'Multiculturalism Is Just The Way We Are,' Says Adam Serwer About Speaking Another Language In FL

Aug 23, 2019

Florida’s Department of Health is investigating a claim filed by seven workers who say they were told to stop speaking Spanish at work. The nurses say they were threatened with termination if they did not comply. It happened at a state health clinic in Polk County.

One nurse says being bilingual was a hiring requirement because many of the clinic’s patients speak Spanish and English. It’s illegal to require workers only speak English at work, except for what the Department of Labor calls “very limited circumstances.” 

One in five Floridians speak Spanish. Government agencies, like school districts, include Spanish in their official communications. This alleged threat of job termination in central Florida is a reminder that the heat is on high on the melting pot of America. It comes as the majority of Floridians younger than 70 are now people of color.

Adam Serwer, writer at The Atlantic, joined The Florida Roundup for a conversation about how race, language and identity shaping our politics, and our democracy.

An excerpt from the conversation follows.

The Florida Roundup: I want to begin by asking you what are your thoughts about the claims by these health care workers here in Florida. How do you see that story relating to the themes you write about when it comes to race and identity here in the U.S.?

Serwer:  I think America is a big diverse country with a lot of different types of people and it's really not unusual for employees, particularly in cities, to speak different languages. In fact, it's typically thought of as an asset because you know if you have a diverse customer base, you're going to want workers who can communicate with those customers.  

But we have a president who regards people of Latin American descent as a kind of threat to the country. So it's not surprising that that sentiment didn't exist in the country in the first place, he wouldn't have been elected; and it's not surprising that people feel more comfortable expressing it now towards the people of Latin American descent and their life.

In the Atlantic, as you have written over the last few weeks, drilling down into this theme, you've argued that the president's appeal and his campaign is centered around the idea that, as you say, only white people are true Americans. Are we at a hinge point in America in terms of how we define a multiracial democracy? Why do you feel so much is at stake?

It's not just me that's making that point. The president made it very clear and his advisers have told any reporters who have asked that the president himself believes that singling out those four Democratic congresswoman who are black, Arab American, and Hispanic that focusing on them is a great way to enrage his base and divide the country along racial lines which is key to his re-election strategy.

So, it's not merely a question of what I think; it's actually what the president thinks. It’s the strategy he's pursuing it's the one his advisers have said he's pursuing. I do think it is a hinge point for American democracy because you know this battle about over whether or not we are fundamentally a white Christian country or a place where anybody can come and become an American is an argument that is existential.

It predates the founding in some way. It is certainly a part of the founding and it's not surprising that we're still grappling with it today. Given the history of how those conflicts have gone, I mean when you look at the Civil War, you look at Jim Crow, you look at the battle over immigration restriction in the early 1920s where Asian people, Africans, Jews and Italians were barred from coming to the country. I mean this is something that we've been dealing with for a long time and this is really just the latest iteration of that conflict.

What are your thoughts on the role of insecurity and maybe American insularism regards to English as the language but also the culture of Americanism?  

I'll say two things. One is that part of the problem here is the representation of people of color is somehow a locked in voting block for Democrats, and therefore the more the more diverse the country gets the more that Democrats are going to be able to dominate the country. I think that's fundamentally false. I also think it's kind of racist to assume that people's political views are going to be consistent simply because of their biological inheritance.

We've seen that display here in Florida. We saw it in 2016. We've seen it in 2018 as a matter of fact in the state elections.

It is particularly weird to be in Florida and be shocked by the presence of people who are speaking different languages. I mean I was in Miami two weeks ago, and I walked into a Winn-Dixie, which had the largest kosher section in any supermarket I've ever seen in the United States. In about 10 minutes I heard people speaking Haitian Creole, I heard people speaking Spanish, and I heard people speaking Hebrew — and that's America. That's just the way we are.