Trump Isn't The Root Of All Those "Speak English" Incidents

Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

By now, it's hard to keep count of how many videos of xenophobic white folks harassing people for speaking Spanish have hit the internet since the 2016 election. And this weekend, a new clip went viral of a white man in Reno, NV, insulting a man of Puerto Rican descent at an airport. The overwhelming response was to blame President Trump, but the truth is this type of behavior long precedes him.

"Learn how to fucking speak English. We live in America," the white man, identified only as "Mike" in the video, shouted. It's a tale as old as time: A white American hears a person of color speak a language other than English and decides it's okay to harass said person of color.

Hector Torres, who recorded the video, replied, "But I'm speaking to my mother in Spanish because that's her language." That wasn't enough for Mike, who responded: "I don't give a shit, shut up! SHUT UP!"

Once the video hit the web, many people on social media claimed the current president is the reason these hateful incidents keep happening. The Trump administration's policies, from immigration to trade, have had tones of nationalism and xenophobia (the man did start his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans criminals and rapists, and championed the falsehood that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S.). But it needs to be said: Trump isn't the root of all these "speak English" incidents.

If you believe the president's behavior and policies are the only culprit, it's probably because you haven't been aware of the problem.

While there has been an increase in hate crimes in the days following the 2016 presidential election, people of color have been hearing the "speak English, this is America!" bullshit for years. It has happened everywhere from IHOP restaurants to state legislatures. There was even a cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia, PA that posted a sign in December 2005 reading, "This Is America When Ordering Please 'Speak English.'" That sign was up for 10 years.

And xenophobic Americans don't only rage against people speaking Spanish. Remember the 2015 incident involving the Somali immigrant who was hit with a beer mug for speaking Swahili with her family?

The "speak English or get the hell out" sentiment is inextricably tied to the history of white, Anglo supremacy in the U.S. Just look at how Native American children were ripped away from their families and sent to English-only boarding schools. Or how the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 severely restricted immigration, only allowed migrants with a high level of education and knowledge of English.

Speaking a language other than English comes across as "un-American" to some. And it only gets worse when you consider who gets harassed and who doesn't: These modern incidents mostly involve a white person harassing Brown or Black folks. Have you ever heard about someone asking a white French or German person to speak English in the same "you don't belong here" tone? There's a reason it's acceptable for white Europeans to speak their native language while it isn't for people of color. (Hint: It's the Euro-centrism that drives the white nationalist movements. Or in layman terms, racism.)

English may be the de facto language of the U.S., but it isn't official at a federal level (though 31 states have made it official in one capacity or another). According to a report by the Census Bureau, there are at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. Studies have also found Spanish is the second most common language in the country. It's also important to stress that studies have found 79% of those who speak a language other than English at home are also proficient in English.

Seeing people like "Mike" get furious and spit out the word "spic" with such ease is deeply upsetting, especially when I think of how the word has been used to oppress Puerto Ricans like me and other Latinx folks.

I think of my parents' thick accent and my own struggle with English as a second language, wondering whether we will ever live in a world where we aren't looked down upon just because our native tongue is different.

But there's also a part of me that's amused by the ignorance of those who believe people like "Mike" are solely due to Trump's rise. Granted, many experts believe that his election has meant open season to publicly spout racist beliefs. You could blame the president, but it's also worth noting that in 2017 it's much easier to record and upload footage of this type of altercation.

The real problem is that racism runs deep in the U.S. — but it's often forgotten we're an amazingly diverse country. I believe change is possible. But only if we start listening to all the voices that make up this great nation, not just those who choose to shout.