Joey Vento, Multicultural Ideology, and the ‘Speak English’ Sign

by Christopher Paslay

(In memory of the recent passing of Joey Vento, I am re-posting this article which originally appeared on Chalk & Talk on 2/14/09.)

“This is America.  When ordering, please speak English.”

By now we know the story.  Joey Vento, owner of the famous Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia, placed a small sign in the window of his restaurant asking customers to order in English.  Although the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed a discrimination complaint against Geno’s (which the commission eventually lost), Vento said the sign was never meant to be offensive.

“This country is a melting pot, but what makes it work is the English language,” Vento told members of the commission.

How we react to this “speak English” sign says a lot about who we are and what we believe in.  Those who find it offensive are probably cultural pluralists.  Those who agree with its message are most likely assimilationists.

If you’re not familiar with these concepts, allow me to elaborate on their meanings.

According to James A. Banks, author of Cultural Diversity and Education, “It is extremely important, argues the pluralist, for individuals to develop a commitment to their culture and ethnic group, especially if that group is oppressed by more powerful groups within society. . . . each member of a culture or ethnic group has a moral obligation to join the liberation struggle.”

In other words, cultural pluralists believe you should not only be permitted to speak in your native tongue, but you should do it with pride, and resist anyone or anything that tells you otherwise.

On the other hand, according to Banks, assimilationists believe the following: “. . . strong ethnic attachments are dysfunctional in a modernized civic community.  The assimilationist sees integration as a societal goal in a modernized state, not ethnic segregation or separation.  The assimilationist thinks that the best way to promote the goals of society and to develop commitments to democratic ideals is to promote the full socialization of all individuals and groups into the shared national civic culture.”

In other words, This is America.  When ordering, speak English. 

Today, the debate between cultural pluralism and assimilation isn’t limited to chessesteak shops in South Philly.  America’s schools are jumping into the fray as well.  Educational policy makers and those interested in school reform are battling over ideas and curriculum in regards to multicultural education.  And like the heated debate over Vento’s sign, each camp has a set agenda and interprets research very differently.

When it comes to education, the pluralist believes that the cultures of ethnic groups are not deviant or deficient in any way, but are well ordered and highly structured—although different from the dominant culture.   To quote Banks, pluralists believe “curriculum should be revised to reflect the cognitive styles, cultural history, and experiences of cultural groups, especially students of color.”

Educational assimilationists believe that learning characteristics are universal across cultures, and that the socialization practices of the dominant culture enhances learning, while the socialization styles of ethnic groups hold their members back from succeeding in school.  “Emphasis should be on the shared culture within the nation-state because all citizens must learn to participate in a civic culture that requires universal skills and competencies,” Banks writes of the beliefs of assimilationists.

Both the cultural pluralist and assimilationist concepts have their drawbacks.  The pluralist theory is lacking because it often fails to prepare students to cope adequately with the real world beyond their ethnic or cultural community.  And because learning characteristics are not always universalistic, but to some extent, cultural-specific, the assimilationist theory is not completely foolproof.

The answer to curriculum reform is what Banks calls Multicultural Ideology.  Banks states, “. . . educational policy can best be guided by an eclectic ideology that reflects both the cultural pluralist position and the assimilation position, but avoids their extremes.”

In other words, we need educational policies that promote social cohesion and a minimum of mainstream socialization, but at the same time, take into consideration a student’s learning style based on his or her culture or ethnic background.

2 thoughts on “Joey Vento, Multicultural Ideology, and the ‘Speak English’ Sign

  1. Do people really order cheesesteaks in foreign tongues that much? Or was it the accents of those moving into the Italian Market that scared people like Joey Vento?

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