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October 16, 2017, begins as a normal day at your New Jersey high school. You are chatting with friends in Spanish, the second most-spoken language in the United States. This is something you do every day. But you are interrupted by your teacher, not because you are speaking out of turn, but because you are speaking a language other than English. The teacher tells you, “Men and women are fighting. They are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish…they are fighting for your right to speak American [sic.]” (Attrino 2017; Magness 2017; Starnes 2017; Strauss 2017).

Language policing involves much more than the actions of individuals. Rather, it relies on and (re)produces a web of types of discourse and actors, which collectively formulate such policing and its effects.

The above incident is an exemplary instance of language policing. Scholars use this analytic to refer to the cultivation of a normative linguistic order that casts some languages as outside the realm of acceptable interaction in order to justify control of their use (Blommaert, Leppanen, and Pietikäinen 2009). Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, US news outlets have made a showcase of language policing, focusing especially on events, including this New Jersey one, in which a White English-speaker demands that a Latinx person speaking Spanish use English. Often, as in the example above, these language policers draw explicit links between speaking English and “being American,” indexed here by the conflation between the language and the national identity, such that speaking English becomes simply “speaking American.” A basic Google search indicates the ubiquitous nature of these incidents as covered by the media. The phrase “This is America, speak English” yields 61.5 million results, 48 million more than the number of results for “United States immigrants.” A discourse analysis that Brown conducted of 65 language-policing stories in US major dailies, covering 15 policing incidents from across the country, shows that the majority of this coverage focuses on White English speakers attempting to control the linguistic practices of Latinx Spanish speakers. As such, the actions of many language policers are racializing, as they mark some people as inherently threatening and deviant from a putative White normativity (Dick 2011; Rosa and Flores 2017)—in this case, by furthering a problematic conflation of whiteness with both being and speaking “American.”

However, language policing involves much more than the actions of individuals. Rather, it relies on and (re)produces a web of types of discourse and actors, which collectively formulate such policing and its effects. In this column, we engage the role that news coverage plays in crafting language policing, with a focus on how this coverage unwittingly contributes to the racialization of Latinx Spanish speakers. We argue that, in focusing on the actions of individuals, US coverage of language policing cumulatively crafts a narrative that reinforces the racialization of Spanish and its speakers through the replication and further authorization of the folk theory of racism. This theory holds that racism is based solely on the intentions of irrational individuals (Hill 2008). Therefore, it diverts attention away from the multifaceted process that racialize Latinx Spanish speakers, from a history of immigration policy that conflates undocumented migration with a cultural image of menacing Latinx migrants (Dick 2011) to practices of quotidian interaction such as mock Spanish (Hill 2008). Such processes are not explicable, or traceable, through an exclusive focus on the intentions of particular actors.

The folk theory of racism is robustly evinced in US media coverage of language policing, which almost exclusively portrays such policing as the work of aggressive and unreasonable actors working in isolation. In short, it individuates racism, rather than examining how it is systematized and institutionalized through raciolinguistic ideologies (Rosa and Flores 2017), such as that which conflates speaking English with “being American,” and being American with “being white.” Through her analysis of such coverage, Brown has shown that the central way the folk theory of racism is replicated and authorized in this coverage is through a dominant metaphor she calls racism-as-attack, crafted through the portrayal of the persona of the White language-policer who acts irrationally and alone (Brown 2019). Melanie found the racism-as-attack metaphor throughout her data set, with 94 percent articles using this metaphor to characterize the event(s) covered.

In crafting this metaphor, journalists repeatedly depict the language policer as “raging” and their actions as “combative takedowns” (and similar descriptors). Journalists frequently named the actions of individuals in the articles as “hateful,” “angry,” and “inappropriate,” calling the individuals themselves “bullies,” “ignorant,” and, most commonly “racist.” Moreover, news media’s characterizations of responses to language-policing incidents furthered the attack framework, as they were repeatedly represented as an “outrage” that left the White policer “under fire.” Consequently, the racism-as-attack metaphor iconizes racism in the figure of a hateful and hostile actor, through this entailing racist practice as a problem of one-on-one confrontation. This individuation of language policing implies that that language policers are outliers whose behavior is aberrant, not representative of an otherwise non-racist society.

There are many processes that contribute to the racialization of Latinx Spanish speakers. Prime among these are the discursive and other semiotic practices that work to construct Spanish and its speakers as beyond the pale of “America.”

As Otto Santa Ana demonstrates in his work on news coverage of immigration (2002), metaphor is a powerful framing device that orders the field of reference by crafting equivalences between original and metaphorical objects. In this case, anything one might say about an irrational, combative individual becomes applicable to racism itself, such that rather than being depicted as an institutional process with systemic effects, it is depicted as the realm of “a few bad apples” whose actions are isolated and, thus, relatively dismissible. Racism-as-attack thereby elides the pervasive structural nature of racism and instead constructs a singular, reductive manifestation of this complex discursive process.

The racism-as-attack metaphor also advances and authorizes the folk theory of racism by establishing a double social indexicality that at once positions White racists as abnormal and the journalist/reader-public as inherently anti-racist. This provides a separation between racism toward Latinx Spanish speakers and the journalists, readership, and responders included in the articles by implying that because this “we” does not engage in aggressive language policing, they are, therefore, not complicit in the racialization of Latinx people. Moreover, the narrative of language policing that emerges from the overwhelming use of the racism-as-attack metaphor hails the anti-racist in-group to call out the irrational racists by expanding their exposure via social media platforms. Thus, the narrative of language policing that emerges across US media coverage functions, however unwittingly, as a strategy of disavowal that denies journalists’ and readers’ participation in the discursive order that legitimates the racialization of Spanish and its speakers.

The newspaper articles we have discussed here are often presented as if they elucidate the racialization of Latinx people. Yet, this elucidation fixates on one fairly obvious aspect of racism: the abhorrent acts of jingoistic individuals. However, as intimated above, there are many processes that contribute to the racialization of Latinx Spanish speakers. Prime among these are the discursive and other semiotic practices that work to construct Spanish and its speakers as beyond the pale of “America.” Language policing events are most certainly examples of such practices, as they draw on and further enact the Othering of Spanish. Nevertheless, a careful consideration of how such events accomplish this effect that moves beyond the depiction and attribution of individual intent could provide new insights into racialization and its enduring effects.

Melanie Brown completed her BA in International Studies at Arcadia University in May 2019; she graduated with distinction from the University’s Honor’s Program. Her BA thesis presents a careful discourse analysis of the ways that US newspaper coverage of language policing extends extant processes of racialization, especially as they affect Latinx Spanish speakers. She is currently Volunteer Coordinator at Louisville Grows through AmeriCorps VISTA.

Hilary Parsons Dick is an associate professor of International Studies and the Steinbrucker Endowed Chair (2019-2021) at Arcadia University. She received her PhD in cultural and linguistic anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Words of Passage: National Longing and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants and is currently working on the manuscript of her second book, provisionally titled Bad Hombres and Angel Moms: Communicating Commonsense Racism in the Time of Trump (under contract, Oxford University Press).

Reference list

Brown, Melanie. 2019. “‘Speak American:’ Newspaper Coverage of Language Policing and the Racialization of Spanish Speakers in the U.S.” BA Thesis in International Studies, Arcadia University.

Cite as: Brown, Melanie, and Hilary Parsons Dick. 2019. “Speak American.” Anthropology News website, August 16, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1252