'The Caucasian Cloak': Mexican Americans and the Politics of Whiteness in the 20th-Century Southwest
73 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2006
The history of Mexican Americans and Jim Crow in the Southwest suggests the danger of allowing state actors or private entities to discriminate on the basis of language or cultural practice. Race in the Southwest was produced through the practices of Jim Crow, which were not based explicitly on race, but rather on language and culture inextricably tied to race. This Article looks at three sets of encounters between Mexican Americans and the state in mid-twentieth century Texas and California - trials involving miscegenation, school desegregation, and jury exclusion - to see the way state actors used Mexican Americans' nominal white identity under the law to create and protect Jim Crow practices. First, it argues that whiteness operated primarily as a "Caucasian cloak" to obscure the practices of Jim Crow and to make them appear benign, whether in the jury or school contexts. If Mexican Americans were white, then they were represented so long as whites were represented. Second, it demonstrates that Mexican American civil rights leaders as well as ordinary individuals in the courtroom did not simply identify as white; some showed a more complex understanding of "Mexican" as a mestizo race, and others pointed to the idea of race as a status produced by racist practice - Mexicans were non-white if they were treated as non-white under Jim Crow. Finally, it argues that, at least in twentieth-century Texas and California, cultural discrimination was racial discrimination, and that continuing discrimination on the basis of language ability and other cultural attributes should be scrutinized carefully under anti-discrimination law.
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