Ruling for racism

Here in America, where "all men are created equal," we like to believe we have overcome arbitrary inequality. In case our country's long history of creating and perpetuating social and economic hierarchies -- complete with ample rewards and devastating penalties -- wasn't enough to keep us from buying into this delusion, yet another example of the inequity embedded in our social and political structures surfaced last month in the great state of Nebraska.

During a Sept. 15 court hearing in the Sarpy County District, Judge Ronald E. Reagan stated that Eloy Amador, a Mexican-American, would have custody rights towards his five-year-old daughter severely limited should he insist on speaking "the Hispanic language" in her presence. Reagan's justification for this was that "put[ting] the girl in a situation where people are communicating in a language she doesn't understand, [is] not fair to the child" ("Judge Orders Neb. Father Not To Speak Hispanic," Oct. 17, The Washington Post).

This dubious ruling stood, despite the fact that Amador clearly stated that he did not address the child in Spanish (we will assume that Judge Reagan was in fact referencing "Spanish" when he mentioned the "Hispanic language"), but merely spoke it in her presence, and tried to teach her a few Spanish words. Judge Reagan re-emphasized that should Amador wish to retain partial custody rights of his daughter, "the primary language is going to be English," and not "the Hispanic language"

Now, one would imagine that there are worse crimes one could commit against a child than giving them the opportunity to become bilingual in their formative years. Furthermore, aside from the asinine nature of barring Amador from speaking Spanish around his young daughter on the grounds that it is "unfair" to her, it is an egregious violation of civil liberties. Even advocates of California's Proposition 227 (which required public schooling to be taught in English) took issue with Reagan's ruling. Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for Proposition 227 noted, "I would definitely be opposed to this. That ballot initiative required that children in public schools be taught in English but it had no bearing on languages taught in the home"

Reagan's ruling intrudes into an extremely micro-level relationship: That between a parent and child, a level of social relations that cannot legally be encroached upon in the absence of a legitimate threat of harm to the child. To assert that the speaking of "the Hispanic language" to a child constitutes this type of harm is a slap in the face both to true victims of child abuse, and to all bilingual and non-English speaking Americans. Furthermore, it is a direct affront to the notion that we live in a tolerant and enlightened society.

Did Reagan's statements spring from racist malice? Possibly, but we will give him the benefit of the doubt. What his perceptions are most likely the result of, is a pattern which -- despite our often referenced ideals -- persists in this country: Anglo-centrism and the refusal to accept anything except "token" diversity. The message we are sending by rulings like this is as follows: You can stay, but assimilate. Give up your culture. Look like us (a.k.a. white). Think like us. Speak our language to your children.

This court ruling is an atrocity, and luckily, has been at least somewhat recognized as such. After Amador relayed his experience at a protest forum last Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened action, a Nebraska state senator filed a complaint and an editorialist in the state media circuit publicly criticized the judge. No action has come of the rising dissent yet, but there is hope for reparation. Luckily, Amador spoke out about this violation of his civil rights. Otherwise, this ruling would have gone unnoticed, its decision would not have had hope of being rectified and we would all have missed out on a valuable lesson.

Racism of all kinds persists in this country. While direct malice is often absent, the attitude of American superiority which saturates our culture leads the individuals operating within its structures to make unfair, ignorant and -- yes, racist -- decisions. Becoming aware of our own biases and the biases of others, noting the tension that raises between our said ideals and our realties and having the decency to care about this dichotomy and its effects is the first crucial step toward achieving tolerance and equality in fact, instead of merely in our nation's pretty fiction.

(Laura Parcells' column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

related stories