Saturday, June 04, 2011

Tejanos and the Elusive Goal of Whiteness, Part 1

Even at the height of the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of whiteness drove a deep wedge between Latinos and African Americans. Both groups shared a common experience of segregation and racism at the hands of the Anglo establishment, but shared oppression did not result necessarily in lasting alliances.

Although often officially categorized as whites, Latinos experienced de facto segregation in housing and the school system and were excluded by custom from public accommodations such as pools, parks and grocery stores. Mexican Americans in Dallas, like African Americans, were crowded into slums, and received inferior health care and lower wages. Yet, despite a common experience of discrimination, relations between the Latino and African American communities remain troubled to the present day.

Understanding the confusing, multidimensional nature of this confrontation requires stepping outside of the simple white vs. black model that unfortunately has dominated historical writing on race relations in the United States. First, it is necessary to separate the concept of race as a matter of belief from race as a physical reality. Biologists have slowly moved away from the idea of race as a legitimate category for analyzing human differences.

As late as 1962 one leading scientist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, marveled that “some authors have talked themselves into denying that the human species has any races at all! . . . Just as zoologists observe a great diversity of animals, anthropologists are confronted with a diversity of human beings . . . Race is the subject of scientific study and analysis because it is a fact of nature.” Another scientist, Grant Bogue, ridiculed colleagues who “have gone so far as to suggest that even the very concept of race is in our heads . . . To this contention, there are several answers. One is often voiced: race is self-evident.”

As Harvard paelobiologist Stephen Jay Gould points out, it is geographic variability, not race, that is self-evident. Race is a social construct but an invalid scientific category of analysis. There is more variation within the arbitrary racial “boxes” that have been used to divide humanity - the boxes labeled in folk wisdom as yellow, black, brown, red and white - than between each category. Quite simply, there is more variety in darkness of skin color, hair texture and other physical characteristics randomly chosen to designate race within one “racial” group than between supposedly different racial groups.

Gould argues that racial categorization makes no sense under the rigid rules of taxonomy, the study of classification. Under the rules of taxonomy, Gould notes, all formal subdivisions of a species, such as Homo Sapiens, are considered subspecies. Each race, therefore, would have to constitute a separate subspecies of humanity. As Gould points out, the practice of dividing species into subspecies has gradually been abandoned by biologists studying other life forms. To do so for humans, Gould argues, represents an “outmoded approach to the general problem of differentiation within a species.”

The category of species, Gould notes, has a special place in taxonomy. Each “species” has to represent a “real” unit in nature - “a population of actually or potentially interbreeding organisms sharing a common gene pool.” Beyond the concept of “species” there is only “subspecies.” Subspecies have been defined as a “geographically localized subdivision of a species, which differs genetically and taxonomically from other subdivisions of the species.” A subspecies must be recognizable by features of its morphology, physiology and behavior, Gould writes. Furthermore, it must occupy a subdivision of the total geographic range of the species.

The usefulness of the subspecies as a taxonomic category falls apart on two grounds. First, its boundaries can never be fixed because a “subspecies” by definition can interbreed with any other subspecies within the same species. Secondly, under the rules of taxonomy, there is no need for the subspecies category. All organisms must be placed within a species, all species within a genus and so on, but there is no requirement that a species be broken down into subspecies. Variability occurs in so many traits of any species, that the variables that are used to mark “subspecies” or “races” seem entirely arbitrary in any case. Why, for instance, are people categorized racially by skin color and not by body weight or height? The racial categories used, Gould suggests, are less reflective of good science than of political and social agendas, as a means of justifying “white” hegemony or patriarchy.

A modern concept of race did not develop until Europeans first widely encountered people of color in Africa, Asia and the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 15th century. The reduction of human differences to arbitrary racial categories - the assigning of Africans, Asians and “Indians” to presumably less human subspecies provided a handy rationalization for European economic and political conquests throughout the newly “discovered” world, the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. If the category of race represents scientific nonsense, it nonetheless reflects a social reality.

Individuals have been assigned, or assign themselves, to racial categories. This assignment process has real-life consequences in the United States generally and in Texas in particular. If the racial category “white” is understood as a political and economic category rather than a physical reality, and if it is understood that to be accepted as white is to gain at least the illusion of greater status and power, then racial conflicts between disenfranchised groups are more easily comprehended.

Of course, if the scientific assignment of racial categories is random and the political and folk cultural processes of becoming “black,” “white,” “red,” “yellow,” and “brown” are even more so. Interbreeding among different human “categories” is so widespread as to render these distinctions meaningless. As sociologist Howard Winant points out, “ . . in the United States, hybridity is universal; most blacks have ‘white blood,’ and many millions of whites have ‘black blood.’ Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and blacks, as well as whites, have centuries-long histories of contact with one another; colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective ‘race mixers.’”

Nonetheless, American society exerts tremendous pressure on an individual to claim a “racial” identity. In spite of the reality of “hybridity,” there remains no category for “mixed” or “multi-racial descent.” A person of, say, African American and Latino descent must pick one or the other category to complete the census form. The supposedly objective racial categories themselves have changed from decade to decade. Winant and his frequent collaborator Michael Omi, for instance, cite the example of Japanese Americans who have been arbitrarily moved from such categories as “non-white” to “Oriental” to “Other” to inclusion as a specific ethnic category under the broader subset of “Asian and Pacific Islander.”

Individuals often have racial identities imposed upon them. Latinos have shifted from decade to decade in and out of the white category. Of course, in a hybrid world reducing the population to five arbitrary categories often leads to designations that defy numerical as well as taxonomical logic. In 1982-83, for instance, Susie Guillory Phipps unsuccessfully sued the state of Louisiana, seeking to change her racial categorization from black to white. Descended from an 18th-century white planter and a black slave, the state’s Bureau of Vital records designated her as “black” on her birth certificate based on a 1970 state law which identified anyone with 1/32nd “Negro blood” as black.

Why little over three percent of a person’s ancestry should determine a person’s “racial category” was never explained by the state legislature or the courts that heard the case. Phipp’s attorney presented the testimony of a retired University of Tulane professor that most Louisiana whites have at least 1/20th African American ancestry, but the court still upheld the state law and Phipp’s categorization.

Race, therefore, is a political and not a biological terrain. The process of racial politics has been best described by Winant and Omi’s theory of racial formation. To Omi and Winant, race is socially constructed but it has taken on a life of its own. A belief system 500 years in the making has achieved political, economic and cultural salience. Race has become a central element of personal and collective identity, not - as Marxists and their philosophical heirs argue - subsumed by class or some other supposedly more fundamental “consciousness.”

Race is a discursive process, in which social meanings are attached to color, phenotype, clothing, cuisine and other elements of culture. These meanings are continually contested and different interpretations of race exist simultaneously between and within different social classes. Omi and Winant challenge the notion that a “fundamental class” (as described by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci) dictates the meaning of race in a given society from above, instead asserting that lower classes claim racial identities and promote racial stereotypes as tools to claim political power. Racial meanings are thus forged and fought out between economic classes and between racial groups (the process brilliantly described by David R. Roediger). Finally, racial formation is a global process, with pan-ethnic racial identities formed by the processes of decolonization, immigration and the international transmission of culture.

To use Omi and Winant’s terminology, elites within the “white,” “Latino” and “African American” communities of Dallas have each launched their separate racial projects over the course of the twentieth century. African Americans, excluded from genuine economic and political enfranchisement, have sought different approaches to achieving entree into the white world of power. Some have accepted the norms of capitalism and American “democracy” and have sought to achieve status in an approach critics have blasted as “accommodation.” Other African Americans seek unity on a racial/cultural basis, seeking to achieve power by challenging white hegemony.

Latinos, by virtue of Anglo-American conquest of the southwestern region of the present-day United States in the 1830s and 1840s, found themselves strangers in a familiar land, cast down from the position of the politically dominant to a marginalized and suddenly “non-white” group within their own country. Latinos have pursued at least two major strategies to cope with this loss of status. One Latino racial project has been to insist on a white identity that emphasizes the Spanish component of Latin American history and disparages or denies the Indian past.

Such a project requires the participant to, at best, hold African Americans and their aspirations for racial justice at a distance, or, at worst, to declare open hostility against blackness. Such a project rejects any connection between justice for Latinos and freedom for the black community. Another major Latino racial project has been to reject whiteness, to claim mestizaje as a heritage and to find political and cultural power in a separate identity. Participants in this project at times, although not always, find a common interest with the African American community in challenging the Anglo power structure.

Finally, “whites” display similar diversity. A minority of the dominant white community critiques “whiteness,” seeing the dominance of Anglo males in the community as resulting in not only racial but also gender and class oppression. More conventional liberals in Dallas saw racial oppression as a detriment to outside investment and economic development. These liberals might accept the classification of individuals into racial groups, but would argue that human differences are the result of culture and the environment.

Economic justice for all ensures political stability, this camp would contend. Moderate conservatives in Dallas eventually would deny the reality of race in order to dismiss the need to address racial inequities. The right in Dallas would accept the reality of race and place a high value on white skin as an indicator of culture and intelligence. Conservatives and the right in Dallas defined “whiteness” with varying and inconsistent degrees of restrictiveness, sometime including and at other times excluding “in-between” groups like Latinos.

As will be noted later, Latinos in Texas at the time of Anglo annexation and those migrating to Texas after the U.S.-Mexican War in the 1840s found themselves in an Anglo-dominated society before a Mexican national identity had solidified. An ideological rationale for a separate “Mexican” national identity was not fully articulated until the writings of Mexican elites such as Jose Vasconcelos, Manuel Gamio and other leaders of the “indigenismo” movement appeared in the early twentieth century. Even at this late date, the Mexican identity did not incorporate indigenous groups such as the Maya and the Yaquis. Vasconcelos’ formulation of the raza cosmica valorized the mestizo, not the Indian. In spite of the potential appeal of post-Revolutionary racial dogma to the mestizo majority, a universal definition of Mexicanidad was never achieved.

The ethnogenesis process in Mexico would not be reproduced north of the Rio Bravo. Vasconcelos’ writings on the raza cosmica would greatly influence the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s and would bear its stamp on the ideology of the Texas-founded La Raza Unida party, but for most of the 19th and 20th century Texas Latinos found themselves, criollos, mestizos and Indios alike, forged into a common racial identity by Anglo racism. They were all Mexicans to many Anglo Texans.

Living in an Anglo-dominated society, Latinos in Texas pursued a far different racial project than that of elites in Mexico. With no large indigenous population against which to define a common mestizaje , Texas Latinos felt a great pressure to claim whiteness as an identity. In Texas, to be excluded from whiteness was to live in segregated housing, to have access to inferior health care and to be shunted to inadequate schools. The leaders of Texas-based Latino groups such as LULAC and the American GI Forum fought to have Latinos considered as whites while holding on to a distinct Mexican ethnic identity. These leaders kept the African civil rights movement at arm’s length while other Latinos sought a higher rung in the state’s racial hierarchy by claiming white supremacy as their cause.

A flurry of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s caused a shift in strategy for the leaders of LULAC, the American GI Forum and other groups. Carving out a separate identity from the Anglo majority came to be seen as a tool for creating political unity and achieving recognition as a significant constituency. At this point, the ideas of Vasconcelos filtered into the Texas Latino lexicon and created a new dimension in the state’s racial politics. Outside elite circles, however, the pressures of whiteness created tensions between African Americans and Latinos as the disenfranchised in both groups engaged in a struggle to escape classification at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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