By Raoul Lowery Contreras
It may come as no surprise that almost 50 percent of Republicans are bothered “a lot” or at least “some” when they hear a foreign language spoken in their presence. And among all Americans, it is less-educated, older whites who are most bothered.
Based on the fact that the largest ancestral ethnic group in America is German — 14.7 percent of the population — we can assume that the largest percentage of those bothered by hearing foreign languages are of German origin.
The irony here is that the last time the United States had a foreign language freakout was a century ago during the First World War, when American doughboys fought against Germany in the trenches of France. Patriotic wrath was targeted then against America’s second largest language and culture — German.
Though the last German language newspapers didn’t close in the United States until the 1950s, many were shut down in 1917 and 1918. German language books were burned by “patriotic” Americans. Anyone speaking German in public was threatened with violence or commercial boycotts. Beethoven’s symphonies were banned in Pittsburgh.
Ironically, the American Expeditionary Force that won the war for civilization was led by Gen. John J. Pershing. whose original family name was the German “Pfoerschin.”
What we have here is not just a history lesson about American abhorrence of foreigners and their languages and worries about assimilation, but a lesson in unintended consequences. Recent academic research shows that discrimination against Germans during World War I had a measurable impact their assimilation and on national defense in World War II.
This is because the discrimination continued after the war. As reported in the Washington Post, several states, including Nebraska, Ohio and Indiana outlawed the teaching of the German language in school and its use in any governmental function during and after the war.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck the first blow against this racist reaction in 1923 by knocking down the Nebraska ban. It ruled in favor of Robert T. Meyer, who was arrested, tried and convicted of teaching German in a Catholic school. He was fined $25.
That decision, however high minded, did not prevent a backlash discussed in a paper to be published soon in the Review of Economic Studies by Stanford University professor Vicki Fouka and in a paper she published in 2015 on “forced” assimilation.
Young German-American men who suffered through the anti-German hysteria as school kids did not volunteer for the American military to fight Germany and Japan in World War II. Nor did those young men assimilate as well as previous immigrants of German ancestry did or have since.
Compare that lack of volunteer enthusiasm to the German immigrants who flocked to the Union Army when called on by President Lincoln to save the nation. Over 200,000 German immigrant men and their sons fought for the Union — almost one in five of Union soldiers in what became the largest army in world history.
Those elderly white men and women who object to hearing foreign languages know little, if anything, about American history. Apparently they see America like founding father Benajmin Franklin surprisingly did in 1753. He warned that German immigrants “will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
He was wrong, of course, as President Trump and like-minded Republican “know nothings” are wrong about immigrants from Asia, South American and Africa and other “shithole” locations.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.
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