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What's in a 'Ghetto'

By Leslie Sanchez

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich set off a firestorm when, addressing the National Federation of Republican women last weekend, he remarked, "We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto,"

The controversy, which culminated with him issuing apologies over YouTube in both English and Spanish, epitomizes the common challenges Republicans face when communicating ideas that affect Latinos and other immigrant groups. The lesson, which some Republicans still have not learned from the disastrous immigration debate of 2006, is that it really does matter how you talk about the issues, even if you are right. It isn't just a question of political correctness, but of how to speak to non-political people in a way that doesn't turn them off and stop them from listening.

The debate in which Gingrich was engaging was a serious one. According to the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, there are 14 million non-native-English speaking children in U.S. schools, and they are being ill-served by the status quo. On average, they receive lower grades, score below their classmates on standardized reading and mathematics tests, and are often judged by their teachers as academic "underachievers," according to Institute of Education Sciences.

The jury is still out on the best form of instruction for English Language Learners and whether the solution is bilingual or immersion education--in fact, the federal government is only now beginning to study and measure what methods work best.

Hispanics have a great stake in this debate. It is an area where Republicans could conceivably offer them a genuine alternative to policies that have failed Latino schoolchildren over the years. All the more unfortunate, then, that Gingrich's "ghetto" comment should obscure the real issue, making it into a question of one culture versus another, as opposed to a simple policy question over which educational method works best.

There is no question that Hispanic immigrants want to learn English. A 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that 92 percent of Latinos and 96 percent of foreign-born Latinos say it is "very important" to teach English to children of immigrant families. The same results have appeared at the ballot box as well: In Arizona last year, 48 percent of Hispanic voters even backed a referendum to make English the official state language -- a position often hysterically denounced by Hispanic leaders as "extreme" or even "racist."

The free market tells us the same story in an even more powerful way, since there is so much more money on the line. The single largest U.S. Spanish-language advertiser is Lexicon Marketing, the purveyor of English-learning tapes and DVDs. The company's advertising budget was $180 million in 2005--greater than the Hispanic ad budget of corporate giant Procter & Gamble! Their ads run almost non-stop on Univision because the market is there: Hispanic immigrants understand that English proficiency creates opportunity for immigrants in the United States.

Yet as they aspire to English proficiency, and even after they achieve it, many Hispanics love Spanish. They don't want to see it disappear from their family life, even if they speak perfect English. A fellow researcher, Carlos Santos, said it best when he wrote of immigrants' ancestral languages: "It is a connection to their culture, their parents, their ancestors and their history. It is part of who they are, who they were and who they will be."

The problem with Gingrich's remarks, of course, was with the word "ghetto." He was trying to evoke the idea of an insular ethnic neighborhood, but unfortunately the term has a different connotation today. Gingrich had no intention to simulate Rep. Tom Tancredo's attack on Miami as a "Third World city," but to imply that Spanish, or any other language, is the "language of the ghetto" taps into the same vein of bad feeling that such insults have created.

It exemplifies the disconnect. When they hear their ancestral language referred to as a "ghetto" language, many Hispanics infer that someone is judging them. Instead of remaining open to a serious policy discussion that affects their lives, they go into a defensive mode, and it becomes a question of protecting one's family from people who don't like Hispanics. For Republican politicians, this problem is particularly acute. Latinos have already heard enough Republicans tell them that Hispanic culture and language are dirty, backward pollutants to an otherwise pristine American culture. Republicans, therefore, as they reach out to Hispanics, have to exercise even more prudence.

Newt may have erred in his choice of words, but he got it right with his YouTube release. He apologized in a quick and intelligent way, and he stuck with his point--the substance of his comment was correct, and in fact most Hispanics agree with him. Not only did he take responsibility for "bad feeling" he caused, but he also emphasized the fact that he is himself learning Spanish.

In addition to his apology in English, Gingrich simultaneously released a YouTube apology in Spanish. To watch both responses side by side, it's hard to believe it is the same message, much less the same messenger. In contrast to his precise and straightforward English apology, the Spanish address appears more sincere, spoken with emotion and humility.

Stripped of the veneer of Gingrich's English mastery, his Spanish response evinced a man exerting himself and even humbling himself in order to forge a connection. It is something that perhaps he and others should considered carefully before they utter words like "ghetto."

Leslie Sanchez, former director White House Initiative on Hispanic Education from 2001-2003, is owner of Hispanic communications research firm Impacto Group LLC. She is also author of the forthcoming book Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other.

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