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excerpted from: Luis Angel Toro, "A People Distinct from Others": Race and Identity in Federal Indian Law and the Hispanic Classification in OMB Directive No. 15, 26 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1219, 1246-1252 (1995)


Mexican-Americans, widely conceived of as recent immigrants even in cities named Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and San Antonio, are actually members of a community which has existed continuously in the Southwest since long before 1848. Since the conquest, that community arguably has changed from a northern extension of Mexican society into a distinct Chicano one, but its relationship to the majority society has changed little. Like the communities lumped under the "Black," "Asian/Pacific Islander," and "American Indian" umbrellas, Chicanos have been defined as alien to the mainstream white society whose members viewed themselves as the bearers of a superior European civilization in America. Unlike any other group in the United States, Chicanos are at the same time an indigenous and an immigrant community, comprised of descendants of both Mexicans who lived in the territories ceded to the U.S. in 1848 and Mexicans who crossed the border in later years.

Like the indigenous American nations and Native Hawaiians, and unlike every other ethnic group in the United States, Chicanos came under United States authority through territorial conquest. Mexico's defeat at the hands of U.S. invaders in the war of 1846-1848 left an estimated 60,000 Mexican citizens north of the new border in New Mexico alone. The war itself was marked by numerous atrocities committed against Mexican civilians, leaving lasting bitterness towards the U.S. in both the newly annexed territories and in the remnants of Mexico. The war of 1846-1848 was justified in racial terms. One white opponent of the war wrote that "[t]he Anglo-Saxons have been apparently persuaded to think themselves the chosen people, anointed race of the Lord, commissioned to drive out the heathen, and plant their religion and institutions in every Canaan they could subjugate.... Our treatment both of the red man and the black man has habituated us to feel our power and forget right." Even before the war, the common American belief that "racial mixing" (such as that practiced in Mexico between Europeans, Africans, and indigenous peoples) led to offspring inferior to either "pure" race, combined with anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic ideas inherited from England, insured that Mexicans would be viewed as racial inferiors. Today, Anglo historians generally admit that the war of 1846-1848 was the unjust result of the white supremacist ideology known as Manifest Destiny, which held that God wanted Europeans to drive others out of North America and establish for themselves a democratic republic.

Since that time, Chicanos have been considered a racial minority, never part of the white American majority. The racial nature of anti-Mexican discrimination was examined thoroughly in a 1975 article by Gary Greenfield and Don Kates. Anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings that race under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 should be defined with reference to the popular conception of race at the time of the Act's passage and not according to scientific theories of racial classification, the authors found that, in 1866, Mexicans were considered members of a nonwhite race. That this race was considered inferior and a suitable target for racial oppression is hardly surprising. In the Southwest, for example, the term "greaser" became a racist epithet for Mexican-Americans.

More recently, Ian Haney Lopez chronicled the process through which Mexicans came to be regarded as members of a different and inferior race by Anglo-Americans in the nineteenth century. Reviewing wartime propaganda and laws such as California's infamous "Greaser Act," Haney Lopez concluded that the myth of Mexican racial inferiority both reinforced Anglo pride in their industrial accomplishments and provided a handy justification for the expropriation of Mexican lands. This conclusion is entirely consistent with the racial realist premise that racial reform occurs when reform serves white interests; the obvious corollary to this theory is that racial oppression will be legally enforced when it will serve white interests.

The situation has not changed over the intervening decades. The Anglos who poured into Texas and the rest of the Southwest brought their apparatus of racial terror, developed to hold the African-American people in bondage, to the newly conquered territories. Mexicans became frequent victims of beatings and lynchings. In 1884, Mexicans fled daily lynchings in the area around Fort Davis, Texas; many Anglos voiced the opinion that the lynchings should continue until no Mexicans remained in the area. Lynchings were a tool of racial oppression elsewhere in the Southwest as well; in California, lynching of Mexicans became so common that in the Chicano community, American democracy became known as "linchocracia."

In the twentieth century, Chicanos have continued to be defined as racially different from the majority. In California, numerous state studies described Chicanos as part of a distinct race. A 1929 report prepared for the governor emphasized that "the bulk of immigration from Mexico into the United States is from the pure Indian or the Mestizo stocks of the Mexican population." At the federal level, a 1925 report by the Department of Labor warned that ninety percent of Latin Americans were of Indian blood and therefore inferior to whites. One Congressman described Mexicans as a "blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and negro slave" and stated that U.S. law must guard against "mongrelization" of the country. These racist opinions led to the mass deportation campaigns of the 1930s, during which approximately 50,000 Chicanos and Mexicans were deported from Los Angeles alone.


When Mexican-Americans started organizing against discrimination, both they and Anglos were aware that the basis for their treatment was racial. The founding document of the League of United Latin American Citizens ("LULAC"), a collection of groups dedicated to ending racial discrimination by asking to be accepted into the white mainstream, declared defiantly its members' "sincere and respectful reverence for our racial origin, of which we are proud." Despite the groups' emphasis on loyalty to the U.S., assimilation into mainstream American society, and devotion to what many would now call "formal equal opportunity," LULAC met fierce resistance when it tried to establish chapters in many parts of Texas. This resistance reflected the ongoing desire of the Anglo majority to keep Texas' Chicano community in a racially subordinated position. Also, a fresh wave of anti-Mexican hysteria led to a second mass deportation. In 1954 alone, over 1,000,000 Chicanos and Mexicans alleged to have entered the country illegally were deported.

The fact that Mexican-Americans are a racially subordinated minority group has been recognized by Supreme Court decisions finding that Mexican- Americans have been the victims of racial (not ethnic, national origin, or language) discrimination, and by congressional findings of racial discrimination against Chicanos.

These events occurred and these findings were made in an era when the Census defined Chicanos as white. Those considering reform of Directive No. 15 are well advised to realize that while the law of racial classification has always played an important role in enforcing racial subordination, Chicano history shows that merely defining someone as white does not guarantee that he or she will be so treated in society. If that were true, the extreme claims by some that Directive No. 15 is the source of racial division in society would be valid, and racism could be abolished simply by passing a law instructing federal agencies to count everyone as white.

We Chicanos, like American Indians, do not generally consider ourselves products of an inferior culture that should be abandoned wholesale in favor of an Anglo lifestyle. Waves of immigration in the twentieth century have not transformed the Mexican-American community into a classic immigrant group enamored of American ideals and "way of life." To the contrary, immigrants became part of the existing Mexican-American community emerging from the harsh realities of invasion and oppression. Brutal treatment of immigrants and those suspected of being immigrants, in turn, reminded Chicanos that they were racial minorities in a racist society and made adoption of Anglo culture and practices seem like an act of aggression against one's own community.

In a detailed study of Chicano ethnic identity in southern California, Susan E. Keefe and Amado M. Padilla found that generational differences (that is, differences based on the number of generations during which one's family has lived north of the border) within the Chicano community are not nearly as profound as widely thought or as the immigrant analogy would predict. Indeed, the authors found no decrease across four generations in perceptions of discrimination or ethnic pride and self-identification as Mexican, Mexican- American, or Chicano. This is not surprising in view of the unique position of Mexican-Americans as the only racial minority whose "mother country" both shares a lengthy land border with the United States and has a history of conflict with the United States. Suspicion and distrust of the neighbor to the north has long been a fundamental aspect of culture and politics in Mexico, and Mexican immigrants brought these attitudes with them.

Even more convincing evidence that Chicanos are not assimilating into white American society came from the "control group" of Anglos in the Keefe/Padilla study, which revealed that ninety-seven percent of Anglo social contacts were with other Anglos, a level of "ethnic enclosure" far higher than that of immigrant or U.S.-born Mexicans. In order to preserve this rate of white-only social interaction, "Anglos must actively discriminate against Chicanos in personal relations." The boundaries set by Anglo avoidance behavior mean that Chicanos can become fully acculturated--that is, speak English as a first language and move comfortably in modern U.S. society--but still not be assimilated--that is, accepted as white. Mary Waters found in her study that white Californians were "very aware of which neighborhoods and areas had Mexican-American residents," and considered this racial boundary far more important than any boundaries between white ethnic groups. Further, white respondents on both coasts viewed racial intermarriage, defined as marriage to an African-American, Asian-American, Puerto Rican, or Mexican, as something to be avoided.

The combination of increasing residential desegregation with the continued preference of Anglos to associate exclusively with each other means that Chicano community identification persists even after the individual Chicano has left the barrio. The spatial community has been replaced with a network of personal ties that, due primarily to Anglo avoidance behaviors but also to Chicanos' desire to retain their own culture, remains "as ethnically segregated as any barrio." Anglo-Chicano social interaction is characterized by mutual recognition of a racialized social boundary--a boundary as real as that between Anglo settlers and indigenous families who lived side by side at the time of the Kansas Indians decision. This reality conflicts with the "White, Hispanic" designation given to Chicanos under Directive No. 15, with its implicit analogy to patterns of assimilation found among European immigrant groups. It is hard to imagine that a group that has been racially subordinated for nearly 150 years will suddenly become part of the group that has been doing the subordinating, yet that is precisely the view incorporated into Directive No. 15.

Even if one restricts the definition of "assimilation" to economic success on par with whites, rather than cultural merger with the white mainstream, Chicanos still display no signs of assimilation. A recent study focused on "third-plus" generation Chicanos--Chicanos whose parents were also born in the United States--to determine the extent to which these persons had made progress toward economic parity with whites. The disturbing conclusion of the study was that no such progress could be demonstrated in the areas of education, class distribution, and earnings. Instead, "third-plus" generation Chicanos more closely resembled Blacks than whites--that is, some had progressed into the middle class while the rest remained near the very bottom of America's class structure. The inquiry into economic progress among native-born Chicanos debunks the myth, fashionable in some circles, that "Hispanic" poverty is simply an artifact of the high proportion of poor immigrants in the sample.