In 2002 the owners of R.D.’s Drive-In, a small eatery in Page, Arizona, began requiring their all-Navajo staff to speak only English when serving customers or working in the kitchen, as well as when they went on break. According to the New York Times, R.D.’s owners claimed this English-only policy was necessary because some male employees were making rude and sexually-suggestive remarks in Navajo about customers, and they insisted that the ban on Navajo actually proved that management supported its Navajo staff and patrons.
This red, white and blue-themed photo from RD’s website shows owners Richard and Shauna Kidman and son, and suggests that the restaurant’s English-only policy is a patriotic gesture, defending the United States not just against French fries but also against the onslaught of minorities and their languages, even though speakers of Navajo came to the New World long before English did.
Most employees, including the alleged harassers, signed statements agreeing to the new rule. But the four Navajo women employees who were fired for not signing the one-language pledge didn’t feel particularly supported. Instead, they complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the owners applied their language policy only when it suited them, “encouraging Navajos to break the English-only rule and use their native language when a sale depended on it.” So the EEOC sued R.D.’s for discriminating on the basis of national origin, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The EEOC has won settlements against employers in many language disputes, and now, in its first case of discrimination involving a Native American language, it has negotiated a settlement with the drive-in owners: they may require employees to speak English while dealing with the public, but not at other times.
Both sides in this long-running case are claiming victory: the EEOC for getting the drive-in owners to agree that employees may use their native Navajo when appropriate at work, and the Kidmans for striking a blow for small businesses as well as supporting English, a language that many Americans seem to think is in danger of becoming extinct.
But what’s endangered in Page is not small businesses or the English language, it’s Navajo. R.D.’s hasn’t got much competition in the low-end restaurant market in Page. On the other hand, Navajo continues to decline in the face of the all-powerful English juggernaut that keeps sweeping other languages out of the way.
The settlement in EEOC v. Kidman, which supports both English and Navajo, is not surprising. U.S. courts have typically upheld an employer’s right to regulate employee language, but employers are not generally allowed to tell their workers what language they may use on breaks or when the nature of the job does not require English.
What is surprising is the fact that supporters of official English are joyously celebrating a victory of small business owners over an unfeeling, politically-correct federal government bent on telling Americans they can’t speak English. As Richard Kidman put it, “I honestly believe that if we are forced to run this business by allowing people to speak any language, we won't survive.”
Language control belongs not in the hands of the feds, Kidman and his supporters claim, but in the hands of the capitalists who make this nation great.
But that argument is a red herring, because supporters of official English would like nothing better than to place language control directly in the hands of the federal government. Making English the official language of the United States could take language choice out of the hands of the employer or the individual once and for all, since the feds would be choosing English for them. To demonstrate how important it is for the federal government to direct language choice, supporters of official English made sure that the recent official English bills considered by Congress all contain a provision giving an individual who has been “injured” for using English the right to sue for damages.
It's not clear that anyone has ever been injured for using English, but if English were official, employers wouldn’t have to worry about employees suing them for language discrimination. Unless of course the bosses wanted their workers to speak Spanish or Vietnamese, in which case the supporters of official English would be defending those poor employees who had been penalized for using English on the job.
Of course in the 1800s, the last time that the federal government controlled Indian languages, native children were punished, sometimes beaten, for speaking Hopi or Navajo instead of English at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools that they were forced to attend. Not just in class, but also on the playground, in the dormitories, and in the English-only dining halls that followed the same language rules as R.D.’s Drive-In.
Henry Ford’s Model T was cheap and successful because customers were free to buy a car in any color they wanted, so long as that color was black. If English were the official language of the United States, the owners of small businesses could have the freedom to make their employees speak any language, so long as that language was English.