ll all be paying for it — and not just in dollars.
With little fanfare and almost no public outcry, President Clinton signed an executive order last August effectively ordering all federal agencies, contractors and recipients of federal aid to begin making their services available to non-English speakers in their own languages. According to one Clinton White House official, the order was meant to provide services immediately in both Spanish and Chinese, since that’s where the “greatest need” is. But other languages are sure to follow, as the regulations several federal agencies have drafted make clear.
Already, the Justice Department has issued guidelines telling agencies that “anything a federal agency does falls within the scope” of the executive order. How will agencies comply? The standards “range from hiring bilingual staff or staff interpreters competent in the skill of interpreting, to contracting with qualified outside in-person or telephonic interpreter services, to arranging formally for the services of qualified voluntary community interpreters who are bound by confidentiality agreements.” (Hmm, might I suggest the Justice Department ought to concentrate on communicating in English before it ventures off into other languages?)
But the problem goes way beyond federal agencies. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for anyone who receives federal assistance — directly or indirectly — to discriminate on the basis of race, sex or national origin. Since many large companies, and many more small and mid-size businesses, universities, hospitals and other institutions receive contracts, loans, training or other assistance from the federal government, they, too, are covered by the law.
All right, but what does discrimination have to do with running your business in English, the de facto national language of the United States? Everything, if you buy the convoluted reasoning federal civil rights agencies have adopted in the last few years.
First, you have to understand that “national origin” doesn’t mean just national origin, and “discrimination” doesn’t mean discrimination anymore. Some years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided that language and national origin were the same thing — and to discriminate on either basis was to run afoul of civil rights laws, even though the laws themselves are silent on the subject of language. What’s more, under a convoluted theory of civil rights law called disparate impact, an action may be discriminatory if it adversely affects racial or ethnic minorities more than whites — even if there is no intent whatever to harm or disadvantage those minorities. (If you’re having a hard time following this, don’t worry. It’s not you — these theories don’t make much sense.)
So, even though running federal agencies and federally assisted programs in English was never intended to discriminate against, say, Mexicans or Filipinos, the mere fact that there are more Mexicans or Filipinos than native-born whites who can’t speak English makes it discriminatory.
By the way, no one is objecting to the federal government or anyone in the private sector voluntarily deciding to offer services in languages other than English. There are sometimes very good public policy or business reasons to do so. But that is a far cry from suggesting that the failure to provide services in other languages is somehow discriminatory.
At a House appropriations committee hearing last week, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) suggested to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels that the Bush administration should rescind the Clinton executive order. It’s good advice. The one thing that may deter the Bush administration from taking Istook’s suggestion is fear that it will cost them Hispanic votes. They should quit worrying. Just wait until some Mexican American grocer who accepts food stamps finds out he has to hire Farsi translators for his store, then we’ll see how popular this executive order is in the Latino community.