Wednesday, March 15, 2006

NJ assemblyman reintroduces English bill

On January 10th, assemblyman John Rooney introduced another bill into the NJ State Assembly to make English the official language of the state. That’s all the bill says. I don’t know what it means. It may mean English, like the eastern goldfinch, the violet, the honey bee, the horse, the Hadrosaurus Foulkii, the brook trout, the shell of the knobbed whelk, the schooner A.J. Meerwalk, and the highbush blueberry, is simply officially designated by the government as being representative of New Jersey. I assume though that it means something more.

A bill like this has regularly been introduced every two years since at least 1996. They never go anywhere. So hopefully this one won’t either. Still, in 1999, Clifton, NJ adopted an English-only policy. It has apparently been repealed, but at the time the Bergen Record reported:

Anzaldi's sentiment is shared by state Assembly members Marion Crecco (R-Essex)and John Rooney (R-Bergen), who have long proposed legislation making English the official language of New Jersey. The state officials feel English provides a cultural tie that binds diverse groups together.

''If you don't understand English, you are not going to succeed in the U.S.," said Rooney, who, like many English-only proponents, also takes issue with bilingual education. "People say I'm being prejudiced. I'm not being prejudiced. I'm trying to give them an opportunity."
I can see that attitude taking hold here.

For example, I live in Hawthorne, just across the mighty Passaic river from Paterson. The area that includes Hawthorne had been part of Paterson at one time, but Hawthorne separated from Paterson in 1898. Still the US Postal Service gives Paterson as an “acceptable city name” in the zip codes for Hawthorne: 07506 and 07507.

Paterson was once a thriving city. It was a center of textile manufacturing and the movie industry—Abbott and Costello filmed there, among others. It is the home of both William Carlos Williams, who wrote many poems about the city including an epic, and Allen Ginsburg.

Like most New Jersey cities*, Paterson is in decline. According to the 2000 census, the population is about 150,000 today. And it’s losing people (down about 6% from 1990s). About 22% of the residents live under the poverty level.

It’s also racially diverse. About 50% of the residents are Hispanic and 33% African American and 31% White. (These numbers include people who self-identify with more than one race so they don’t add up to 100%.). Also 33% are foreign-born and 56% speak a language other than English at home.

Before the white flight beginning in the 50s, Paterson had a large Italian population. Now many of them live in Hawthorne and view Paterson warily. Apparently, the river between Hawthorne and Paterson is not enough, the local weekly newspaper, the Hawthorne Press, had this in their editorial last week (March 9, 2006):

Another federal bureaucracy—the US Postal Service—already considers us part of Paterson. Hawthorne’s two zip codes—07506 and 07507—often come up “Paterson, New Jersey” in our magazine subscriptions and on national address software programs. It’s annoying and a recent postcard to borough residents was the final insult.

Addressed to “postal customer,” it was an announcement about an upcoming passport fair at Paterson’s Ward Street office. It would have been welcome news except that it’s predominant language was Spanish. The English translation was in much smaller type, intended to be a secondary language.

Instead of a positive public information campaign, (solicita tu pasaporte en este evento del servicio postal™ cerca de ti) it turned out to be a public relations disaster to those of us who consider English our country’s official language.

I got this post card and threw it out without a thought. I have a hard time understanding why this is a “public relations disaster.”

*I have a theory that New Jersey cities suffer more because of their closeness to New York. New York is like a cultural black hole, any middle class who might be interested in an urban lifestyle would much rather be in New York than a city in New Jersey.

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