George A. Martinez
excerpted from: George A. Martinez, African-Americans, Latinos,
and the Construction of Race: Toward an Epistemic Coalition, 19
Chicano-Latino Law Review 213-222 , 214-216 (Spring 1998) (54 Footnotes)
I want to focus on the example of Mexican-Americans.
Mexican-Americans have been legally classified as white. That legal
classification impacts the relationship between African-Americans and
Mexican-Americans. It creates a barrier to coalitions with
African-Americans and other non-white minorities.
An example from Dallas, Texas is instructive. In the City of Dallas,
there are currently major battles between African-Americans and
Mexican-Americans over the direction of the Dallas School District. In
connection with this conflict, African-Americans have recently expressed
resentment toward Mexican- Americans. The resentment is expressed as
follows: Mexican-Americans have been free riders. African-Americans
fight for civil rights; Mexican-Americans ride their coat tails and
share in the benefits.
This resentment has been significantly linked to the legal
construction of Mexican-Americans as white. Recently, some
African-American leaders in Dallas have argued that Mexican-Americans
should not share in the benefits or gains achieved by African-Americans
because Mexican-Americans have been legally classified as white. Thus,
the relationship between African-Americans and Mexican-Americans is
impacted by the construction of race. The legal designation of
Mexican-Americans as white raises a barrier to coalition building
between African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.
In order to help build a coalition between African-Americans and
Mexican-Americans, it makes sense for Mexican-Americans to reject their
legal designation as white. Although white identity has been a
traditional source of privilege and protection, Mexican-Americans did
not receive the usual benefits of whiteness. Mexican-Americans
experienced segregation in schools and neighborhoods. Mexican-Americans
have been discriminated against in employment. Moreover, in non-legal
discourse, Mexican-Americans have been categorized as irreducibly Other
and non-white. For example, one commentator described how Anglo-
Americans drew a clear racial distinction between themselves and
Racial Myths about Mexicans appeared as soon as Mexicans began to
meet Anglo American settlers in the early nineteenth century. The
differences in attitudes, temperament and behavior were supposed to be
genetic. It is hard now to imagine the normal Mexican mixture of Spanish
and Indian as constituting a distinct 'race,' but the Anglo Americans of
the Southwest defined it as such.
Given all of this, it does not make sense for Mexican-Americans to
retain the legal designation of white. If Mexican-Americans embraced a
non-white legal identity, then Mexican-Americans and African-Americans
would be able to build a better relationship.
It is pointless for Latinos and African-Americans to divide
themselves over the issue of Latino "whiteness." Indeed, to
preserve the current racial hierarchy, mainstream white society often
attempts to create divisions among minority groups. Given this, Latinos
and African-Americans must work together as a coalition in order to
dismantle racial subordination. By rejecting the legal designation of
white, Latinos would be taking a step toward building such a coalition.
[d1]. Associate Professor of Law, Southern Methodist University.
B.A., Arizona State University; M.A., 1979, The University of Michigan;
J.D., 1985, Harvard Law School.