Beyond the IT Angle: Ethnic Cleansing in Arizona

Don Tennant

There's been a lot of conjecture about how recent immigration-related issues in Arizona will hurt the state from an IT perspective. We've read, for example, that the perceived anti-foreigner sentiment will make it more difficult to find needed IT skills because foreign students and H-1B workers will avoid the state. But there's a much more fundamental and far-reaching problem brewing here.


A good friend of mine who teaches at the university level in Massachusetts sent me a link to an opinion piece by Andrei Codrescu, an NPR commentator who emigrated to the United States from Romania in 1966. Codrescu's piece, titled "Arizona Education Loses the Accent of America," laments the fact that Arizona now forbids teachers with "heavy" or "ungrammatical" accents to teach English to students who are learning to speak the language:

Did I land back behind the Iron Curtain half a century ago? My last 40 years of teaching would have never happened if the Arizona law had been the law of the land in 1966. Forty years of accented instruction gone by the wayside! Gone also the 40 years when American education, lower and higher, finally recognized the diversity of America. It is amazing that we have to be reminded once again that America was made great by people with accents. Would Albert Einstein have made a better baker? We'll never know.

Let's consider this matter of accents. I grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., one of the most transient areas in the nation, and I lived in Asia for 17 years, so I've probably heard English spoken with as many different accents as anyone. And I can tell you that I never really had a problem understanding any of those accents until I came here to Worcester County, Mass., in 2000. No, the problem wasn't with the large Brazilian and Indian populations in the area. The problem was with people who were born and raised in Worcester. For someone who's never been exposed to it, the Worcester accent can be almost incomprehensible.


My friend who sent me that link happens to be from the Dominican Republic, and I find his accent much easier to understand than the Worcester accent. And I can guarantee you that if someone from Worcester went to Arizona to teach English, he would be far more difficult for the kids to understand than someone from Arizona who speaks English with a Spanish accent.


People from Worcester pride themselves in their American roots and heritage. This is, by far, the least transient area I've ever lived in-families have lived in the same towns for generations, and can often trace their roots back to the earliest settlers. And yet they speak English with an accent that is as "heavy" and "ungrammatical" as any that one is likely to encounter in the teaching profession in the United States.


There are any number of examples of this sort of thing that can be cited around the country. I was recently at a Lawson Software user conference, and I couldn't help but notice that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where Lawson is headquartered, appears to be as non-transient as Worcester. Most of the Lawson employees I met were born and raised in the area, and their accents were a little odd to those of us who had never lived there. The running joke at the conference was that when the people from Lawson spoke about a new product called the "Lawson Cloud Console," they couldn't pronounce "console" correctly. They kept pronouncing it as if they were saying "council." Yes, they typically have blonde hair and blue eyes in that part of the country, so they would likely be more than welcome to teach in Arizona. But their accent is hardly what you'd call standard.


And therein lies the crux of the question-or questions -- at hand. What is the standard? Which accents are acceptable, and which aren't? And who is the judge? Who in Arizona decides whose accent is too heavy?


According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, educators in the trenches in Arizona are concerned that it's an arbitrary standard designed to make it easier to get rid of immigrant teachers:

State education officials say the move is intended to ensure that students with limited English have teachers who speak the language flawlessly. But some school principals and administrators say the department is imposing arbitrary fluency standards that could undermine students by thinning the ranks of experienced educators.
The teacher controversy comes amid an increasingly tense debate over immigration. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer [in April] signed the nation's toughest law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Critics charge that the broader political climate has emboldened state education officials to target immigrant teachers at a time when a budget crisis has forced layoffs.

It's essential that we not get caught up in politics or such narrowly focused issues as the H-1B debate. This isn't the time to wring our hands over such relatively frivolous matters as whether IT conference organizers should boycott Arizona. There's an ethnic-cleansing dimension to what's happening in Arizona that needs to be at the center of the discussion. The peripheral issues are, in comparison, inconsequential chatter.

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