“Neither black nor white, Mexicans were usually regarded as a degraded ‘mongrel’ race, a mixture…” (Foley)

The dyadic racial thinking of white southerners and northerners encountered some challenges in the mid-nineteenth century as European whites began their westward march across the continent. In the trans-Mississippi West whites encountered Mexicans in the present-day states of Texas, New Mexico, and California. From their first encounters, Anglos (the term used by Mexicans for white Americans) did not regard Mexicans as [125] blacks, but they also did not regard them as white. Neither black nor white, Mexicans were usually regarded as a degraded “mongrel” race, a mixture of Indian, Spanish, and African ancestry, only different from Indians and Africans in the degree of their inferiority to whites. Indeed, many whites considered Mexicans inferior to Indians and Africans because Mexicans were racially mixed, a hybrid race that represented the worst nightmare of what might become of the white race if it let down its racial guard. Where whites encountered groups who were neither black nor white, they simply created other racial binaries (Anglo Mexican; white Chinese, and so forth) to maintain racial hierarchies, while the quality that made whites superior–their “whiteness”–assumed a kind of racelessness, or invisibility, as they went about reaping the spoils of racial domination.

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 124-125.

“the intermediate and much-better-qualified red and yellow races” (In re Po, qtd. in Haney López)

‘red’ and ‘yellow’ races as ‘intermediate’, WBL p. 57

In contrast to such openly racist views, some judges writing in the racial prerequisite cases proclaimed fair-mindedness on the issue of race as well as solicitude for the petitioners. For example, in 1894, Judge Danaher of the City Court of Albany, New York, barred a Burmese petitioner from naturalization in In re Po, but not before remarking that he “appears to be a man of education,” [57] adding, “if there is no obstacle, it would give the court great satisfaction to grant his petition, and admit him to citizenship.”[17] Such solicitude, however, often seems disingenuous, or at least incapable of overcoming the strong taint of racism in these opinions. Thus, the same judge who expressed this high sentiment regarding Po manifested his subscription to the racist hierarchies of the time only a few lines further on. In sympathy for the excluded applicant, Judge Danaher complained of the 1870 revision allowing the naturalization of persons of African descent: “A Congo negro but five years removed from barbarism can become a citizen of the United States, but his more intelligent fellowmen… of the yellow races… are denied the privilege.”[18] The judge in Po was not alone in seeing a contradiction between admitting to citizenship Blacks but not Asians. A federal district judge sitting in Oregon lamented in 1880 that Congress should have “profer[red] the boon of American citizenship to the comparatively savage and strange inhabitants of the ‘dark continent,’ while withholding it from the intermediate and much-better-qualified red and yellow races.”[19] A generation later and across the continent, a federal district judge in South Carolina, perhaps more pragmatic, resigned himself to the dictates of Congress thus: “It may be that a highly educated and cultivated Japanese or Chinese or Malay or Siamese is better calculated to make a useful and desirable citizen than a savage from the Guinea coast, but it is not for the courts to give effect to such reasoning.”[20]

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 56ff.
  1. [17]In re Po, 28 N.Y. Supp. 383, 384 (City Ct., 1894).
  2. [18]Id.
  3. [19]In re Camille, 6 F. 256, 258 (C.C.D.Or. 1880)
  4. [20]Ex parte Shahid, 205 F. 812, 815 (E.D.S.C. 1913).

“muddied by simultaneous conflict and mixture of cultures … the Mexican finds himself in the middle” (Buitron)

Nowhere was this amalgamation of the races more evident than in the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, (1580-1648) a Hispanisized Mexica who became renowned for his histories of the Pre-Columbian and colonial eras. … [5] Most importantly, it is in the work of de Alva that we begin to see the ambiguity present in the Mexican identity, an identity torn between the values of the indigenous American and the Spaniard. The identity of the mestizo, and of all Mexicans, was muddied by simultaneous conflict and mixture of cultures. During the colonial era and for centuries afterward, status in Mexican society was determined by racial ancestry. People of Indian and mixed race were placed in a lesser rank, excluded from political power. This racial discrimination had a profound effect on the nation as a whole. “The Mexican,” writer Samuel Ramos postulated, “finds himself in the middle, and to be there is his destiny, for he is not really American [Indian] and no longer Spanish. Thus the Mexican, the compulsive imitator, considers himself an inferior being.” Paz described the history of the Mexican as a tragic quest for lost parentage, who desired “to go back beyond the catastrophe he suffered… to be a sun again, to return to the center of that life from which he was separated.” Just as the black thinkers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin sought an identity which was not African but not yet white American, Mexicans and their descendants in the United States would be forced to grapple with the same critical issue.

Richard A. Buitron, Jr., The Quest for Tejano Identity in San Antonio, Texas, 1913-2000. New York: Routledge, 2004. 5-6.