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Commentary: In Dallas, watch your language

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SAN DIEGO -- What's next? A resurgence of segregated swimming pools, where they only let Mexican-Americans swim on Fridays because they drain the pool on Saturdays? A return to segregated movie theaters?

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Of course, that would never happen. We're a better country than we used to be. Now America's largest minority is courted by Fortune 500 companies, profiled by television networks, and fawned over by politicians. These days, as far as many Latinos are concerned, America really is "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Or is it? Fifty years ago, Latinos were often punished for not speaking English, on the job and in public schools.

Today, at least 20 patrol officers of the Dallas Police Department -- ranging from a rookie to a 13-year veteran -- are in hot water after ticketing 38 motorists since 2007 for not speaking English. The problem -- this isn't even a crime. Not in Dallas or anywhere else in the U.S.

Police officials are still digging through records and might find even more people are involved, both officers and motorists. They say the officers mistakenly applied a federal law meant specifically for truck drivers and other holders of commercial licenses. Apparently, the option was erroneously presented to them on a computerized menu of possible infractions.

And the officers didn't have the common sense to question it? Can you imagine a police officer thinking it was a crime to not speak English? Where were the supervisors? Department policy requires that a sergeant sign off on all citations. Shouldn't red flags have gone up? Someone should lose his job over this.

Some will call this an honest mistake. But, to do so, they have to overlook at least two inconvenient facts -- that the mistake occurred at least 38 times and that 20 separate police officers made the same mistake. That's some coincidence.

None of those who received citations were commercial drivers; nearly all of them were Hispanic. Meanwhile, according to The Dallas Morning News, not one of the police officers that issued the citations was Hispanic.

Is this racism -- maybe a new strain of that ugly virus? What should we call it? Linguistic profiling?

Not so fast, says Dallas resident Hector Flores, former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

"It's very difficult to come to that conclusion, that it's strictly a racist act," Flores told me. "One thing is for sure ... the police knew full well that these people couldn't defend themselves, especially if they're limited English (proficient). They're going to just take the ticket and try to get out of there."

Since Flores also happens to be a former San Antonio police officer, I asked if he thought that this could be a case of public servants acting out of frustration at not being able to communicate with many of the people they come into contact with on the job. Maybe, instead of learning a few words of Spanish, I suggested, they just got fed up and lashed out.

Flores said he didn't want to speculate about the officers' motives. But he did acknowledge the mood in the Dallas area has become much more tense as of late for Latinos.

This story is more evidence that Latinos are living in the best of times and the worst of times -- all at the same time. Maybe this was just an attempt to generate revenue for the city by picking on people who, it was assumed, wouldn't complain. Or maybe it's about fear over changing demographics and a concern by some that they're going to be displaced by the growing Latino population.

Such emotions can make people do crazy things. And, it seems, when it comes to the Dallas Police Department, there's enough craziness to go around.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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