Saturday, August 17, 2019

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Vernellia Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

Article Index

III. Is Anti-Latino Violence Based on Racism? Anti-Immigrant Nativism? Or the Result of the Black/White Binary?

Whether anti-Latino violence is racist, nativist, or a result of the black/white binary depends upon the theoretical lens through which such violence is viewed. For instance, the murder of Varela should be scrutinized through a racist lens where the dominant narrative of race teaches that certain cultures are more superior to others or that the white majority group is, for the most part, “innocent” of racial discrimination. Varela's murder could, then, be understood to be a result of Kelley's customary “assertion of [racial] supremacy,” which maintains a cultural order based on, among other things, distinctive physical traits. With Varela's bronze-colored skin, indigenous-looking eyes, and full lips, he had many distinct physical characteristics that Kelley could have used, unconsciously or not, to assign himself a position of power over Varela. Moreover, because the public image of Latinos is still one of “an immigrant, a recent arrival,” or a racial Other to the dominant Anglo culture, Kelley may have believed his actions were justified to the extent that he was following the dominant Anglo cultural tradition of excluding those individuals who are deemed to be members of a separate and inferior race.

At the same time, Varela's murder must also be filtered through a nativist lens. As the reader will recall, nativism focuses on the “foreign” and “un-American” characteristics of an individual or group that promotes the elimination of those who are unable to assimilate fully into the dominant culture. In short, nativism translates “into a zeal [by the dominant society] to destroy the [foreign] enemies of a distinctively American way of life.” Varela, a man with 200 family members who lived in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time of his death, and a person who spoke Spanish, could certainly have been perceived to embody the trigger for Kelley's fear of foreigners.

According to the news reports, at the time of his arrest, Kelley was an “unemployed golf-cart repairman and greens supervisor.” He had no known family and presumably lived alone in a racially-mixed, low-income neighborhood. Alone and a residential “minority” in a charged environment of political hostility toward immigrants, Kelley's internalized and irrational fear made Varela an easy target. Not surprisingly, nativism becomes particularly pervasive in times of “national stress and fear, as in times of war, economic recession, or demographic shifts stemming from unwanted immigration[,] ” all of which are still prevalent and were particularly pronounced at the time of Varela's murder in 2010.

Like the public's paranoid fear of L.A.'s Mexican youth in the 1940s, itself a product of the country's pathological fear of a foreign takeover as it entered into the Second World War, Kelley saw Varela, like the 1940s Mexican hoodlums, as an internal foreigner whose cultural and linguistic traits represented a disloyalty to the dominant culture's concept of national unity. Thus, it is likely that Varela's murder was a result of Kelley's nativist beliefs about him.

However, the murder of Varela should also be examined through a racialized nativist lens. As a Mexican-American and a third-generation U.S. citizen, Varela might also have symbolized to Kelley the foreigner of color whose cultural traits prevented him full assimilation into the dominant culture and whose race excluded him from full acceptance by the dominant culture. For Kelley, Varela might have represented a foreigner who shared the same separate and inferior physical characteristics as the “imbecile and indolent” Mexican race. In Kelley's mind, Varela could have embodied the dirty, lazy race that drained public resources, took all the jobs, and contributed to the high rates of crime. All told, Varela perhaps signified to Kelley an American future in which cultural and racial diversity would “be among its defining features.” If Kelley believed that Varela's continued presence brought closer the dreaded day when diversity would triumph and blur the distinctions among the external foreigner, the internal foreigner of color, and the nationalist, then killing him might have made Kelley feel less fearful.

On the other hand, considering that Varela's murder occurred Arizona, the same state in which SB 1070 had been enacted just two weeks earlier, meaningful connections must also be drawn between the draconian anti-immigration mandates of the politicians and the negative effects of such directives on some citizens. Like the Alien Registration Act of 1940 and other comparable anti-immigration legislation, the enactment of SB 1070 authorized the limitation, reduction, or elimination of a particular immigrant group within the United States. SB 1070 was also enacted by decision-makers who feared such foreigners believing them to have a corrosive effect on the nation's security and identity.

Thus, Anglo citizens like Kelley are both encouraged and allowed to treat particular groups with hostility and disdain, if for no other reason than to maintain their own sense of national unity and security. At the same time, Anglos are bombarded with overheated rhetoric from state legislators suggesting that the way to control the immigration problem in the United States is to shoot immigrants in the same manner feral hogs are shot - by helicopter. Anglos are exposed daily to fear-filled rants that a weak stance on immigration will inevitably lead to “terror babies.” In such a climate, the connection between the murder of Varela and the broader political anti-immigrant sentiment emerges in stark relief.

Whether Kelley held racist or nativist beliefs that were validated by Arizona's SB 1070 law and whether those beliefs prompted his murdering of Varela are matters for debate. However, in the view of many Anglos, Latinos indisputably are the ethnic group that has embodied the image of the “alien” who does “not really belong to, or in, America.” As some scholars argue, “the public identification of ‘illegal aliens' with person[s] of Mexican ancestry is so strong that many Mexican Americans and other Latino citizens are presumed foreign and illegal. When citizens and aliens look alike, then all are presumed to be alien and foreign and undermining of the national character.”

Finally, it may be that Kelley felt free to murder Varela because he viewed him as a racially/ethnically unknowable and indefinable individual. Working within the black and white binary analysis, the racial construction of Mexican-Americans, and the resulting normalization of racial ambiguity of Latinos, prominently began in litigation. For example, in Hernandez v. Texas, although the Supreme Court held that Latinos were permitted to sue for discrimination in parts of the country where they could show local prejudice, it failed to recognize Latinos, as a group, as a separate race.

Throughout our history differences in race and color have defined easily identifiable groups which have at times required the aid of the courts in securing equal treatment under the laws. But community prejudices are not static, and from time to time other differences from the community norm may define other groups which need the same protection. Whether such a group exists within a community is a question of fact.

Similarly, in Tijerina v. Henry, New Mexico's District Court refused to allow Mexican Americans to define themselves as a separate class of “Mexican-Americans” who sought equal educational opportunities in local schools. As the court put it in its dismissal of the complaint, the term “Mexican-American” was too indistinct to be defined a class within the meaning of class action suits under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Alternatively, various lower federal and state courts have treated Mexicans as non-white. For example, in Inland Steel Co. v. Barcelona, the Indiana Appellate Court held that, as a legal classification of an inhabitant and citizen of the United States, “the word ‘Mexican’ should [not] necessarily be construed to be a white person” when the Encyclopedia Britannica states, “that approximately one-fifth of the inhabitants of Mexico are whites, approximately two-fifths Indians, and the balance made up of mixed bloods, Negroes, Japanese, and Chinese.” Similarly, in In re Camille, the Circuit Court of the District of Oregon that a man who “is as much an Indian as a white person” is not a white person under the naturalization laws because the words “white person” did not intend to include “the red race of America.”

In contrast, in Independent School District v. Salvatierra, the Texas Appellate Court held that Mexican school children could not be segregated from “children of other white races, merely or solely because they are Mexicans.” Accordingly, Mexican-Americans were seen as white by various lower courts.

As exemplified by the cases above, the racial construction of Mexican-Americans by the courts--as either white, not white, or of no racial identity at all--was a consequence of viewing Mexican-Americans within the paradigm of the black and white binary. As a result, the racial classification of Mexican-Americans lacked meaning and resolve. In fact, where the Anglo judges ruled that Mexicans were either white or non-white, it was often based on the need to “reformulate[] their white selves” and protect Anglo privilege. Although Mexicans were “co-whites” by law, they were never given the same degree of privilege and protection as their white compatriots. Thus, as non-racial equals, Mexicans, by law, were left with no racial classification at all. Accordingly, the categorization of Mexicans remained racially ambiguous.

Although Varela was a Mexican-American with brown skin, he was categorically racially ambiguous, and therefore, insignificant within the commonly accepted black/white paradigm. Thus, perhaps, the act of murdering Varela was not merely a product of Kelley's racist or nativist beliefs towards Varela, but was also fueled by his hatred and irrational fear of Varela's vague, shifting, and racially ambiguous identity - one that could easily stem directly from the various cases that failed to classify Latinos as a legitimized race.

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