In Melting Point 2040, 18-year-old Mexican immigrant Juan Gonzalez is spurred into aggressive political protest by an English fluency requirement at a massive retailer in a heavily Spanish speaking part of Arizona. War gamer/survivalist and English-only speaker Pete Roote is angered by a Spanish-only hiring requirement at a Colorado meatpacking firm established because it is easier to train in one language by hiring only Spanish-speaking applicants. In my novel, those events take place in 2040.
Last weekend, a dispute began drawing national attention to issues of language requirements. Two employees at a Whole Foods store in New Mexico claim they were suspended for complaining about what they characterized as an English-only requirement. Whole Foods disputes the characterization of their policy, saying they require English to be spoken on the clock, except when speaking to customers who prefer another language. The company says the policy is to spur “inclusion” and to improve employee safety, noting also that employees can speak any language at lunch, on breaks, or if all participants in a discussion agree to speak in another language. The company also says that the two suspended employees were suspended for “rude and disrespectful behavior,” not a language policy violation.
At a news conference outside the Albuquerque store, the director of the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) threatened to launch a nationwide boycott of Whole Foods if the company does not change its policy. MoveOn.org, often seen as a branch of the Democratic Party, has jumped into the fray nationally, starting a petition drive to force Whole Foods to allows employees to speak with each other in any language. Its petition reads in part, “I will not shop at Whole Foods until you reverse your anti-diversity policy and permit employees to communicate with each other in the language they know best. . . . A company which forces its employees to deny their heritage and speak only English won’t get my business. I urge you to reverse your discriminatory policy and encourage your employees to be as proud of their heritage as they are of their company.”
The response by advocacy groups to the Whole Foods issue is indicative of why I am concerned that our melting pot society is being replaced by section-divided plates. In the interest of creating political support among specific racial, ethnic, religious or language niches, political partisans are increasingly advocating policies that encourage these groups to remain separated from the rest of society.
Academic research has shown that nations in which minority populations remain segregated and concentrated tend to divide, often through deadly civil war. Diversity generally enriches a culture, though there are a few cultural mores that simply don’t fit on issues such as forced child marriage, gender segregation and bans on female education. I believe the U.S. needs to dramatically expand the number of bilingual and trilingual citizens to succeed in the global economy as China’s growth reduces the importance of English in the global business world. As added value, our respect for different cultures will grow as we learn more about the world through additional languages.
We also need to dramatically improve and expand our legal immigration system. However, we certainly need a common language we all share — including new immigrants — to facilitate problem-solving, economic development and integration inside U.S. borders. Leaders from both parties have cited the requirement to learn English to become a citizen as an important reason for passing comprehensive immigration reform. It doesn’t appear that all who state this truly understand the importance of language in creating and enriching our melting pot.
Should the Whole Foods policy be modified? That is a business decision, one in which the views of customers are the critical driver. Inclusion and safety are two admirable and valuable goals. Can the policy be modified while still serving these goals. Perhaps, and I’m sure Whole Foods management will struggle to figure this out.
At a government level, it is important for all citizens to be able to read, write and speak English in order to effectively understand and participate in broad national debates.
As we consider language issues, it is important to recall that not creating an integrated society can quickly turn violent and deadly, with innocent people hurt and killed. Respect for diversity and support for segregation should not be seen as identical twins. Sharing a common language is one step we need to take to help keep America on a path toward being a melting pot. I hate to consider what happens if the melting pot reaches a boiling point, though that is exactly why I wrote Melting Point 2040 and Secession 2041.