Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the Senate floor last week that an amendment to make English the national language of the United States was "mean-spirited," "divisive" and worse.
"I really believe this amendment is racist," said Reid. "I think it is directed basically to people who speak Spanish."
Were you willing to assume that Reid sincerely meant these words, and that he leveled an accusation of racism in the world's greatest deliberative body only after he had done some deliberating himself, you would nonetheless need to fill in the blanks of his elliptical logic.
If he truly believes the English-language amendment was "racist," Reid must have determined that: 1) the language a person speaks is determined by his race, 2) there is a Spanish-speaking race and 3) that this amendment was "directed" at the Spanish-speaking race in order to harm it.
Someone might have liberated Reid from his core delusion by, for example, asking him whether he knew which language the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used when he wrote "A Letter From the Birmingham Jail," one of the most powerful indictments of racism ever written.
The answer, of course, is English -- the same language used for the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation.
But at least some witnesses to Reid's ludicrous accusation were instantly appalled by its vicious vacuity. According to a report in The Washington Times, there was a "stir of whispers in the Senate chamber and gallery" after Reid made the accusation. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the amendment (and who, incidentally, happens to speak Spanish as well as English) was, according to the Times, "clearly offended" by it. An aide handed Reid a note, and Reid promptly said: "Even though I believe this amendment is unfair, I don't in any way suggest that Jim Inhofe is a racist. I just believe that this amendment has, with some people, that connotation -- not that he is a racist, but that the amendment is."
Moments later, Reid returned to hurling insupportable and inflammatory accusations at Inhofe's amendment. "It is un-American," he said. "This is divisive, it is mean-spirited."
In fact, the amendment is just the opposite. It is profoundly American, unifying and big-hearted. It aims at fully assimilating immigrants into our national community, no matter where they came from or what their native tongue.
First, it sets more specific goals for the tests used by the Department of Homeland Security that are supposed to ensure that naturalization candidates understand U.S. history and the English language. Under the amendment, prospective citizens would learn about "key" U.S. documents and historical events, such as the Declaration, the Constitution, all the great wars, the civil rights movement, and court cases and acts of Congress exemplifying American democracy.
Secondly, prospective citizens would need to demonstrate a "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life."
The amendment also curtails President Clinton's Executive Order 13166, which instructed all federal agencies and grantees to ensure that their programs were available to all comers in whatever their native language. This order effectively made the provision of federal services in foreign languages an entitlement.
While Inhofe's amendment eliminates that entitlement, it lets stand all current and prospective foreign-language provisions specifically authorized by Congress, including the bilingual ballot provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Inhofe's amendment is a positive step because it reverses a trend that has made it ever easier for immigrants from non-English-speaking lands to never master the language that has united Americans since before the founding.
The Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey provides data that can enlighten debate on this topic. It ranked 70 U.S. cities by the percentage of people 5 years or older who can speak English "less than very well." Santa Ana, Calif., ranked first. More than 58 percent of its residents were unable to speak English very well. Miami ranked second, with 49 percent. Los Angeles, a city of 3.8 million, ranked third, with 32.1 percent -- well more than a million people -- unable to speak English very well.
Inhofe's amendment may help bring these numbers down and keep America united by a common language -- a point 11 Democrats understood when they crossed party lines to join 52 Republicans in approving it.
Reid's accusation that the amendment is "racist" was a crude effort to divide people along linguistic lines for partisan advantage. If anything said in the Senate last week was divisive and un-American, it came from the lips -- if not the brain -- of the minority leader.