“Patrolling the Borders of Whiteness: How the Texas Mexicans Became People of Color.” Charles W. Johnson (Auburn University)
Submitted and accepted for presentation at the Symposium for History Undergraduate Research (SHUR) conference at Mississippi State University.
ABSTRACT: (393 words)
Latinos are people of color. They are the largest and the fastest-growing non-white population in the United States today. Everybody knows this: it is routinely taken for granted in media, in political polling, and in policymaking. Immigration is a fraught issue in U.S. politics because debates about immigration often tacitly or explicitly become conversations about race, color lines, declining white demographic majorities and the status of non-white Mexican-American and Latino populations in American public life.
But it has not always been so. In 1845, when white Texans met to frame an antebellum state Constitution, formally dedicated to preserving slavery and white supremacy, draft articles followed standard Southern legal practices by defining qualified electors as “free white male persons.” But heated floor debates broke out over whether or not the language excluded Texas Mexicans. In the racial order of the Deep South, mestizo Tejano communities posed an anomaly for the ever-present color line: did Tejanos count as “white persons,” like Anglo Texans and European immigrants, or as non-white, like blacks, Indians, and mixed-race “persons of color?”
I will analyze the evolving legal construction of whiteness in the 1845 Texas state constitution, Texas’s distinctive racial intermarriage law, and the federal racial-prerequisite case In Re Rodriguez (1897), and Texas “white primary” party bylaws. I will show that Tejanos posed a racial problem for the Deep South culture of Anglo Texas. In antebellum Texas, despite brutal, often violent Anglo social prejudice, Anglo and Tejano politicians repeatedly agreed to address the anomaly by categorizing Mexicans as legally white. But after Reconstruction, Anglo majorities moved to push Tejanos out of legal whiteness, to make them subject to disenfranchisement and segregation. This historic reversal — the racial “darkening” of Texas Mexicans — was a political decision and a contested historical process emerging from the racial projects of antebellum slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow. The removal of Tejanos from whiteness, which has so profoundly re-shaped the debate over immigration in U.S. politics, was an act of racial reconstruction, which, unlike the racializing of black and Indian populations, was rooted not in the Deep South settler-plantation system but in a post-Civil War hybrid, integrating the increasingly Deep South economy in Texas with an emerging frontier Western racial order, in a regional borderland within the newly consolidated Continental United States.