Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on YouTube to say–in both Spanish and English–he didn’t mean to offend Latinos with his recent remarks criticizing “language of the ghetto.”
“This past weekend I made some comments that I recognize caused a bad feeling within the Latino community,” said Gingrich, who is considering a run for president in 2008. “My word choice was poor but my point was simply this: In the United States it is important to speak the English language well in order to advance and have success.”
On Saturday Gingrich said in a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women that English should be the language exclusively used by government in the United States.
“The American people believe English should be the official language of the government,” he said. “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”
Speaking to a cheering crowd of about 100, Gingrich went on to ridicule requirements that ballots be printed in multiple languages. “Citizenship requires passing a test on American history in English,” he said. “If that’s true, then we do not have to create ballots in any language except English.”
In 1975 Congress amended the Voting Rights Act–originally passed in 1965 to outlaw literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting–to add protection from voting discrimination against language-minority citizens. The law requires ballots and other election assistance in languages other than English in jurisdictions where at least 5 percent of voting-age citizens are not proficient in English and literacy rates are below the national average.
At least 47 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home, and 14.6 million of them are school aged
Gingrich has long supported making English the nation’s official language. In 1995 he said bilingualism poses “long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation” and that “allowing bilingualism to continue to grow is very dangerous.”
Bilingual programs teach students reading, arithmetic and other basic skills in their native language so they do not fall behind while mastering English. Experts say such programs benefit both non-native and native speakers of English, because kids learn from each other and all wind up being bilingual.
Earlier Gingrich tried to back away from his “ghetto” comment, claiming on CNN’s “Hannity & Colmes” his statement didn’t refer to Spanish.
“Frankly, ghetto historically had referred as a Jewish reference originally,” he said. “I did not mention Hispanics, and I certainly do not want anybody who speaks Spanish to think I’m in any way less than respectful of Spanish or any other language spoken by people who come to the United States.”
Latino-American leaders, however, did not take it as a reference to Yiddish.
“The tone of his comments were very hateful,” Peter Zamora, co-chair of the Washington-based Hispanic Education Coalition, told the Associated Press. “Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto.”
While he didn’t offer an outright apology on YouTube, Gingrich said his comment was not an attack on the Spanish language. “I have never believed that Spanish is a language of people of low incomes, nor a language without beauty,” he said.
In fact he said he has been learning to speak Spanish, because he views it as such an important language. “I know that my Spanish is not perfect but I am studying so it will be better,” he said in the Spanish version of the video, which is subtitled in English.
“It was not my intention to offend the Latino community and I hope you accept this message in the manner in which it is being conveyed, with a sincere heart,” Gingrich said. “I hope we find the way to cultivate a good relationship with the Latino people in the United States and together build a continent of hope and prosperity.”
Gingrich has said he will announce by September whether he will seek the Republican nomination for president in 2008. A CNN poll in March showed him as the choice of 9 percent of likely Republican voters, behind former New York Mayor and Sen. John McCain.
With more than 45 million Latinos living in the country, their vote is important to any presidential candidate. President Bush carried about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
Miguel De La Torre, a Baptist ethicist and Cuban-American who teaches at Illiff Theological Seminary in Denver, said Gingrich’s apology means little while he “continues to support policies detrimental to the Hispanic community.”
“Latino/as do not need a white man of power and privilege to tell us what we already know: that to survive in this country, we must know the language,” he said. “What we need from Gingrich is not to support tax cuts to the richest Americans by slashing social services like education, which funds ‘English as a Second Language (ESL)’ classes, needed to learn English.”
While as a fellow Baptist appreciating Gingrich’s “contrite heart,” De La Torre said, repentance is empty unless it is a “turning away from sin–in Gingrich’s case, the sin of ethnic discrimination.”
“The xenophobic rhetoric he has consistently spewed to pander votes cannot be washed away with a demonstration of his dexterity with Spanish,” De La Torre said. “Acceptance of his apology remains dependent on a change of heart and mind coupled with a commitment to recognize and work toward bringing justice to the Hispanic community.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.