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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) (Full Document)
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 Mexican- Americans:
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.
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.