Linguistic profiling is the act of denying available goods or services to an individual based on their language or accent, creating roots for racial profiling and racism. This kind of profiling and prejudices are not limited to the preference of the English language over other languages. They extend to prejudices against individuals with an accent or unfamiliar grammar usage which identifies their native country. These biases are seen widely in the United States of America (“USA”), where Asian-Americans form the fastest growing community. For the Asian community in the USA, this has meant that there has been a continuous process of language shift rather than language maintenance. This means the replacing of their native language in order to make its existence and usage dead in the future, whereas language maintenance is the peaceful co-existence of a number of languages regardless of the presence of the English language.
The prevailing stereotypes which surround language and accent tend to generate “profiling” and discrimination based on race and ethnicity. The discrimination then extends to every corner of the social structure, leading to a lack of jobs, houses, education and the like. From the post-war era to the COVID-19 pandemic, linguistic and racial profiling has remained persistent regardless of the time period. This can be seen in the non-inclusion of East-Asian languages in important American Government documents which remains a constant hurdle for non-English speakers who belong to the older generations.
The denial of goods and services to Asian-Americans based on demographic inferences has always been a persistent activity in the USA. Moreover, numerous infamous steps to abandon Asian languages through implementation of Congressional Exclusionary Act and the Japanese American Internment during WWII have defined the scope of linguistic and racial profiling in American history.
American-born children of Chinese descent were segregated into Chinese Primary schools, that is, debarred from mainstream schools. Later, with an increase in Japanese immigrants, the government decided to classify both Chinese and Japanese children under the umbrella term of “Mongolians”. The unjust provisions of the Chinese segregation policy were applied to Japanese students too. This umbrella term created a negative acknowledgement of the variety of cultures and languages within Asian-American community. It fuelled isolation from mainstream American communities, and led to Asian-Americans forming separate groups to avoid discrimination based on language and nationality.
Initially, in the view of the act, Chinese immigrants were stationed at Angel Island, an island isolated from the mainland, for interrogation and reprocessing of their entry into the USA. Linguistic and accent biases played a role in determining the integrity of immigrants in government interrogations. These interrogations by white men were intended to judge Chinese individuals’ confidence in communication. Additionally, besides awkward and personal questions asked, their dialect was also verified by an interpreter to determine whether they truly belonged to their stated native place. Moreover, the people who were detained on Angel Island were regularly compelled to watch Hollywood movies to learn the English language. Thus, the system tried every possible way to eradicate originality and individuality of the victims and their language. Similar unwarranted incarcerations, perpetual interrogations and forced English language learning were witnessed by the Japanese-Americans during the war.
Later, some groups were formed opposing the Japanese-American resettlements. Japanese-Americans were accused of being unpatriotic as they taught their children the Japanese language and culture over an English and American lifestyle. A Seattle Star article published in 1945 presented the reality of Japanese-American families. These war families found it grimmer to resettle compared to white families who were seeking housing facilities in the same locality.
Furthermore, the camp governance system permitted only those individuals who were fluent in English. Hence, Japanese-American citizens who were non-English speakers were strictly prohibited from community councils.It led to intergenerational tensions and generational differences between different Japanese immigrants. The altercations were mainly between “bilingual” Nisei (second generation) and non-English speakers, Issei (first generation).
The inevitable non-acceptance led to change in parenting patterns after the second World War. Japanese-American parents started teaching their kids about American mainstream civilisation over Japanese culture and language. Once again, the older generation faced a lack of opportunities as it was not an easy task for them to feel comfortable with the American culture and language.
Xenophobia and Racism in the Pandemic
Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased number of cases including racism and xenophobia against Asian-Americans in the USA. The increased prejudices are evident from the A3PCON report that mentions that over 40% of the USA’s racial discrimination reports in the pandemic were from East Asians including Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese, indicating that it elderly Asian-Americans are always the most vulnerable to exploitation.
Recently, in Texas, elderly Korean-American couples were found helpless to obtain their COVID-19 vaccines due to a lack of understanding of the English language. The process for registration lacked language inclusivity and presented “English” as the only medium to complete the process. Though many volunteers are helping their Asian-American community to get vaccinated, the language barrier remains one of the biggest hindrances. Similar issues of poor translations were faced by individuals above the age of 60 in the State of California regardless of the fact that about three-quarters of five million Asian households communicate in languages other than English.
Biases still prevail in fields such as education, healthcare, housing. Discrimination on the basis of race has further increased as a consequence of the pandemic. This includes disinvestments in Asian community businesses, and displacement from their residences in Chinatown. Chinatown has through the years provided a place for Asian-American immigrant communities to connect through language and culture, and was notably described as “a language island of the minority group” by Kloss in 1966. This circumscribed territory of the USA. There is still nothing being done to protect the Chinese residents and their home in Chinatown, especially the older generation, who depend on their own community and their own language for communication. This exemplifies the shift from “language shift” to “language death” for the Chinese-Americans.
A study in 2002 disclosed that 13% of Chinese-Americans residing in Los Angeles, California faced racial bias based on their accent. Moreover, Asian accents were labelled as “Least Positive” under the “Educated” category. On the contrary, European accents were identified as “Most Positive” under the same category.This provides a clear depiction of racial stereotypes and prejudices based on the native accent of Asians or Asian-Americans. Furthermore, these stereotypes lead to questioning of intellectual abilities and confidence. It continues to build a ceaseless cycle of lack of opportunities and basic amenities for Asian-Americans.
Steps adopted to make amends
Recently, a new law was signed by President Biden to curb hate crimes against immigrants. The step was a result of growing hate crimes against Asian-Americans. The new law acknowledges the hate crime data derived from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which contains specific details of victims, accused, an association between the two parties and the timing and location of the incident. Moreover, this system establishes an online reporting service to report prevalent hate crime incidents. Most importantly, this system is not limited to the English language. Hence, it promotes language inclusivity, prevents linguistic barriers, profiling, and prevents racist crimes. This language-inclusive step would be more important for older generations who are prone to racist attacks and unfamiliar with the English language. However, this law, like other anti-racism laws, lacks remedy for the victims. The problem of linguistic and racial profiling is deeply rooted and cannot be eradicated with a narrowly drafted law.
The historical scrutinization on extended linguistic and racial profiling infers that the discrimination against Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants is not merely pandemic-related. It has persisted due to lack of data, dissenting voices and global awareness. The ostensible need for opting English over their native languages due to social and political pressure has done nothing better for the community. In the case reported as United States v. Ebens, a Chinese American victim named Vincent Chin was murdered in public space. The accused individuals misidentified the victim as Japanese and alleged that he was responsible for the growth of the Japanese automobile industry against the American market. In addition, the defendants were acquitted in their final trial for their criminal act of racism and murdering the minority. The victim was an educated man, more fluent in English than his native language, despite which there was no sense of acceptance displayed. This indicates how newer Asian-American generations have not been able to avoid racism despite embracing American language and culture.
With a very small percentage of the Asian-American community serving in professional areas of law and politics, the community is prone to abandonment of culture and language at the hands of the Government. During the pandemic as well, the country has displayed negligible communicative support to Asian-Americans, given a non-inclusive testing system in the vaccination and testing processes. Additionally, the collapse of a place like Chinatown can deplete social interactions among the community, leading to a lack of cultural and linguistic identities in a diverse country like the U.S.
Thus, adopting language and culture does not limit racial animosity. The social construct of forcing individuals to reject their own languages and adopt English needs to be changed and monitored by substantial legal reforms. Mere tokenism to promote equality through inconsistent laws and policies would not favour the Asian-American minorities and their “right to communicate”. The scope of the “right to choose” any language to communicate should be incorporated to demolish ageism faced by older Asian-Americans and to establish a healthy future for the youngest generation.
This article is authored by Shubhangi Gehlot, a fourth-year student at the Law Faculty, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.