Some civil rights activists are saying that workplaces have become more hostile toward non-English speakers -- especially in states that have toughened their immigration laws.
The federal EEOC -- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- seems to agree, as it recently issued new guidelines for employers as they hire people whose first language is not English. The agency says that workplace discrimination complaints based on national origin -- which often involve language ability -- have nearly doubled since 1997.
This is a troubling statistic. It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against a person on the basis of national origin. But employers may legally make hiring decisions on the basis of language proficiency when proficiency is necessary to perform a certain job function.
This issue arises in Utah, where a FedEx delivery driver claims he was fired because of his Russian accent. He filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. One of the things he will be expected to argue is that very little of his job required verbal communication.
Across the country, other workers have won settlements after claiming they were harassed or reprimanded for speaking in a foreign language or with an accent.
According to EEOC, employers may legally adopt "English only" rules in the workplace, but only when the rule can be justified by business needs. This can be dicey because there are many degrees of language fluency, and judgments must be made as to whether a given employee was sufficiently fluent for a particular job requiring English ability.
EEOC's example scenarios are fascinating. They include violations as well as ways a company can deal with workplace tension without running a risk of illegal discrimination. (Online: LanguageRules.notlong.com)
All this is well and good, but it basically steers around the larger question of social cohesion in America. The Egyptian civilization lasted for as long as it did -- more than 3,000 years -- precisely because of its single cohesive language and cosmology, not its diversity.
Diversity in modern America -- an America that has fully embraced cultural relativism -- is not a strength but a weakness, argues Allan Bloom in his bestselling book, "The Closing of the American Mind." Bloom wrote memorably that the real uniting forces in human societies are similarities, not differences.
And yet there is no denying that America is growing ever more diverse as it follows natural patterns of growth and as it fills its labor needs.
So what is the answer? Can national cohesion be maintained in the face of the waves of dissimilar individuals coming to this country who hold fast to their own cultures? Is there an essentially "American" culture to which all citizens ought to adhere, and, if so, what does it consist of? Or is America a culture of "no culture," subject to all manner of imported loyalties?
One thing is certain: When many individuals' loyalty and enthusiasm centers in a foreign land, what you end up with is organizations like LaRaza, which advocates the taking back of the United States by Mexico. A few years ago, you might recall that the American flag was taken down at a Southern California post office and thrown on the ground as the Mexican flag was hoisted in its place.
Language is a key marker of a culture, and there have been numerous attempts over the years to establish English as the official language of the United States. Given today's legal developments and regulatory environment, though, such a law might not make any real difference even if passed.
But it provides food for thought. A common language provides common ground for people to conduct their lives; it forms a basis upon which to align thought and action. That makes a more powerful society.
On the other hand, America is a welcoming place, a place where any person can fullfill dreams through hard work, regardless of national origins. In America, we revel in being a melting pot.
The question is whether enough melting is going on. It makes a pretty lumpy soup when some individuals refuse to assimilate into the national brand, whatever that is.