She Says Sotomayor... and So Should We!

I spent two years as an immigration columnist and blogger at the Los Angeles Newspaper Group. On many occasions, I dealt with the language surrounding America’s Latino population, both immigrants and citizens. The term “illegal immigrant” is preferable to “undocumented worker,” I argued, since some people who are here unlawfully aren’t actually workers. But I found it it bad form to simply calling people “illegals,” a shorthand that is dehumanizing — it robs folks of their noun, as though their identity is captured solely by a single adjective that describes their legal status. “Anchor baby” always bothered me too. Having spoken to countless illegal immigrants, I’ve never met one who conceived a child as a means of anchoring themselves in this country — imagine being that poor, and going through the sacrifice of raising a kid on the speculative prospect that many years later they might help you gain legal status through family unification provisions. (Alternatively, imagine being a kid who people referred to as though your identity in life was determined by the intentions of your parents.)

The creepy language used to describe Judge Sotomayor brought back all these memories. Hilzoy flags a couple of examples. In a similar vein, Mark Krikorian is getting flak for this post:

Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English (which is why the president stopped doing it after the first time at his press conference)… and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.

….This may seem like carping, but it’s not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that’s not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

Mark is quite wrong, but before I explain why I’d like to defend him from his most virulent critics. If you follow the immigration debate, you’ll find a lot of ugly rhetoric and thinly veiled racism, and you’ll also find some folks who manage over many years to navigate a fraught subject without engaging in hateful nonsense or bigoted ideas. Those folks are a welcome respite from the ugliness, and having read him for many years, I’ve always found Mr. Krikorian to be that kind of immigration commentator.

So why do I find the comments quoted above so mistaken? For one thing, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about a women born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents as “a newcomer.” For another, it is common practice to defer to the pronunciations used by most anyone of European ancestry. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument, however, that Judge Sotomayor were an immigrant, and that Mark was asserting that even deferring to pronunciations used by European newcomers is wrongheaded. (There were, after all, a lot of European immigrants to changed their names as part of the assimilation process.) Nevertheless, I think the standard Mark sets for when newcomers ought to adapt is flawed.

My view is that America ought to demand the patriotic assimilation of its immigrants and their children, but that “assimilation” ought to mean no more than subscribing to the foundational ideals that ground our nation. To put things more specifically, I think that newcomers should buy into the idea that everyone possesses an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that the Constitution sets forth a political system that we all accept as legitimate, that an effort is made to learn English insofar as it’s required to participate in our democracy, and that you’ll protect and defend these few basic propositions if they’re attacked by outsiders who would seek to overturn them.

So long as an immigrant buys into those ideals, he is as American as any of us, no matter the pronunciation of his name, his religion, the language he speaks in line behind me at the supermarket, or whether his language cohort is sufficiently big that I’m forced to press one for English, which I don’t mind doing.

On a somewhat related note, having spent my college years appalled by the way that left-leaning campus groups sought every pretext possible to declare folks guilty of latent racism, and did their best to circumscribe discourse within the confines of a particularly pernicious kind of political correctness, I am dismayed to see that several prominent figures on the right are now calling Judge Sotomayor a racist. Whether she merits confirmation I haven’t any idea, but she certainly deserves the benefit of that doubt.