By Arkadiy Fridman and Ilya Galak
In the end, the vote was overwhelming.
“For far too long, dozens of thousands of the Russian-American senior citizens of New York have been shut out of the voting process unfairly because of the language barrier,” pontificated State Sen. Carl Kruger when he introduced the legislation. Passed by the New York state Senate 48 to14 on May 28, the bill, known as S. 552 – An act to amend the election law in relation to providing Russian-language voting materials” passed the state Assembly with only 23 members dissenting out of 132 votes cast.
Russian was thereby added to the list of existing alternate languages in which election material must be printed, the others being Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
Those who argued for the passage of the law — and New York’s City Hall was not among them because of the tremendous expense complying with the law would entail — pointed to the 1 to 1.5 million Russian-speaking residents of the New York metropolitan area; part of a community in which 320,000 were born in Russia or other countries of the Soviet Union. Some districts boasted Russian-speaking populations of more than 20 percent, who the politicians felt were being disenfranchised by the lack of Russian language voting materials. Those officials felt that they weren’t being given an opportunity to represent ALL citizens in their district, because those who could not read English could not register to vote.
The act purported to enfranchise “another of [New York’s] culturally diverse immigrant populations, like many that have come before it.”
A CLOSER LOOK
Questions arise, however, about whether the bill was justifiable in these tough economic times — or even necessary. Those who are even more skeptical will point to such a bill and call it a bribe, buying the votes of a growing and powerful minority. What other reason could there be to spend money on such a bill, when unemployment hovers around 10 percent and deficits stretch as far as the eye can see?
There are other reasons to oppose this bill. Political writer and founder of the Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly, reminds us that to become a citizen our laws require that you demonstrate “an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak … simple words and phrases … in ordinary usage in the English language.”
When discussing the wisdom of translating election material, Schlafly issued a stern warning:
“Printing ballots in foreign languages is fundamentally anti-democratic because fair elections depend on public debate on the issues and candidates. People who don’t understand the public debate are subject to manipulation by political-action groups that can mislead them in language translations and then tell them how to vote.”
The underlying theme here is to accept or reject the value of assimilation; the willingness of a minority population to cast off the culture of his or her birth and embrace the culture of their newly-chosen country.
One could argue that the America that was the great “Melting Pot” produced the strongest and greatest country in the world, as diverse populations and ethnicities melded to form a people with a strong, blue-collar work ethic, a belief in the importance of education and advancement, a love of democracy that would keep Europe free through two world wars, and a willingness to create a military that would be the liberators of millions.
RIGHT TO THE POINT
Perhaps no one has ever said it more elegantly, and more directly, than President Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote these words in a letter to the president of the American Defense Society on January 3, 1919, just three days before he died:
“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.
But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American and nothing but an American. … There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag. … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language. … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
As Teddy Roosevelt grew older, he increasingly seized on the theme of “Americanization.” He warned of the dangers of “hyphenated-Americans” and predicted disaster for the United State if it were to become a “tangle of squabbling nationalities”
He wanted the English language to become compulsory learning. “Every immigrant who comes here,” he said, “should be required within five years to learn English or to leave the country.” In a statement to the Kansas City Star in 1918 he said, “English should be the only language taught or used in the public schools.”
He also insisted, on more than one occasion, that America has no room for what he called “fifty-fifty allegiance.” In a speech made in 1917 he said, “It is our boast that we admit the immigrant to full fellowship and equality with the native-born. In return we demand that he shall share our undivided allegiance to the one flag which floats over all of us.”
AN INFORMAL SURVEY
In an effort to gauge the feelings of the Russian community, I engaged people on the streets of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, one of the oldest Russian enclaves in New York, and still as vibrant and thriving as ever.
I followed a simple methodology: I went out on the street, introduced myself as a journalist and began to ask elderly people, for whom this law was passed, what they felt about the bill. Admittedly, I did not act by all the rules of statistical science, but it didn’t take long for the attitude of those I interviewed to become clear.
The first thing I realized was that pride was a factor in those who applauded the measure — perhaps even more so than necessity. The passage of the bill was a sign of “respect” to some of those I interviewed, a manifestation of political clout, recognition that the Russian community was a force to be reckoned with — or at least paid attention to.
But many saw the bill as disrespectful and hypocritical. When asked if the law was necessary, a common answer was, simply, “No.”
After all they speak English — and they are the OVERWHELMING majority. Doctors, lawyers, programmers, engineers, government employees, skilled workers, policemen — why do they need any of this?
More than that, I feel bad for our children. With the instatement of this law, in a way, they become second class citizens. I doubt that those people born in the U.S. will treat them better after this.
On the contrary, the society presently is very politicized and all are watching how government money is appropriated. And by so much noise being made out of something like this, then by passing this law, our children are being thrown under the bus.
Even the elderly, who have a difficult time learning a new language, have outlets from which they get their news and current events:
We have the privately owned Russian-speaking Davidson radio, oriented especially toward those people who speak English poorly. This radio copes perfectly with those functions, which the politicians want to take upon themselves.
This radio, at the cost of its owners, informs us regarding all local political news. Here politicians present their pre-election speeches, accounting for the work they have done. That is where everything is explained to us, I would even say — everything relative to an election is broken down to its smallest components.
A SIMPLE CONCLUSION
In conclusion, we don’t really have a need for these translations. I don’t know who is going to be reading them, when all this can be heard on the radio in a form that is a lot more interesting and less officious.
Other than that, I have never had any problems at the voting polls. Respectful Russian–speaking volunteers showed and explained everything.
It appears that the motivation behind this bill was painfully transparent — it was a dishonest and disrespectful misjudging of the Russian community by the politicians.
“In my humble opinion, I just don’t understand real purpose of this bill,” immigrant Boris Borovoy states flatly. “The majority of politically active Russian-Americans are fluent in English and have no need for a Russian translation; to me it’s another pork barrel, another waste of taxpayers’ money for a mostly symbolic purpose.
And for hard-working, middle-class Russian-Americans it’s real slap in a face. “Want to make some important political decisions? Learn English, comrade. That’s as simple as it gets”.
Lucy Gunderson translated an article title “Voluntary Segregation” by Yevgeny Novitsky, published in the newspaper Russian Bazaar. In the article, Novitsky analyzes the bill and laments that “lack of English completely cuts people off from the real America. They are forced to communicate with people who have a very limited range of interests.”
Novitsky’s analysis cuts like a knife to the heart of the matter, expressing his pity at those who would consider the bill to be an historic event. And in a final declaration of the independent American people of Russian descent, he cries:
“I would be far happier if one fine day New York officials were to announce that the Russian-speaking community no longer existed. Then Gov. Paterson would say something like, ‘Russian-speaking immigrants have melded so seamlessly into American life that it is no longer possible to separate them into a distinct ethnic enclave. We can now proudly call them Americans of Russian descent.’
“Then the group of loud enthusiasts who call themselves ‘community leaders’ would stop speaking on behalf of the entire Russian-language community. Redundant associations and coalitions that exist mostly because of the language barrier would disappear. And to the proposals by officials to translate materials into Russian, every one of ‘our’ U.S. citizens would answer indignantly but proudly, “Who do you take me for? I AM AN AMERICAN.”
Arkadiy Fridman , a former Soviet Army officer who came to the United States in 1992, heads the not-for-profit Staten Island Community Center in Dongan Hills and is the president of Citizens magazine. Ilya Galak, an electrical engineer, has been in the United States since 1989 and is on the staff of Citizens magazine. This article originally appears in Citizens magazine and was also published on SILive.com.