Joe R. Feagin
excerpted from: Mexican Americans: Rethinking the "Black-white Paradigm", 54 Rutgers Law Review 959-987, 957-965 (Summer 2002) (154 Footnotes Omitted)
In May 1990, three white men in suburban San Diego were drinking beer. After a while, one said he wanted to "shoot some aliens." From a house on the United States-Mexico border, one man, using a high-powered rifle, shot and killed a twelve-year-old Mexican youngster attempting to cross the border. The man was sentenced only to two years in jail for involuntary manslaughter. Clearly, this killer did not value the lives of undocumented immigrants. In recent years, white hostility toward immigrants has sometimes reached violent, even hysterical levels, as evidenced by numerous white supremacist publications. These publications attack Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, who are often called "mud" peoples, racial "mongrels," and "aliens." Yet it is not just ordinary Americans, but powerful whites as well, who create the negative image of "aliens" invading the country. For example, we see in the San Diego case that the United States judge did not place much value on a Mexican immigrant's life.
But who, actually, are the real aliens? One of the great ironies of this killing is that the Mexican youngster and other so-called "aliens" crossing the border are moving into what was once part of northern Mexico, an area taken by force by the United States government. Indeed, a research study by Robert Alvarez found that for nearly two centuries, starting well before the United States took control from Mexico in an imperialistic war in the 1840's, many generations of Mexicans migrated back and forth from Mexico's Baja California to what is now the United States' political entity called California. Thus, there is a long history of Mexicans moving over this land area, and it is only later in that movement's history that a border was imposed.
The fact that most white Americans do not know, or prefer to forget, their brutal and imperialistic history makes it easier to rationalize attacks on Mexican immigrants. In April 1846, President James Polk, seeking to gain "[a]ll Mexico," sent United States troops into an area, Texas, recently taken by force from Mexico, and then, on into an area of the borderlands that he knew Mexicans had long viewed and treated as their sovereign territory. President Polk intentionally provoked a border clash between the United States and Mexican troops, an incident that enabled him to falsely claim that Mexico had started a war against the United States. Later historians have linked this trumped-up war to the imperialist and racist notion that the United States had a right to move into Mexican territory as part of its "manifest destiny" to rule over "backward" peoples. This imperialist notion rationalized the desire of many European American invaders for unjust enrichment in the form of land. Indeed, the border area where the first skirmish took place soon became the home for very large and profitable Anglo cattle ranches.
It was in 1845 that jingoistic journalist John O'Sullivan coined the phrase "manifest destiny" when he wrote that "[o]ur manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Together with many other European Americans, O'Sullivan argued that the United States government had a mandate to teach the North American way of life to "backward" peoples such as Mexicans and Native Americans.
However, during and after the Mexican-American war, as the debates over the incorporation of Mexican territory increased, some white southerners were concerned that too many of these mixed-race people might be brought into the United States. During congressional debates over annexing Mexican territory, prominent Senator John C. Calhoun argued that the United States had never "incorporated into the Union any but the Caucasian race. . . . Ours is a government of the white man. . . . in the whole history of man . . . there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal to the establishment and maintenance of free government." In his view, as well as that of other whites, the "colored and mixed-breed" Mexicans were unacceptable in the "free" United States. I note here that the irony of this argument, an argument still asserted today, involves how the mix in the Latin American population was created. As Mexican American analyst Ilan Stavans bluntly wrote, "In one way or another, we are all children of lascivious Iberians and raped Indian and African maidens, and yet, diversity is our flag: We are blacks, Spaniards, Indians, mulattos, and mestizos."
If it had not been for the imperialistic war-making on the part of the United States government, the Mexican youngster who was killed in 1990, as well as many other immigrants, might well have been traveling peacefully from one part of Mexico to another. In a real sense, the boy was not the "alien." It is the European Americans who today are "aliens." They are the descendants of invading "aliens" who took over northern Mexico by force. This era of United States imperialism is still rarely dealt with in the country's schools and textbooks.
Typically, the conception of a group of human beings as somehow "alien," as an inferior "race," is substantially generated and maintained by those with great power and authority. Throughout United States history, ordinary white Americans have usually learned their stereotyped views of the racialized "other" from those in authority, including parents, politicians, teachers, clergy, business leaders, and media authorities. Note, for example, the influential book, Alien Nation, by Peter Brimelow, an editor for Forbes business magazine. In his book, Brimelow develops a negative view of recent immigrants to the United States and emphasizes the notion that they are not European, but are indeed "alien." Like many business, political, and religious leaders, he is particularly concerned about Latin American immigrants. He even suggests there is a "glaring possibility" that Mexican immigration to the Southwest may eventually lead to a restoration of the area to Mexico. He worries that there are Mexican American organizations "openly working for Aztlan, a Hispanic-dominated 'political' unit to be carved out of the Southwest and (presumably) reunited with Mexico." As Brimelow sees it, "the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has been white." Before 1950, he argues, most Americans "looked like [him]. That is, they were of European stock. And in those days, they had another name for this thing dismissed so contemptuously as 'the racial hegemony of white Americans.' They called it 'America."' Clearly, Brimelow's concern is with protecting white dominance, which he views as threatened by non-white "alien" peoples. The leading Latino scholar, Rodolfo Acu, has noted, "Always defined as Euroamerican, the US self-image seems to white people to be seriously threatened for the first time since the birth of the nation . . . . [This is] another reason for the virulence of today's racist nativism."
The influential Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has argued that, if multiculturalism ever becomes central in the United States, the nation could "join the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history." According to Huntington, in the past, nativist worries about immigrants' assimilating were unwarranted. Today, however, the situation is one where some immigrant
groups feel discriminated against if they are not allowed to remain apart from the mainstream. The ideologies of multiculturalism and diversity reinforce and legitimate these trends. They deny the existence of a common culture in the United States, denounce assimilation, and promote the primacy of racial, ethnic, and other subnational cultural identities and groupings. They also question a central element in the American Creed by substituting for the rights of individuals the rights of groups, defined largely in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. Huntington makes clear in his analysis that he is explicitly concerned that today the immigrants come "overwhelmingly from Latin America and Asia." However, he does not deal with the substantial discrimination and segregation that these Latin American and Asian immigrants receive at the hands of white Americans - actions that doubtlessly reduce the possibility of integration and assimilation.
Influential commentators like business magazine editors and leading Ivy League professors play an important role in creating and circulating negative images of recent immigrants. The immigrants of greatest concern are usually those from Latin America. Moreover, conservative members of the nation's elite are not alone in creating images of threatening aliens who cannot, or do not want to, assimilate to the Anglo-Protestant mainstream. Even a liberal academic like the prominent historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has expressed fears that the United States cannot continue to permit substantial immigration if the new immigrants do not fully assimilate to "the language, the institutions, and the political ideals that hold the nation together." He too has in mind non-European immigrants from Latin America and Asia - those he fears are less oriented to Anglo-American ideas and institutions than those from Europe.
Those non-Latinos who edit and report in major newspapers and magazines play a primary role in communicating negative images of immigrants. For example, one recent study examined many articles in a major West Coast newspaper and discovered numerous reports on Latin American immigrants that used racialized language and metaphors. In these articles, reporters often used metaphors portraying Mexican and other Latin American immigrants as animals, invaders, and disreputable persons. The articles describe the need to "ferret out illegal immigrants," of government programs being "a lure to immigrants," of the appetite for "the red meat of deportation," and of government agents catching "a third of their quarry." Other terms and metaphors portrayed these immigrants as a danger, a burden, dirt, disease, invasion, or waves flooding the nation.
Significantly, the media figures who craft such images of an alien people flooding and threatening the nation are not members of the working class. They are for the most part middle- and upper middle-class white Americans. Working class and lower middle class whites often absorb, or extend, such negative metaphors of the immigrants coming into the country. Thus, on numerous Internet websites, as well as in videos and books, white supremacists describe Mexican and other Latino immigrants as a "cultural cancer" or a "wildfire." They too are sometimes concerned that Mexicans have a plan to reconquer the United States.
The role of middle- and upper middle-class whites in circulating negative images of Mexican immigrants, other Mexican Americans, and other Latinos can be seen in the commonplace mocking of Spanish and Latino cultures. One research study by leading anthropologist Jane Hill examined the common caricaturing and mocking of the Spanish language across the nation - including made-up terms such as "hasta la vista, baby" and "no problemo," and phrases such as "numero uno" and "no way, Jos" While this mocking may seem innocuous to some white observers, it reveals "a highly negative image of the Spanish language, its speakers, and the culture and institutions associated with them." Complex caricaturing of Spanish and Spanish speakers is commonplace in board rooms, at country-club gatherings, in gift shops, and in the mass media, where once again, the purveyors are typically middle- and upper-class whites. Moreover, advertising signs and cards in gift shops and similar stores sometimes contain jokes about "cucarachas," the Spanish word for cockroaches and an epithet sometimes used by whites to describe Mexicans.
Degrading images are also found in places where they have more subtle effects. For example, in a recent movie, Men in Black, a United States government organization is trying to keep "aliens" from going to other planets. In the movie, the most threatening aliens are cockroaches, who are successfully exterminated by the movie's heroes. Since the movie begins with images of Mexican immigrants, this scenario likely reinforces in moviegoers' minds the association of cockroaches with "alien immigrants."
With the large increase in Latin American immigrants and the Latino population in recent decades, an era where blatantly racist comments are considered impolite by most people in public settings, has come a more subtle way of stereotyping and deriding these new Americans. Such linguistic and cultural mocking often generates or perpetuates degrading stereotypes and images of Latinos.
. Graduate Research Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Florida, Box 117330, Gainesville, FL 32611.