OAKLAND – The Oakland City Council this week voted to require city workers to speak Chinese or Spanish in what could send ripples across San Francisco Bay and the entire nation.
The measure, intended to increase access to city services among non-English speakers, has drawn criticism from those who say it effectively favors two ethnic groups over everyone else in the city.
Oakland became the first in the United States to give preference in hiring to those who speak another language in addition to English. San Francisco is expected to consider a similar measure in May.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said enticing applicants to speak more than one language will give the city an advantage in serving the city's minority population. Census figures reflect that 35 percent of the city is Asian or Latino.
"We're not saying they'll speak a foreign language exclusively," Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown told Fox News. "Rather, these individuals we hire will master English, and Cantonese or Spanish."
But others, including blacks, are worried they may be at a disadvantage when competing for employment in the city's departments.
"It's going to end up where almost all these jobs will be given either to Latinos or to the Chinese," said Norman Matloff, a local civil rights activist.
Oakland officials insist the policy will have only a minimal impact on applicants who speak only English. But critics fear many hiring decisions will in fact be determined by those who speak Spanish or Chinese fluently.
Ofilia, a Spanish-speaking resident of the Oakland, is one supporter of the ordinance.
"I pay taxes, I work hard, very hard, to support my family," she said. "I deserve this respect to have information in my language."
Matloff said he supports the idea of bilingual services, but said the ordinance will discriminate against those who are not Chinese or Latino.
"These jobs are going to wind up going to the native speakers," he said.