“not definitely white, Negro” and racial intermediacy and ambiguity (1930 Census, qtd. in Cohn)

The 1930 Census race or color instructions for “Mexican” show a clear connection with the theme of racial intermediacy and ambiguity:

all persons born in Mexico, or having parents born in Mexico, who were not definitely White, Negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese.

(Instructional language quoted from D’vera Cohn.)

“In Texas, unlike in other parts of the South, whiteness meant not only not black but also not Mexican” (Foley)

In rupturing the black-white polarity of southern race relations, the presence of Mexicans in central Texas raises some interesting questions about the way in which “whiteness” itself fissured along race and class lines. White Texans had a long history of invoking the color line in their social, economic, and political interactions with African Americans, but they had little experience in plantation society with what one contemporary sociologist called “partly colored races.”[12] Were partly colored Mexicans, in other words, white or nonwhite? As a racially mixed group, Mexicans, like Indians or Asians, lived in a black-and-white nation that regarded them neither as black nor as white. Although small numbers of Mexicans–usually light-skinned, middle-class Mexican Americans–claimed to be Spanish and therefore white, the overwhelming majority of Texas whites regarded Mexicans as a “mongrelized” race of Indian, African, and Spanish ancestry. In Texas, unlike in other parts of the South, whiteness meant not only not black but also not Mexican.[13]

Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 5.

 

  1. [12]Mnax Sylvius Hindman, “Economic Reasons for the Coming of the Mexican Immigrant,” American Journal of Sociology 35 (January 1930): 609-10; and idem, “The Mexican Immigrant in Texas,” Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly 7 (June 1926): 37.
  2. [13]For the growing literature on working-class constructions of whiteness, see David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London and New York: Verso, 1991); idem, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working-Class History (London and New York: Verso, 1994); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control (London and New York: Verso, 1994); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York and London: Routledge, 1995); and Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (London and New york: Verso, 1990). On the legal construction of whiteness, see Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996); and Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106 (June 1993): 1709-91. On racial formation and the gendered construction of racial ideologies, see Howard Winant, Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs 17 (Winter 1992): 251-74; Peggy Pascoe, “Miscegenation Law, Court Cases, and Ideologies of ‘Race’ in Twentieth-Century America,” Journal of American History 83 (June 1996): 44-69; Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); and Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History (London and New York: Verso, 1992). See also Barbara J. Fields, “Ideology and Race in America,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 143-77; Thomas C. Holt, “Marking: Race, Race-Making, and the Writing of History,” American Historical Review 100 (February 1995), 1-20; and Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).

“The American community has no social technique for handling partly colored races” (Handman, 1930, qtd. in Foley)

Most Anglos in the Southwest did not regard Mexicans as white, but they also did not consider them to be in the same category as “Negro.” Before 1930s many Mexicans themselves simply thought of themselves as “Mexicanos”–neither black nor white. In 1930 a sociologist, Max Handman, commented: “The American community has no social technique for handling partly colored races. We have a place for the Negro and a place for the white man: the Mexican is not a Negro, and the white man refuses him an equal status.”[6] As Handman explained, “The Mexican presents shades of color ranging from that of the Negro, although with no Negro features, to that of the white. The result is confusion.” No one has been more confused than whites themselves over the racial status of Mexicans, because some Mexicans look undeniably “white,” while others look almost as dark as–and sometimes darker than–many blacks. “Such a situation cannot last for long,” wrote Handman, “because the temptation of the white group is to push him down into the Negro group, while the efforts of the Mexican will be directed toward raising himself up to the level of the white group.” Mexicans, according to Handman, would not accept the subordinate status of blacks and instead would form a separate group “on the border line between the Negro and the white man.”

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), 127.
  1. [6]

“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.