1. Jonathan Scott, “Before the White Race Was Invented” (1998) 2.
Bob Wing, Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans 1852-1965 (2005) 3. Elizabeth Martinez and Enriqueta Longeaux y Vasquez, “Viva La Raza, Raza, Raza...” (1974) 4. Arnoldo Garcia, “Toward a Left without Borders: The Story of the Center for Autonomous Social Action-General Brotherhood of Workers” (2002) 5. Mike Davis, “Buscando America” from Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City (2000) 6. René Francisco Poitevin, “Latinos and David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness” (2006)
Jonathan Scott, “Before the White Race Was Invented”
THERE ARE FOUR main theses advanced by Theodore Allen in his twovolume history of racial oppression, The Invention of the White Race. The burden of his study is to show: (1)that racial oppression is a “sociogenic” rather than a “phylogenic” phenomenon; (2)how the introduction of racial oppression was a deliberate rulingclass decision; (3)the way in which the propertyless classes in continental AngloAmerican and United States society have been recruited into the “intermediate buffer control stratum” (the so-called “middle class”) through anomalous white-skin privileges; and (4)the nature of class society under the capitalist mode of production. As far as his first thesis, there is no item of American “common sense” more popular than the idea that race is the same as “phenotype” or skin color. From white racist conceptions of athleticism -- that African Americans dominate certain sports because of distinctively “black” features and attributes -- to the renewal of eugenics in American social science to justify the lop-sided rate of incarceration for African Americans, this bit of “racial” common sense -- Allen terms it “psychoculturalism” -- has insinuated itself into every aspect of life in the Unites States.
One of the great contributions of Allen’s study is a complete debunking of the myth that race and skin color are the same thing. Conversely, one thing that has made the psycho-culturalist myth so enduring is the idea that American slavery was a “peculiar” or “paradoxical” or “exceptional” phenomenon -- terms deeply ingrained in the mainline of American social science. The task for American historians has been to explain away the fact that democratic development in continental Anglo-American and United States history coincided with centuries of racial slavery, racial oppression, and white supremacy. While the psycho-culturalists argue that racism is impossible to eradicate because of the permanence of alleged skin color, the paradox theorists contend that racial slavery and racial oppression gave birth to American democracy, but that race today is nothing more than a vestige of plantation economics. Edmund Morgan, for instance, made this his departure point in American Slavery, American Freedom, where his thesis is that racial slavery and racial oppression were necessary flaws in the unfolding telos of American democracy. Through racial slavery and racial oppression, poor whites were shown by their rulers the difference between enslavement and freedom, between labor bond-servitude and wage labor. Yet his “paradox” argument is actually the corollary of the skin color obsession, since race for Morgan is a ephemeral -- it existed only as a temporary measure designed to “separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks,” and therefore once the numbers of “dangerous free whites” went down, race withered away and class became the dominant feature of American history. For the psycho-culturalists everything is racial, from the clothes we wear and the food we eat to the way we walk, talk, think, dream, and desire. For the psycho-culturalists, anything not determined by race is abnormal and peculiar. Strange bedfellows these twin ways of thinking, and their many combinations and encounters in U.S. history -- the march of democracy and supraracialism --attest to how truly “peculiar” the ideology of white supremacy really is: the absent center of Morgan’s work. For example, the Eisenstein of the United States, D.W. Griffith, served as a national advocate for the re-enslavement of African Americans; many of the largest mass uprisings in U.S. history were pogroms against African Americans; the first and most enduring U.S. nationalpopular art form is blackface minstrelsy; and campaigns for the
presidency continue to be decided on “the race question,” whether it be in the form of “getting the Southern vote,” or where the candidate stands on national policies and programs such as integration and affirmative action, and his record in either enforcing or opposing and repealing them. It is in this world of the surreal that historians of the “white race” conduct their researches and publish their theses and documentation. The experience of reading Allen is like leaving this dream room and slamming the door shut on the way out. It is “white race” which is “peculiar,” not racial slavery and racial oppression. “White-skin privileges,” the basis of the “white race” form of oppression, are peculiar precisely because they depend for their persistence on the shakiest of assumptions and thus the wildest of fantasies: that in America social mobility is guaranteed by the color of your skin. This was the slogan of the “white race” rioters and lynch mobs in July 1863, as they set about burning alive African Americans in New York and destroying millions of dollars of their property (vol. 1, 188-192). Comprised mainly of Irish Americans, the white lynch mobs of New York are known in history texts euphemistically as the “New York Draft Rioters.”
Colonialism As A Model
Examples such as this allow Allen to establish his definition of racial oppression, and to cast out various lines of inquiry. For example, where did the Catholic Irish immigrants get the idea that they would gain if African Americans were made to lose? And how were Irish Americans able to perform their function so well, with such precision and expertise? Allen’s research shows that all the major Irish American newspapers in New York were clamoring for the repeal of laws entitling African Americans to the same employment opportunities afforded laboringclass Euro-Americans. They fought tirelessly to make white-skin privilege a basic right of U.S. citizenship. Moreover, the Irish American establishment was fervently pro-slavery. For example, they threw their political influence behind the campaign to renew the international slave trade; they argued that the rights and privileges sanctified by the U.S. Constitution were white-only rights and privileges -- that non-whites were non-persons and should be treated that way by every court in the land -- and they mobilized thousands of newly arrived Catholic Irish immigrants against their own national
leader, the Catholic Liberator Daniel O’Connell, who had come to the United States from Ireland to aid the Abolitionist movement. Here the Irish American establishment had recourse to two constitutional principles, that of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the 1790 Rule of Naturalization. The latter provided that “any alien, being a free white person... may be admitted to become a citizen” of the United States, while the former involved the Catholic Irish directly in white racial oppression by encouraging, in Allen’s words, “even the most destitute of European-Americans... to exercise this racial prerogative [the presumption white-only citizenship] by supporting the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act” (vol. 1, 185). Furthermore, under the Jacksonian Democratic Party “spoils system,” where “manhood suffrage” laws adopted between 1820 and 1830 recognized only “whites” as “men,” the Irish American political machine converted Tammany Hall into a bulwark of white supremacy in the Northern metropolises, a legacy still with us today (vol. 1, 186187). In 1826 and 1846, for instance, Tammany Democrats bitterly fought every attempt to restore the rights that African Americans had been robbed of during the 1820s and ‘30s (vol. 1, 187). What, then, was the special significance of the Irish American case? Allen argues that it was that “(1) they were the largest immigrant group in the ante-bellum period; (2) they explicitly rejected their own national heritage to become part of the system of (white) racial oppression of African-Americans; and (3) by virtue of their concentration in Northern cities -- above all, New York, the locale of the most important Northern links with the plantation bourgeoisie -- they became a key factor in national politics” (vol. 1, 186). But how did they know so well what to do to gain favor with the oppressing class, the plantation bourgeoisie? Allen writes: “Irish-Americans were not the originators of white supremacy; they adapted to and were adopted into an already ‘white’ American social order. A modern Irish historian puts it in terms of later-arriving Catholic Irish imitating the example of earlier-arriving Ulster Protestants. The Catholic Irish who chose to follow the ‘pre-existing presbyterian logic’ in seeking ‘popular rights,’ were met by the slaveholders’ Jacksonian Democratic Party that ‘had to promote outsiders and small men.’ Those ‘popular rights’ of Irish-Americans were given the form of whiteskin privileges, the token of their membership in the American ‘white race’” (vol. 1, 199). The key to appreciating Allen’s definition of racial oppression is in the
formulation above. Irish Americans became instant white supremacists because they already knew the system inside and out, since it had been imposed on them for centuries by the English in Ireland. As Allen puts it: “Irish history presents a case of racial oppression without reference to alleged skin color or, as the jargon goes, ‘phenotype’” (vol. 1, 22). The heart of Volume One consists of empirical research into the history of racial oppression in Ireland so that “the Irish Mirror,” as Allen nicely terms it, can reflect back the true nature of racial oppression in history, its origins and its social function in capitalist society. This approach, which is new in American historiography, lays a conceptual groundwork “free of the ‘White Blindspot’”(the myth that race and skin color are one and the same (vol. 1, 23).
Racism As Social Control
Allen’s definition of racial oppression, which can be seen clearly in the white race pogrom of 1863, is as follows: “The assault upon the tribal affinities, customs, laws and institutions of the Africans, the American Indians and the Irish by English/British and Anglo-American colonialism reduced all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any class within the colonizing population. This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts” (vol. 1, 32). Skin color has nothing to do with the social function of racial oppression --what Allen terms “social control” -- since the system was designed to maintain British colonial rule over the Irish masses, a situation in which no differences in “phenotype” obtained. The Protestant system of Penal Laws, for example, operated to exclude the Catholic majority from all positions of authority in Ireland, from parliament to the professions to the ownership of property. In this way, the Penal Laws were no different than Jim Crow or South African apartheid. “The essential elements of discrimination against the Irish in Ireland,” writes Allen, “and against the African-Americans, which gave these respective regimes the character of racial oppression, were those that destroyed the original forms of social identity, and excluded the oppressed groups from admittance into the forms of social identity normal to the colonizing power. Take away these elements, and racial oppression would cease to exist” (vol. 1, 81 82). The defining characteristics of racial oppression, which Allen analyzes
throughout Volumes One and Two, are: (1)declassing legislation, directed at property-holding members of the oppressing group; (2)deprivation of civil rights; (3)illegalization of literacy; and (4)displacement of family rights and authorities (vol. 1, 82). In addition to documenting the history of racial oppression against the Irish in Ireland, Allen uses Volume One to show the compelling parallels between the Irish, Americans Indians, and African Americans. Each of the four characteristics of racial oppression is analyzed in the context of these three peoples and their overlapping histories. This aspect of Volume One is the book’s centerpiece. Free of the “White Blindspot,” which denied the common links between the Irish, American Indians, and African Americans -- Allen shows that no definition of racism in American social science includes the parallels between the Irish and African Americans -- Volume Two turns its attention to the plantation colonies of Anglo-America during the period from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the repeal of the original ban on slavery in the colony of Georgia in 1750.
A Pivotal Event
The main events are Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and the 1705 revision of the Virginia laws, in particular, the “Act concerning Servants and Slaves.” For brevity’s sake, this review will concentrate solely on Allen’s original account of Bacon’s Rebellion, which is the pivotal event of Allen’s second volume. The subject of the eleventh chapter of Volume Two, “Rebellion and Its Aftermath,” is the civil war phase of Bacon’s Rebellion, April 1676 to January 1677. Rather than a narrative presentation, the chapter is an analysis of “those elements of the rebellion that relate most meaningfully to the origin of racial oppression in continental AngloAmerica” (vol. 2, 205). Frustrated at being cut out of fundamental changes in Virginia land policy, which allocated the best new tidewater land to wealthy capitalist investors and developers, and agitated over laws prohibiting them from trading with the Indians, the smallholders of colonial Virginia began to organize in 1676 an opposition faction within the ranks of the numerically tiny colony elite. The opposition faction proposed a land-tax incentive to induce the
redistribution of the land. But it was at this very moment -- May 1676 -that the whole structure of ruling-class social control collapsed in Virginia, as the poor and propertyless took up arms against the plantation bourgeoisie as a whole, seeing no future in a society based on chattel bond-servitude. There were close to fifteen thousand laboring people on the move. The Governor and his military apparatus went into hiding, and the county courts, where bond-laborers had their terms of servitude extended and where lashes were laid on, were shut down by the rebel laborers. Colony commissioners reported to England that only five hundred laborers could be made to go to war against the rebels. The majority of the rebels were chattel bond-laborers -- six thousand European Americans and two thousand African Americans). Moreover, the sole reason for the large plantation owners’ rejection of the smallholders’ land-tax plan was to preserve chattel bond-servitude; without it, they told them, Virginia’s tobacco monoculture could not move forward, to use the language of today’s defenders of multinational capital -- Clinton’s favorite saying when promoting free trade arrangements that favor big capital, such as GATT and NAFTA and lately “fast track.” All of the essential elements of Bacon’s Rebellion had to do with the social relations of production at the time, in specific, the relations between workers -- Euro-American and African American bond-laborers -- and the oligarchy of owners of large plantations, an imperial interest that had total control of the land and fur monopolies. In this way, Allen’s placement of the bond-laborers themselves, as well as the social relations of production, at the center of the history of Bacon’s Rebellion is a radical divergence from undialectical, bourgeois accounts of the rebellion, and also a departure from the thesis of equal rights and anti-racism which has regarded the rebellion an early event in the “frontier” phenomenon, whereby the path of white imperialism rolled over the rights of American Indians. Three main points emerge from Allen’s treatment of the history of the Virginia Colony. First, rather than a “natural” outgrowth of English tradition, Allen suggests that chattel bond-servitude in the Virginia Colony was “as strange to the social order in England after the middle of the sixteenth century as Nicotiniana tabacum was to the soil of England before that time” (vol. 2, 103). Thus, the obsession with the so-called “paradox” theory of American history and society -- that democratic development in the United States has occurred simultaneously with the
establishment and continuous functioning of racial slavery and racial oppression -- is, like most negative obsessions, based on a massive form of self-deception, practiced by a whole class and perpetuated by this class through all the organs of official culture. As is the case today, laboring-class men and women back then were supposed to believe that the super-exploitation of their labor power by big capitalists was necessary if they -- big capitalists -- were to compete successfully with their European (today Asian) economic rivals. Thus, all social relations not based on the pursuit of immediate profit, such as the New England system of equitably distributed small landholdings, would have to be eradicated. How this was carried out is thoroughly documented by Allen in chapter five, “The Massacre of the Tenantry.” While reaping enormous profits from the tobacco crop of 1622, the plantation bourgeoisie (through the colony authorities) ordered severe restrictions on the planting of corn, a ban on hunting for food in the forests, and the abandonment of half the population and the withdrawal of the colony into a restricted perimeter. These policies starved the peasantry to death. One-third of the surviving tenants, laborers and apprentices in the entire colony were left without employers or means of employing themselves (vol. 2, 93).
But the only “paradox” of this epochal starting point of U.S. “democracy” is the fact that the “democratic” developers of American society reversed the gains of democratic development in England, such as the laws against treating English workers as chattel -- that is, transferring them without their prior consent from one employer to another -- as well as the restrictions imposed on employers in punishing runaway laborers -- e.g. they couldn’t add years to their servitude (vol. 2, 96). In Anglo-America, punishing runaway laborers by adding years to their servitude became a standard punishment, and chattel bond-servitude the most basic form of labor. Not really a “paradox,” then, the chattelization of labor in Anglo-America is more accurately described, in Allen’s words, as “a monstrous social mutation in English class relations” (vol. 2, 101). Second, freedom for the eight thousand bond-laborers would have revolutionized colonial Virginia from a plantation monoculture to a diversified smallholder economy (vol. 2, 211). As Allen shows in his research, there was no distinction drawn by the insurrectionary bondlaborers between “black” and “white.” In fact, the words didn’t yet
exist. They fought side by side, “the English and Negroes in Armes” as they were then known to the panicked ruling class, providing “the supreme proof,” as Allen has it, that “the white race did not then exist” (vol. 2, 215). This is precisely why Bacon’s Rebellion is such a critical turning point in the American class struggle: it revealed the ruling class’ weakest link and the fulcrum on which every equalitarian upsurge in U.S. history would depart, from the Abolitionists down to the civil rights movement. Bacon’s Rebellion showed a clear and bold awareness on the part of the oppressed that the only thing standing between them and their oppressors was the bourgeois state apparatus itself. To paraphrase Langston Hughes in his poem “White Man,” the rebel bond laborers saw that their oppressor’s name “ain’t really White Man... it’s something Marx wrote down fifty years ago that rich people don’t like to read... C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-T.”(1) Third, just as the massacre of the tenantry in the 1620s had prepared the ground for the institution of chattel bond-servitude, so the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion “cleared the way for the establishment of the system of lifetime hereditary bond-servitude,” since this clear and bold awareness on the part of the poor and landless had to be twisted and denuded for the capitalist class to reproduce itself (vol. 2, 239). Necessary for completing the task was the invention of the “white race”: the imposition by the Anglo-American continental plantation bourgeoisie of a system of lifetime bond-servitude only on persons of African descent, and the establishment of white racial oppression “by denying recognition of, refusing to acknowledge, delegitimizing so far as African Americans were concerned, the normal social distinctions characteristic of capitalist society” (vol. 2, 242). Essential to this ruling-class project “is the insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group (vol. 2, 243). Beginning from this principle of ruling-class social control, the AngloAmerican bourgeoisie opted for white racial oppression and established its defining characteristics, continuing down to the present, to prevent Bacon(s Rebellion from happening again. If one is looking for a short answer to the question, “Why?” -- Why did the Anglo-American bourgeoisie single out African Americans from among the many poor and propertyless in opting for racial oppression, given that skin-color has nothing to do with the system itself? -- it is that, whilst in the British West Indies where there was no “white race” form of oppression because there were too few laboring-class
Europeans to fill the social control stratum (the petty bourgeoisie), in the continental colonies there were too many (vol. 2, 244). There were too many European laboring people with no place to go -- with no social mobility -- which made them a constant threat to the ruling class, the best example of a ticking time bomb that there ever was, and that still is. As DuBois put it in Black Reconstruction (pace Marx), “The black man enslaved was an even more formidable and fatal competitor than the black man free.” Allen articulates it this way: “It was in the interest of the slave-labor system to maintain the whiteskin privilege differential in favor of the European American workers. At the same time, however, it was equally in the interest of the employers of wage-labor, as well as of bond-labor, that the differential be kept to no more than a minimum necessary for the purpose of keeping the European-American workers in the white race( corral... The chains that bound the African-American thus also held down the living standards of the Irish-American slum-dweller and canal digger as well (vol. 1, 198).” Thus, the “white race” was invented as a means of defusing this bomb. With white racial oppression in place, the ruling class could promote poor and propertyless European-Americans into the “middle class,” the same way the British promoted “mulattos” in the Caribbean, but they would have to do so strictly in token-name only, saving them countless billions of dollars, since the fantasy of social mobility was made conditional not on acquiring their own property, their own means of employment, or their own education, but on keeping African Americans poor and oppressed. In this way the ruling class would save a tremendous amount of money also, since they were relieved of having to employ a full-time army to do it. The legacy of the Anglo-American ruling class’ decision to impose white racial oppression is a real living legacy, for as the economist Doug Henwood has recently documented in Left Business Observer, the U.S. middle class is the smallest in the First World, the poverty rate for whites is nearly forty percent, and sixty percent of whites start employment at the minimum wage.(2) Yet this short answer (the ticking time bomb) depends on a thorough knowledge of what Bacon’s Rebellion meant to the ruling class: the prospect of laboring-class African Americans and laboring-class EuroAmericans “confederating,” to use the word that the ruling class had on their lips in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, in class struggle against their capitalist oppressors. Still the order of the day, and the fulcrum on which all fundamental social change in U.S. society finally rests.
Bob Wing, “Crossing Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans 18521965”
The U.S. immigration reform of 1965 produced a tremendous influx of immigrants and refugees from Asia and Latin America that has dramatically altered U.S. race relations. Latinos now outnumber African Americans. It is clearer than ever that race relations in the United States are not limited to the central black/white axis. In fact this has always been true: Indian wars were central to the history of this country since its origins and race relations in the West have always centered on the interactions between whites and natives, Mexicans, and Asians. The “new thinking” about race relations as multipolar is overdue. However, one cannot simply replace the black/white model with one that merely adds other groups. The reason is that other groups of color have faced discrimination that is quite different both in form and content than that which has characterized black/white relations. The history of many peoples and regions, as well as distinct issues of nationality oppression—U.S. settler colonialism, Indian wars, U.S. foreign relations and foreign policy, immigration, citizenship, the U.S.Mexico War, language, reservations, treaties, sovereignty issues, etc.— must be analyzed and woven into a considerably more complicated new framework. In this light, Asian-American history is important because it was precedent-setting in the racialization of nationality and the incorporation of nationality into U.S. race relations. The racial formation of Asian Americans was a key moment in defining the color line among immigrants, extending whiteness to European immigrants, and targeting non-white immigrants for racial oppression. Thus nativism was largely overshadowed by white nativism, and it became an important new form of racism. This development resonates powerfully today in the discrimination faced by the millions of immigrants from the global South over the past forty years, while white European immigrants face virtually none. And lately the Bush administration has formed a new link between war, racism, and attacks on immigrants in his “permanent war on terrorism at home and abroad.” While Asian Americans were this country’s first “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” today Arab Americans are its most prominent racialized enemy aliens.
By the time the first Asians began to come to these shores in any numbers (the Chinese in 1852), basic patterns of U.S. race relations had been set by more than two centuries of Negro slavery and Indian wars. However, those patterns were under attack, and the soon to be fought Civil War would mark a new departure that would fundamentally affect the plight of Chinese in the United States as the century progressed. Reduced to its fundamental dynamics, what had emerged was an entrenched system of white supremacy and black oppression centered on, but not limited to, slavery. The African slave trade was a product of European colonialism of African nationalities, but within each slaveholding country, different racial formations were developed, according to particular conditions. In recent years it has become a progressive mantra that racial categories are “socially constructed,” but it is often forgotten that they only achieve full structural and systemic power when they are legally defined and enforced by state power. In what became the United States, the plethora of both European and African nationalities very early on was subsumed by a legally defined and state sanctioned system of racial categories. In this unprecedented new system, famously hostile European nationalities (e.g., English, Irish, Germans, and French) were united as whites, and the numerous African nationalities, together with all those who seemed to exhibit the slightest perceptible trace of African ancestry, were categorized as Negro, thus with “no rights that the white man is bound to respect.” This hypodescent (or “one drop”) rule, firmly codified in statute by 1705, was meant to provide crystal clarity to the social status of the numerous racially mixed offspring sired by white planters. This was crucial since unlike other slave societies, the Southern planters depended primarily upon slave reproduction (rather than the African slave trade) to fill its slave supply and were also bound and determined to prevent a substantial free group of mulattos to blur the color line. Such a state enforced, polarized system of racial categories and race relations was and is unique to the United States. Also unique to the United States (as compared to other slaveholding countries) was the exclusion of anti-slavery (and slaves) from the independence struggle. Instead slaveholding Founding Fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison ensured that the new country limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. The system of white supremacy was thus extended to an exclusion of people of color from the nationality and polity. Ripped from Africa and excluded from U.S. citizenship, African Americans were rendered strangers in their own
homeland. The pattern regarding Native Americans was much different. Native Americans were only marginally incorporated into the emerging U.S. society and racial system. Rather, they fought to retain what territorial and political autonomy they could in their own nations/tribes/territories in the face of recurrent Indian wars. While they were defeated in most of those wars, they successfully resisted incorporation into colonial or U.S. society proper. Thus, it was oppressive relations between nations (specifically settler colonialism), not racial oppressionwithin U.S. society, that predominated: wars, treaties, territorial fights, military/colonial rule, tribal governments, a reservation system, redrawing of boundaries, etc. Until the 1840s or so, European immigrants to the United States or what became the United States had an inviting situation, although not without discrimination arising from distinct languages, citizenship, religions, and newcomer status. The Irish and other European immigrants became white the day they landed on these shores, but some were treated as “second class whites” for varying periods of time. The often neglected dialectical opposite of black oppression is white supremacy and white privilege: the obverse of the enslavement of blacks was the monopolization of political power, land, skilled trades, and all other forms of rights, property, and privilege by whites, including immigrants. Combined with the ready availability of land opened up by the devastating Indian wars, until the end of the nineteenth century the majority of whites avoided proletarianization and instead became bourgeois or petit bourgeois property holders of one kind or another. Although in the colonial days many European immigrants started out as indentured servants, the vast majority, or at least their offspring, eventually settled into independent farming, independent trades, small businesses, or better. It was not until the 1840s that an industrial proletariat of any size began to develop. And virtually all of this small proletariat was constituted by European immigrants who, in turn, came to play a key role in the developing trade unions and urban political machines, thus developing certain levers of power to defend and expand their rights. By the time of Chinese immigration in the 1850s, the United States was just beginning to deal with massive immigration from Europe and sharp ethnic/national conflict. Nativism had just been born. Finally by way of background, the United States grabbed almost half of Mexican territory through the U.S.–Mexico War of 1848 and thereby expanded its own boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. The war highlighted the harsh dynamic of settler colonialism that dominated relations
between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest in the nineteenth century. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war guaranteed “all the rights of citizenship of the United States” to Mexicans who chose to remain in the Southwest, in practice it was routinely violated as white settlers used everything from legal maneuvers to lynching to dispossess Mexicans of land and power throughout the area.
Phase 1: From Racially Coerced Labor Force to Exclusion
It was into the above situation that the early Chinese immigrants unwittingly thrust themselves. The Gold Mountain had a racial cordon and a developing ethnic/nationality one as well. The experience of the Chinese in California in the nineteenth century was to break new ground. Contrary to the myth that the early Chinese were part of the odious coolie labor trade that flourished between 1847 and 1874, most of the early Chinese immigrants bought their tickets to the United States on credit and were not contract laborers per se. Once they paid off their debts, they were more or less free. And, owing to the rather freeflowing, frontier character of Gold Rush-era California, as well as the crying shortage of labor, racial constraints were not nearly so entrenched or immediate as in the more settled parts of the country. However, the shortage of labor and the grab for land and gold of this period in California were also prime conditions for the reproduction of racism. The white people of California, although themselves new colonists to the area only recently conquered by war from Mexico and many of them recent immigrants to the United States, immediately asserted their presumed white right to these and all other resources and/or positions of privilege over and above the Native Americans, Californios, Mexicanos, Chinese, and other Latin Americans who made up the California population at the time. And in this, the full force of existing U.S. racial law and custom not surprisingly backed them.
The Making of ‘Aliens Ineligible to Citizenship’
Although California was an antislavery territory dominated by “free soilers,” attempts to subordinate the Chinese came forthwith. But determining the precise social status of the Chinese and their place in U.S. society was neither automatic nor unanimous. Whites were divided among themselves between those (mainly capitalists) who desired easy access to cheap Chinese labor and those (mainly labor, that is whitelabor) who wished them excluded from the country. They were stymied by the fact that existing law covered only Negroes, whites, and American Indians, not Asians of any sort, by the unusual
combination of foreignness and non-whiteness that the Chinese seemed to present, and by the fact that white California’s racial conditions and concerns did not completely match those of the federal government. These were conditions they had to sort through, by means of political and ideological struggle, with tremendous, though often overlooked, opposition from the Chinese themselves. It is this process that constitutes what is here referred to as the “racing,” “racialization,” or “racial formation” of the Chinese into Asian Americans. This process eventually produced a social category of a new type, one that was neither simply national/ethnic nor strictly racial, but a combination of the two: by the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese were racialized as “aliens (hence national) ineligible to citizenship (based on race).” At key junctures the U.S. state has defined racial groups and dictated the race relations of which they are part. But it has done so not in a vacuum, but in accordance with racialized socio-economic and political struggles. The culmination of the process of developing the racial category appropriate to the Chinese, not surprisingly, paralleled and eventually settled the fight over whether or not to exclude Chinese from entering the country and/or attaining U.S. citizenship. As the vast majority of the early Chinese headed for the gold mines, California’s first assertion of white supremacy against the Chinese focused on control of the mines. In 1850, California passed the Foreign Miners Tax. The letter of this tax was nativist and applied to all foreigners. In practice it was mainly collected from the Chinese in an attempt to drive them from the mines. This contradiction undermined its usefulness as social policy or law. Still, once the Hall case (more on this below) and common practice made clear that the Chinese had no protection of any sort, they were regularly victimized by white miners and extorted by tax collectors. Another attempt to define the legal status of Chinese took racial, not nativist, form. In late 1853, a “free white citizen” named George Hall was convicted of murdering a Chinese man, but the next year the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction on the grounds that Hall had been “convicted upon the testimony of a Chinese person.” The chief justice ruled that Indians had originated from Asia before crossing the Bering Strait and that therefore the laws barring testimony by Indians applied to the “whole of the Mongolian race,” that Chinese were covered by the generic term “Black” and that the court should not turn “loose upon the community” the Chinese “whose mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual
development...” (People v. Hall). Here was convoluted American racial logic attempting to grapple with the “racing” of a set of people seen as entirely foreign. No concern whatsoever was evinced for the Chinese murder victim. Again, the Chinese were stripped of crucial constitutional rights, but the means for doing so were inadequate and inconsistent. Soon the revolutionary Reconstruction Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1870. The act expressly gave Chinese the right to testify in court and forbade the imposition upon them of discriminatory “penalties, taxes, licenses and exactions of every kind.” In addition, the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the United States and China guaranteed the right of emigration between the two countries. Together, these hindered white California’s ability to institutionalize racially the social position of the Chinese. The original U.S. Constitution defined naturalization as available only to “free, white persons,” but the Civil Rights Act of 1870 finally extended the right of naturalization to “persons of African nativity or descent.” Congress debated Chinese naturalization in the course of the Reconstruction era civil rights debates, but that august body of white men declined to extend citizenship rights to Asians. Asians were defined as “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” which became the new racial-national legal category to exclude Asians from entering the United States, owning land, etc. By 1880, Reconstruction was defeated and the federal government joined the anti-Chinese movement. It legalized Jim Crow, reversed the Civil Rights Act, and negotiated a new treaty with China that paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Alien Land Laws of the 1910s (which deprived Asians of the right to own land), the U.S. racial system also settled on its basic racial categorization of Chinese and other Asians: that of being “aliens ineligible to U.S. citizenship.” This definition applied only to Asians and became the perfect legal grounds systematically to identify and discriminate against them, a racial category of a distinctive type. This category was new in that it incorporated a non-indigenous, non-white, non-black group into the U.S. racial system. It was also new in that the terms “aliens” and “naturalization rights” explicitly incorporated nationality as well as “race” into it.
Racially Coerced Labor and Class Struggles
This racialization process was crucial to what I see as the first phase of the Asian-American experience, that of a racially coerced labor force.
Asian Americans were systematically stripped of their political, economic, cultural, and citizenship rights and thereby condemned to be a vulnerable labor force that was made available to white capital at a price much cheaper than white labor. Although the lower wages and substandard living conditions the Chinese were forced to accept certainly increased the profits of white capitalists, there was much more significance to the racially coerced labor force than short-term “superprofits.” In fact, turning the Chinese into a racially coerced labor force was a fundamental condition for the development of capitalism in California. At that time, labor was so scarce and land so plentiful that free people had better alternatives than to become wage slaves. As with slavery and sharecropping in the U.S. South, coercing people of color into serving as labor was central to the primitive accumulation and the early accumulation of capital in California; they were barred from owning land and forced to become the labor counterpart to (white) capital in mining, railroads, agriculture, and factories, which propelled California’s booming economy and helped forge the first continent-wide national economy. But it wasn’t only the white capitalists who benefited. The racial cordoning of Asians also enabled non-capitalist whites to monopolize small businesses, independent trades and farms, and privileged positions within the workforce, not to speak of land, education, and political power. This is what Harry Chang called the racially differentiated process of proletarianization. Unfortunately, even this was not good enough for white labor. Through their trade unions and political organizations, they were actually the loudest and most organized voices demanding the complete expulsion and exclusion of the Chinese from the United States. However, a careful look at the “white workers” who led the anti-Chinese movement reveals that the most organized and vocal section were actually independent craftsmen or highly paid skilled workers, not regular wage workers, who in the nineteenth and early twentieth century commonly joined the same skilled craft unions and indeed dominated the U.S. trade union movement until the 1930s. These white independent producers and craftsmen did not compete with the Chinese for factory or field jobs. What they feared was that factory based capitalist industry or agribusiness, basing itself on semifree Chinese labor, would successfully displace their small businesses or farms, independent trades, or highly paid skilled labor jobs: in short, that their small-scale petit bourgeois production and trades would be undermined by capitalist enterprises and they themselves might be proletarianized. Thus the status of Chinese labor became a significant issue in the class struggle between small, independent producers
(miners, artisans, and farmers) and large-scale capitalist enterprises. At the same time most unskilled white workers also joined the crusade to exclude the Chinese in order to increase their own employment opportunities and to fulfill their own concepts of white supremacy. The widespread participation, indeed leadership, of white workers in the movement to exclude the Chinese points to the folly of theories that would constrict racism to the oppression of workers of color by white capitalists. It shows that, to the contrary, white labor is often not just a simple description of the color of some workers, but a social category reflecting the fact that white workers and their unions have all too often expressly fought for the interests of white workers as against both white capitalists (some of whom may have preferred having cheap, exploitable Chinese labor ready-to-hand) and against workers of color. Rather than fight white capital for equality and build solidarity among all workers, white labor demanded the exclusion of Chinese labor from the country to advance the condition of white workers at their expense. Here we had a classical racist trade union tradition: white workers (skilled and unskilled) banding together in unions and political organizations in the name of “Americanism” and “free (white) labor” to defend their privileges over non-white workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a culmination of the attempt to create a cross-class, nationwide white consensus to define legally the Chinese place in U.S. life, thereby forcing the country to come to grips with how to handle the intersection of race and nationality. For the first time in U.S. history, a group was excluded from immigrating by (white) immigrants and former immigrants themselves. On one hand, the act was clearly based on nationality, as it excluded a group from immigrating to this country. On the other hand, it was clearly racial: it excluded the Chinese specifically because they were not white. Once verging on 20 percent of California’s population, the ensuing antiChinese riots and Exclusion Act drove most Chinese laborers out of the country and prevented their reentry. In the fifty years to follow, the U.S. forced every Asian nationality to follow virtually the same pattern as the Chinese, albeit in truncated form. At first, a significant wave would be allowed entry to serve as racially coerced, cheap labor, especially for California agriculture, then the group would be excluded. The 1917 Immigration Act denied Asian Indians entry. Despite the rising power of the Japanese in the Pacific, Japanese nationals were excluded from the United States by the Immigration Act of 1924 which barred the entry of “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” By extension, this act also served to exclude Koreans, as the Japanese colonial administration in Korea applied it to them.
At first, the Filipinos could not be excluded due to the fact that the Philippines was a U.S. “territory” (read colony) and its people were thereby “wards,” sometimes called “nationals” of the United States. Consequently, they were legally neither “citizens” nor “aliens.” Ironically, this was resolved by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1935, which simultaneously granted “Commonwealth” status with promises of eventual independence in 1946 to the Philippines and immediately cut Filipino immigration to the United States to fifty persons per year. Thus the Chinese experience in the nineteenth century produced a new racial category—“aliens ineligible to citizenship”—and a new form of racism—exclusion—which would be applied to virtually all of the Asian nationalities that were to immigrate to the United States until after the Second World War. It fundamentally structured the social and political rights of peoples of Asian descent once here until the 1960s. It was this common history of being considered racially inferior and not assimilable that forged the distinct (and often mutually hostile) Asian nationalities into a new panethnic racial group: Asian Americans.
Phase 2: Exclusion and the Racial/Ethnic Enclaves
However, exclusion was not only an immigration restriction. It became a unique form of racism that also socially defined the situation of the remaining Asians inside the country, as well as those who managed to slip through after exclusion until 1965. Unlike blacks who were economically integrated into the center of the U.S. economy (albeit in extremely oppressive ways) and the Native Americans who mainly remained outside U.S. society as a whole, the Chinese, and then the other Asian groups in somewhat different degrees, were excluded from the mainstreams of U.S. society and instead confined to ethnic enclaves. The Asian ethnic enclaves thus were also products of both racial and nationality discrimination.
The Structure of Dual Domination
One of the prime results of Asian exclusion was the development of what L. Ling-chi Wang calls “the structure of dual domination.” What this extremely useful concept refers to is that the ruling circles of not only the United States but also of China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines developed fairly elaborate political, economic, and social institutions to dominate and control their respective emigrants in the United States; Asians in the United States were oppressed both by U.S. and homeland elites. To varying degrees, the home countries of many European immigrants to the United States also tried to influence their emigrants. But the special conditions of exclusion facing Asians produced a unique racist
isolation within the U.S. structure and simultaneously rendered these isolated communities subject to customs, laws, organizations, and institutions from the home countries. In fact, the two structures were mutually reinforcing. The home countries’ main aim was to retain the political, economic, and cultural loyalty of their overseas communities, while the principal interest of the United States was to retain its racially oppressive, especially exclusionary, policies and occasional access to cheap Asian labor, predominately in agriculture. Thus, the United States was usually happy to stay out of the internal workings of the Asian communities so long as they stayed within bounds of its broader dictates. Home-country elites also took advantage of the racist isolation of Asians in America to extend their influence and control over these communities. For example, excluded from participation in almost all American institutions, traditions, and organizations, the Chinese community was rife with district, family, and clan associations, as well as secret societies, schools, public festivals and rituals, and Chinabased political organizations. At the apex of this pyramid, the Chinese Benevolent Association (in some places known as the Six Companies) ruled over the Chinese-American communities. The Six Companies, in turn, was an instrument of the Kuomintang (China’s Nationalist Party) which, as an ally of the United States against the Chinese Communists, was given almost free reign over the overseas Chinese up to and including regular violations of the Constitutional rights of those who it perceived opposed them. To one degree or another, all the Asian communities in the United States were faced with a “dual structure of domination” in which a homeland government or political party was allowed by the United States to be its junior partner and overseer with a great range of powers to develop and enforce the interests both of U.S. racism and overseas loyalty. These dual structures were especially strong during the exclusion/enclave period, and only in the current phase of AsianAmerican history are they being broken down. Dual domination, like exclusion, is a unique combination of racial and national oppression.
Exclusion, Enclaves, and the Class Composition of Asians
Exclusion also had a major impact on the gender and class compositions of the Asian communities, which continues to resonate today. First of all, since the vast majority of the first immigrants of each of the Asian nationalities were male laborers who left their families behind, exclusion tended to freeze in place the overwhelming male
composition of these communities and stunted the growth of a U.S.born Asian population. Second, anti-Asian hostility and riots, combined with exclusion, forced the Asian peoples to band together into Japantowns, Chinatowns, and Manilatowns where the prevailing conditions promoted a large class of small entrepreneurs (merchants, farmers, labor contractors, restaurateurs, etc.) and the political and social power of that class over the workers. As regards the Chinese, for example, prior to exclusion the majority lived in agricultural areas where, by Sucheng Chan’s calculations, the business and labor-contracting elite seldom exceeded 15 percent of the community. Exclusion virtually eliminated Chinese laborers in small western towns and left only a smattering of Chinese restaurant or laundry owners. And it drove the majority together into Chinese enclaves within the cities where entrepreneurs and professionals constituted some 40 percent. Third, the exclusion acts banned Asian laborers, but allowed merchants, students, and their wives or families to enter the United States, thus further distorting the class composition of the communities. Thus, the Chinatowns, Manilatowns, and Japantowns that emerged were not so much the products of “natural” social forces as the distorted outgrowth of immigration and naturalization policies that discriminated against Chinese as a people in general and against specific classes among them in particular. For reasons that no one has satisfactorily explained, Filipinos were neither enclaved nor did they develop an entrepreneurial class on the scale of the Chinese or Japanese. Instead, many Filipinos remained migrant farm workers for agribusiness on the West Coast. Their enclaves tended to be in agricultural areas and their urban communities tended to be adjuncts to or merged with Chinatowns. The situation of the Filipinos thus remained that of the first phase: racially coerced labor for agricultural capital. The Japanese also remained a disproportionately agricultural folk until their racist internment during the Second World War, but they were only briefly forced into the role of cheap labor. Japanese in California were soon able to carve out niches as farmers and shopkeepers. The Japanese also formed sizable urban Japantowns in Los Angeles and San Francisco with class characteristics similar to the Chinatowns. While this Japanese economic advance is often attributed to the strategy of ethnic enterprise and ethnic solidarity, the Japanese were also the lucky recipients of a major piece of historical happenstance.
Just as the Japanese were arriving in the United States, the development of irrigation in California opened the way for intensive agriculture and a shift from grain to fruit and vegetable production. Between 1879 and 1909, the value of crops from intensive agriculture skyrocketed from just 4 percent to 50 percent of all crops grown in California. This transformation occurred under a market stimulus created by two key technological achievements of the period—the completion of the national railroad lines and the invention of the refrigerated car. Consequently, for the first time perishable fruit and vegetables from California could be sold almost anywhere in the United States. Japanese farmers were able to capitalize on these developments. As early as 1910 they produced 70 percent of California’s strawberries, and by 1940 they grew 95 percent of fresh snap beans, 67 percent of fresh tomatoes, and 95 percent of the celery. In 1900, California’s Japanese farmers owned or leased twenty-nine farms totaling 4,698 acres; five years later the acreage jumped to 61,858; and by 1910 it reached 194,742 acres. Even the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning land or leasing it for more than three years failed to stem this trend. By 1920 Japanese farmers owned or leased 458,056 acres. Despite protests from Japan, a U.S. ally in the First World War, a California initiative passed in 1920 closed the loopholes in the 1913 act, and Japanese landholdings dropped dramatically. Small entrepreneurs (and later, their often college-educated children) were only one side of the coin. On the other side were the majority of Asians who were workers, but workers in extremely oppressive conditions. They were largely excluded from jobs with mainstream white employers and the government by racist laws and practices, and by the lack of English-speaking skills. Thus, they had little choice but to work for Asian employers as menial laborers in restaurants, garment factories and other sweatshops, laundries, farms, and grocery and dry goods stores. These employers were not only non-union, they paid extremely poor wages and provided awful working conditions based not on the standard of American business, but on a standard unique to their captive ethnic labor force. In short, the period of exclusion which lasted until the change in immigration laws in 1965 produced ethnic Asian enclaves. These were stratified between an unusually large merchant/business class tied to conservative or reactionary home governments and backed by the “dual structure of domination” and workers who were isolated in these enclaves or agricultural areas, stripped of their rights by the combined power of U.S. racism and home-country dictatorships. The latter were forced to work almost exclusively for compatriot businessmen under
working and pay conditions that bore no resemblance to that of the mainstream of the U.S. working class.
The Consciousness of Asian Americans
From their first days on these shores, Asian Americans fought against the discrimination they faced. Strikes, slowdowns, and legal actions were common. It is little known, for example, that Filipino farm workers actually initiated the famous grape boycott of the 1960s, which was then joined by Mexican workers and tremendously amplified under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. Most of these struggles were fought on a nationality or class basis. It was not until the late 1960s that a common racial/panethnic identity took hold among Asian Americans. Several facts contributed to this delay: different Asian nationalities immigrated in different historical periods, they rarely lived or worked in the same geographical areas, most were immigrants until the 1960s, and their native languages were unintelligible to each other. Thus there was no amalgamation of the Asian nationalities as their had been, say, among the different African ethnicities under slavery (and that took many generations). Although Asians in the United States fell victim to the same racial laws and customs and followed the same racialized patterns, the predominant consciousness remained ethnic/national, not panethnic or racial. The development of Asian-American consciousness took place in the 1960s when, for the first time, the majority of Asians in this country were U.S. born. It was an explicitly political consciousness influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of that era. And it was cemented for many by the murderous racist dehumanization of Asians exhibited by the U.S. government, press, and armed forces during the Vietnam War. To be Asian American was not a simple recognition that one had roots in Asia; it meant to reject the passive racist stereotype embodied in the white-imposed term “Oriental” and to embrace an active stance against war and racism. The people of color movements of the 1960s led to the rejection of the term “Negro” in favor of “Black” or “Afro-American” it produced the new concepts of “La Raza” and “Chicano” and it gave rise to “Asian American.” Unbeknownst to many people, including many movement people, the Asian-American movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was of mass proportions and dramatically transformed the political (and personal) consciousness and institutional infrastructure of the different AsianAmerican communities. In addition, influenced by the powerful Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean communist parties of the time, many Asian-American activists turned to Marxism and became a major
presence in the U.S. communist and socialist movements of the period. However, neither racism nor racial consciousness among Asians has ever supplanted either the consciousness or the reality of nationality. Indeed, the tremendous increase in immigration since 1965 has reproduced an overriding foreign-born majority among Asians residing in the United States and has further strengthened national/ethnic consciousness. Still, Asian-American consciousness is far from extinguished; it retains both ideological power and institutional expression in the many Asian-American progressive organizations that thrive today and will undoubtedly increase and find new expressions as the nativity of Asian Americans changes in the decades to come. The intersection of race and nationality among Asians is an ongoing formation, subjectively and objectively.
The racialization of nationality was a critical event in U.S. history that has shaped today’s social formation and even impacted its foreign policy. It was extended, with different particularities, to millions of Latino and Caribbean immigrants, and now Arabs, South Asians, and Africans, in addition to East Asians—all of whom are in its throes. And as the United States acceded to superpower status in the course of the twentieth century, this racialization also took on a potent international dimension in the innumerable racist U.S. interventions in the third world. Today’s “war on terrorism” is, among other things, also a war on racialized immigrants as the Patriot Act and other new laws treat them as suspected enemy combatants simply because of their race and nationality. Of course the intersection of race and nationality is not static. The racial formation of Asian Americans (not to speak of many others) since the Immigration Reform of 1965 has been very different than the pre-1965 period. The civil rights achievements of the 1960s and 1970s, the structural change of U.S. capitalism to what is sometimes called “post-industrial society,” the immigration reform of 1965, and globalization have reshaped the Asian-American communities and their status in U.S. society. Just as the system of legalized discrimination, disenfranchisement, and segregation of blacks has been overthrown, so the categories of “aliens ineligible to citizenship” and “exclusion” have been cast aside. Because of their educational level, Asian Americans, along with white women, were probably the main beneficiaries of affirmative action. Immigration reform has enabled the Asian-American population to explode from only about one million in 1965—mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos—to something like 13 million, emanating from
numerous Asian countries today. Consequently, the majority of Asian Americans today have no family connection to Asian-American history prior to 1980. Still, the provisions of the 1965 immigration act and subsequent legislation have reinforced the class trends set in motion by exclusion. These laws allow Asian immigrants to enter this country primarily based on their family connections to the disproportionately merchant/professional population already here (family reunification) or based on their unique technical or professional skills. Consequently the highly educated and middle-class section of the Asian-American population has been reproduced on a bigger scale. At the same time, many of those entering based on family reunification are workers with few resources and limited English-speaking skills, so the numbers of isolated sweatshop workers in Asian enclaves have also grown. The working-class section of Asian Americans has been expanded by Southeast Asians who entered the United States not under immigration law, but under refugee law after the failed U.S. wars of aggression in Indochina. Although some of these refugees were from the defeated elites, most of them were poor. The socio-economic profiles of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong in the United States are very similar to those of Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos. Thus Asian Americans today have the highest median education and household income levels but at the same time unusually high percentages of Asians live in poverty and have minimal education. The irony is that those Asian Americans who are said to make up the socalled “model minority” achieved this status primarily due to the class impacts of racist immigration laws and the civil rights victories, not simply by “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Asian Americans have worked hard, but who hasn’t? What is more important is that immigration law and other forms of racism have had the ironic effect of creating a community with an unusual number of middle-class people. Among the hard working are the millions of extremely poor AsianAmerican workers who are often rendered invisible in the mythical Asian success story. The many vibrant left and progressive AsianAmerican organizations today tend to concentrate their organizing efforts precisely among these immigrant workers, many of whom are women. Class looms large in Asian-American politics. After more than 400 years of racism sanctioned and enforced by the state, the victories of the Civil Rights movement erased racial categories from the official law of the land. This was a tremendous victory. But many of the oppressive patterns and disparities set in
place by those centuries of official racism continue as major forces in U.S. life, reproduced by enduring racialized cultural and economic structures unless actively interrupted. Overtly racist laws have been replaced by a plethora of covertly racial laws and legislation, from the Patriot Act to mandatory sentencing to the strict limits on desegregation and affirmative action, and discriminatory immigration and refugee law. We have come a long way, but there is a harsh road ahead. Unraveling the distinct dynamics of race, nationality, class, and gender, as well as their complicated intersections, will be critical to advancing racial justice in the decades to come.
Elizabeth Martinez and Enriqueta Longeaux y Vasquez, “Viva La Raza, Raza, Raza...”
People once said that the Mexican-American was one of the United States’ best-kept secrets. We, the second largest minority group in this country, were almost unknown people outside our own communities and we were hardly to be seen in the history books. No one even knew how many of us lived here. But today we are becoming aware as a people, we are finding ourselves as a people, we are uncovering our history. And as we do so, we are arising to be heard. We want to be heard by all but we especially want our own people to hear-and to rise in united pride, united action. Across the country we see the stirring of our people everywhere. From Denver to Delano, from the fields of Texas to the big city barrios of Los Angeles, from Oregon to Florida and in the middle states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, everywhere the Raza lives and works, there is movement. With the rousing Chicano handclap and cheers of “Raza, Raza, Raza, Raza,” and the stamping of feet, we can feel that a new era has begun for the Chicano. We feel it in the air, it is written in the wind, it is on people’s faces everywhere. Like a volcano we stir, and in the rumble we hear “Chicano Power,” “Brown Is Beautiful,” “Somas Hijos del Sol,” (We are Children of the Sun), “Viva La Raza,” “Viva Zapata,” and the rumble and the echoes grow louder with more harmony and unison each day. Our people are on the march in all levels of life, awakening and demanding justice in the schools, in employment, civil rights, housing, the welfare program, the churches, on the land, in the military, and even behind prison walls. After decades of being lynched and displaced; after decades of being herded into migrant camps for mere survival; after decades of being pushed off our land and being forced into the cities where we end up on welfare; after decades of being punished and shamed for speaking our own language and living our own culture; after decades of giving our bodies for dying in wars that are not ours, our people are saying BASTA YA! ENOUGH! We want to determine our own destiny. We do demand justice and equality within this country, but we want to decide that equality on our own terms. In all the stirring and movement that can be seen today, there is something more than a drive for “first-class citizenship.” There is a deep probing-a deep search for self. We move to be ourselves: to be brown, to assert our Mexican roots. We say that we have millions of brothers and sisters to the south of us and our strength lies in the fact that we are a majority and not a minority in
America-the continent. We seek to be something other than white, Anglo, gringo, something other than what the majority of this country imposes upon us and would like us to be. To the Chicano of today, equality does not mean becoming a carbon copy of white middle-class America. It means “to be” in the deepest sense. As archaeologists dig up the cities of old Mexico and of the southwestern United States, we are bringing up our true past from its long burial and listening to old voices. We marvel as the hidden treasures of our farsighted forefathers come to light again. We learn more and more that our cultural roots have long been here, and that the border between Mexico and the United States is but an imaginary line-a line which does not break up culture and kinship ties. We are rediscovering our Indian roots and heritage that date back twenty-five thousand years. We see the common elements that unite us and refuse to be divided any longer as the white man has tried to keep us divided for centuries. With these discoveries, we know that we do not need to try to be something we are not. We do not need to live in conflict with ourselves. We call ourselves by various names today but most of them suggest the new affirmation of who and what we are. “La Raza” means in Spanish “the race” and stands for the blending of predominantly Indian and Spanish peoples who were our ancestors-the blend that we are today. The essence of La Raza is that we are a mestizo people, a mixed people, a blend of races and culture. Today among many young men and women, the most popular name is Chicano (or Chicana). We are not sure about the origin of this word. Some say Chicano is derived from a word used by the Aztecs which they pronounced “Meshicano.” Since the Spaniards had no “sh” sound in their language, they tended to write the word as Mexicano. However, the last part of the word as pronounced by the Aztecs survived— “shicano” or Chicano. It isn’t clear, in this theory, whether “Meshicano” referred to the Aztecs themselves-our indigenous ancestors-or to the children of mixed Indian and Spanish parentage, which is what we are. But there does seem to be good reason to think the word is old. Then, some thirty years ago, “Chicano” became common again in the slang of the streets-especially in California. Because of that “lower-class” association, many conservative Raza have not liked the term. The young people like it and have adopted it, “because it is something that I choose to be called, not something Mexico chose to call me or, even more important, not something the gringo has named me.”
There are Raza who call themselves “Mexican-Americans.” This is a term most often used by the white society, along with “Spanishsurnamed” or “Spanish-speaking Americans.” The problem with Mexican-American is that it suggests Mexicans are something different from Americans, when in fact we were “Americans” long before the pilgrims or anybody else from Europe landed. Of course, “America” is a European term itself. But if we use the word, and we don’t have much choice, then we should remember that America is a continent-not a country. We must realize that the United States has assumed the name of the whole continent for itself, much to the disgust of many Latin Americans. The “America Love It or Leave It” slogan is laughed at by Chicanos and Indians, who say: “I buy that. When are they going to leave?” And there are still more terms used by our people to describe themselves: Indo-Hispanos, Latinos, Hispanos. It depends on what village, town, city, or state, what age group, what social class, the person belongs to. In many mountain villages, where families date back for several hundred years, some of our people call themselves “Hispanos” or even “Spanish.” The term Spanish-American is preferred by many middle-class Raza who have “made it” and wish to relive the gentlemanly patron of the era of Spanish colonization. Among our people the most widely used word is probably Mexicano-not the English “Mexican” but our Spanish word, Mexicano, which has a brotherly feeling of warmth and acceptance. This discussion of names is not just a matter of arguing over words. It reflects our whole struggle for what some people call “identity” -the affirmation of who and what we really are; and learning to be proud of it instead of ashamed. This new pride has come to us from the feeling we today call Chicanismo. It is often a difficult thing for the Anglo to understand. The concept and understanding that if you do not know your roots, your past culture, you are nothing. White America might understand our demands for civil rights or decent pay, because that is demanding what is ours under their rules. But it cannot comprehend the idea that we may not want to be part of the so-called “mainstream of society.” It does not occur to them that we may frown upon the non-culture imposed on us. That we may not totally believe that life consists of working for money to buy things. That we may not want to sell ourselves to “get ahead in the world,” because in the United States that means forgetting other human beings for the sake of a new color TV. That we have joy in being what we are, in discovering ourselves. That we are a very strong people. We have found sanity in being Chicano, for it is in our Chicanismo that
we have come to see all of the cancer in the dominant white society and we know that we don’t want to be that sick. We want a society that will function for human beings, we have solutions and we refuse to become robots that walk in death. One of the best ways to judge the values of a society is by looking at how it defines freedom. The Anglo society, like other Western societies, thinks mostly in terms of freedom from something. The heritage of La Raza talks in terms of freedom to be something-to be productive, to be loving and participate in care for others, to be alive as a fun human being. It is like the difference between being free from responsibilities, and being free to have responsibilities. We thrive on human involvement and devoting time to others, be they our family or close friends. The majority society may think that when they put their old people in “rest homes,” they are freed from a burden. For us, caring and learning from our elders is a part of living. After an, if one does not love and care for one’s family and others, what else is there worth doing? These are but a few of the beliefs and reasons for our new pride in being Raza. Our new sense of identity is not just a matter of taking pride in talking our own language or eating our own food and loving our own music. Chicanismo is carnalismo-blood brotherhood and sisterhood, a feeling of unity among our people. And this goes beyond, to a feeling for all people. “Mi casa es tu casa” or “Esta es tu casa” – my house is your house, this is your house-the phrase expresses a basic openness toward people as fellow creatures on this planet. Today we often hear the Mexicano or the Indian described as “passive,” “humble,” or “meek” when in fact the person is simply open and honest and not playing the role game of the Western world. Many times words such as these show us the conflict between cultures. In English, “humble” means low in station, unimportant, like a servant. In Spanish, humilde describes a person with a deep feeling for others, a respect and a kind of human concern. It is a good thing to be called. It helps explain the endurance of La Raza and the Indians-an endurance far beyond anything the white society understands or is capable of feeling. An these values we assert as we cease to be the nation’s “best-kept secret.” And as we stand up to speak, to be heard, the world has begun to listen. For although we may be looked upon as a minority here, we are a minority with an ancient geography and history on our side. A minority with a history of our own, that was here long before the “majority.” A minority that, like the Indians, has specific legal treaties with the United States to protect our rights as a people.
We are, above all, a “minority” with indestructible deep roots in the land. The relationship of Raza to the land is one of the most important facts of history. Raza relates strongly to the land, not only in terms of written treaties and in terms of ownership but also in terms of the land being an ever-existing power; a spiritual link; a source of life and a hope that never ceases. La Raza has drawn a deep strength from many of these basic feelings and we find them contained in the concept of Aztlan-the name of the Chicano nation the homeland which many of us are committed to rebuilding. The homeland of Aztlan lies not only in the countryside but also in the cities, everywhere that Raza may be. Rebuilding it means not only claiming our rights, but restoring our unity as a people, affirming our historic values, our culture, our spirit-the source of our enduring strength. As La Raza becomes more alive, more awake, more intense, the dominant society with all its power looks on in puzzlement, wonder and fear. Sometimes it tries to crush us with brute force, and sometimes it tries to buy us off. And all the time, it is making more and more “studies” of us, more evaluations more investigations. Today we are being studied, surveyed, observed, and studied again. Colleges have made studies agencies have made studies, everybody is studying us. And what is our answer to all this studying and surveying? All around, La Raza is saying BASTA YA! We are learning more and more that the ones who need to be studied are the majority society and its freak mentality that guides this country. We have learned that it is not we who are the problem, but the gringo mind. We have understood his system and his misguided attitudes, we know well how he operates and thinks. We have learned what he stands for. We are tired of listening to him talk about us. We are going to be the ones to talk about us. We are going to make our own studies, tell our own stories, write our own books. We are going to speak for ourselves-and in a language that La Raza understands, with concepts and ideas that existed long before English was used in the Southwest. As we affirm our worth as a people, as we become more and more conscious that we have a noble past, a rich culture, and beautiful human values, we begin to wonder why they built a bad image of us, why they tried to destroy something that is ours-something that is beautiful. And as we find some answers, we question even more and more and more. WHY? WHY? WHY? The more we look, the more answers we find.
It becomes clear that in the search for the truth about ourselves, we must recognize and throw off the BIG LIES of the Anglo society and its institutions. We must question the actions and teachings of every branch of that society. By institutions we mean the political, educational, spiritual, judicial, all of them, large and small. We must tear away the shroud of distortion, hypocrisy, and just plain falsity that has been wrapped around us-and all other oppressed peoples—for centuries. The biggest lie, the root of all the other lies, is that the Anglo belongs here and we are the immigrants—that this country with all its wealth should be the property of the gringo, and we are foreigners in his land. The gringo has called Mexicans “wetbacks” because there is a river that draws a so-called border between Mexico and the U.S.A., and people have often crossed it by swimming or just walking. The gringo forgets about his own great swim across the Atlantic Ocean, when our ancestors had already been here for centuries. Among Raza, we know who the real “wetback” is. From the first lie comes still another: that only the Anglo society’s values-competition, “getting ahead,” consuming-are good values, and that this is a way of life that everybody should accept. White makes right, so get with it, they say. But what about our ancestors and their way of life? Is it possible that these so-called savages could teach the white man some basic lessons? Is it possible that they have much to tell Raza today, as we struggle to create a new society? A vital part of the present Raza movement is uprooting those lies and putting the truth back into history. The real history of our Raza is one of the most important issues of the day for us. All other issues, all the oppression we face, arise from the past. We cannot draw sharp lines between past, present, and future, as many Western cultures do. We have a different sense of time. We see that the occurrences of today are the result of past history, and we need to reveal all that history in order to build for the future. Because our roots and part of our ancestry lie in America, we have a strong base on which to build our own destiny. To us, history is not just an abstract study of facts, but a study of human beings-their societies and their ideas. Our history must be treated as a history of peoples, cultures, and a land. This means looking at history without the borderline between the United States and Mexico, it means recognizing that the Southwest was once the northern part of Mexico, it means seeing that there are links between us and Mexico that have not, and cannot, be destroyed. So when we speak of Mexico, we are speaking of a land before there were borders,
before there were the concepts of property and land ownership as the Europeans know them. We cannot think of our history merely in terms of the United States. Our history is largely a history of the natives of this continent, a history of the very roots of civilization in America. This brings us to another of the big lies: that American history began with the arrival of the white man on this continent, and nothing really important or worthwhile existed before that. Columbus “discovered” America, Cortes “discovered” Peru-all the history books talk that way, as if the Indians who lived here never existed or never had any kind of civilization. They were labeled superstitious “savages” by ignorant Europeans, who say that the Indians’ life style and values have no use or meaning in today’s modern world. This is, of course, the way white society looks at all of us-brown, black, red, yellow. The only history worth talking about began with the white man, according to him. Let us take a look at life in America before Columbus, for it is through this that we will learn who the “savage” really is, and we will take pride in realizing that we come from a very “civilized” people. Let us not look just at the monuments people built or the wars they fought, but also at the kind of human beings they were-how they related to the universe, the land, and to each other; how they thought of life and death, how the young and old related. Let us begin by learning and writing our kind of history.
Arnoldo Garcia, “Toward a Left without Borders: The Story of the Center for Autonomous Social Action-General Brotherhood of Workers”
A unique left organization of Mexican and Mexican-American workers emerged in the 1960s whose story still waits to be told. Meanwhile, these brief notes on its history by a former member should at least help to show why it was such an important, pioneering project. Over a brief ten-year period (1968-1978), Centro de Accion Social AutonomoHermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA-HGT), the Center for Autonomous Social Action-General Brotherhood of Workers, went from a traditional mutualista or self-help center providing legal and other services as part of organizing undocumented Mexican workers in California, to a national organization rooting itself in broad working-class politics. Those politics were based on Marxism-Leninism, third world revolutionary theories, international solidarity, civil rights, and antiracism in the United States. CASA focused on an issue that remains decisive to progressive social change: organizing with and by the undocumented for equal rights. CASA-HGT was one of a few socialist-led groups that took head-on one of the unforeseen impacts of capitalist development: the creation of multinational communities and migrant workers living at the crossroads of changing nation-states and international working classes. The number of people subject to different types of involuntary migration across the world has been growing dramatically in recent decades, now numbering 150 million-more than twice the number of people displaced by the Second World War. This includes internally displaced persons, people forced to flee their homes due to socially and politically generated strife and ecological ruin within their country, refugees fleeing repression, and migrant workers crossing international borders in search of work to survive. The roots of involuntary displacement and labor migration lie in capitalist restructuring and the creation of multinational labor pools, the draining of resources, and the frayed social fabric left behind in the aftermath of colonialism and imperialist “underdevelopment.” The communist movements and parties have always prided themselves on internationalism. However, when it came to workers crossing international borders, the political and theoretical underpinnings of internationalism did not keep pace or generate leadership with a shifting working class. This is a general problem of Marxism and Leninism, which lacks a theory and analysis of internationalism and working-class organization adequate to a situation where capital’s national borders have become porous; and which is therefore not well-equipped to struggle on behalf of a working class which is multinational, multilingual, multicolored, and multi-legal, that is, holding the varying statuses of recognized citizenship, legal residency, guest worker status, and the undocumented.
U.S. working-class movements have especially excluded nonwhite lowerstrata workers from their organizing purview and from membership in their institutions, organizations, and agenda. The demands of working-class organizations and left formations of color have never been perceived as representing the interests of the whole class. These theoretical exclusions by the left flowed from the political marginalization of workers of color. Instead of trying to analyze and understand the national, racial, ethnic, and economic stratification of the U.S. working class as a result of the globalized nature or imperialist roots of U.S. capital, the left most often tried to minimize the significance of this segmentation for the goals and leadership of the working class. Demands that served people of color were labeled “minority” demands and we could hear such theoretical formulations from left and communist sources as “the working class and its minority allies,” as if “minorities” were something other than a majority sector of the working class. It took a long time for the left to understand this and even today many of its segments still do not understand the theoretical dimensions or political ramifications of the intersection of class, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and nation. During the period between 1950 and 1965, the Mexican and MexicanAmerican community in the United States underwent dramatic changes in its composition. This signaled the start of the demographic revolution that has transformed the United States in the last thirty years. Overwhelmingly working class in composition, the Mexican and Mexican-American community included foreign- and native-born U.S. citizens, legal residents, and the undocumented. During the Second World War, the United States began the Bracero Program to fill the labor shortage caused by the military mobilization. This had a direct impact on the Mexican and Mexican-American community in the United States and also contributed to new forms of racial and labor stratification in general. In fact, migration of undocumented workers into the United States was at an all time high during the Bracero Program, underscoring the centrality this sector of the working class played and continues to play in the U.S. economy. After the Second World War, the United States institutionalized the importation of temporary guest workers, even as a permanent part of the labor force in certain industries. Responding to this changing climate, in 1951 the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional was founded in California with the aim of organizing Mexican workers-a precursor to CASA-HGT. There were other various failed attempts to do this and they included Japanese and Filipino as well as Mexican farm workers. The 1950s were also marked by the rise of the African-American civil rights movement, the Chicano and indigenous peoples’ land rights struggles, and other social movements. The period 1960-1968 was crucial to the formation of the idea of CASA. The black civil rights movement was in high gear and Mexican-American organizing was reaching new levels in urban, labor, student, farm worker, land, and civil rights issues. Chicano student organizations, such as the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), and others began
gestating by the early 1960s. Amidst this political upheaval, the “newest” political subject in the United States was the immigrant of color, especially the undocumented immigrant. How were the different social and nationality movements to address this far-reaching development, whose significance was unperceived by the majority of people-of-color movements? The left continued suffering deep-rooted color, racial, and nationality blindness. It failed, as it often does today, to see how U.S. capitalist socioeconomic development has depended on immigrant labor. The importation of labor is a permanent aspect of U.S. capitalism. Its exploitation was indispensable to the U.S.’s original accumulation of capital. From indentured labor and racial slavery to contemporary migrant workers, the integration of imported labor has been consistently framed by nationality and racial stratification. This deep-seated theoretical and political problem and complexity arises in a different and more intense way when the left faces so-called illegal or undocumented workers, especially migrants. Few working-class and left organizations, if any, understood the issue or addressed it in substantive ways during this period. Neither the UFW, which led the farm-worker organizing movement, nor other Chicano movement organizations and institutions wanted to take up the issue. The undocumented were seen as potential or actual strikebreakers by the UFW at the time and its members would often call the INS on the undocumented during their organizing work in the fields. (The UFW adopted a policy at an early 1970s convention, which Bert Corona addressed, recognizing the importance of organizing all farm workers regardless of their immigration status.) As for some Chicano movement groups, their tendency toward narrow nationalism belittled or totally ignored the mojados mexicanos (wetbacks). The formation of CASA-HGT was the result of the years of political, community, and labor organizing experience of its founders, Bert Corona and Soledad “Chole” Alatorre along with others, and reflected concern about the undocumented sector of the working class. Alatorre had been a founder of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. Corona was a political and organizational innovator with deep roots in the labor movement and with ties to the U.S. left. Before CASA, Corona helped found MAPA, which focused on education, civil rights, and voting rights issues, including political empowerment. It was a pioneering effort that gave political voice and direction to MexicanAmerican community activists during the 1950s and 1960s. But it did not prioritize workers’ rights, especially those of the undocumented. An organizational and political vacuum existed. No organization was addressing the rights of undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the implications for organizing or for politics generally of this growing phenomenon. The issue of Mexican workers in the United States brought to the fore questions of nationality and class in unprecedented ways. Immigrants, especially the undocumented, were not finding a place or voice in the broader left, Chicano organizations, labor unions, and in farm worker organizing. Building on the experience of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, Corona and Alatorre brilliantly identified a strategic grassroots organizing
opportunity and moved on it. CASA-HGT emerged to fill this vacuum. Launched in 1968, CASA-HGT was originally a mutualista organization, a selfhelp social service agency that was also utilized as an organizing strategy targeting undocumented Mexican workers and their families. During the first five years, it included the merger of various Chicano and Mexicano groups and provided legal services to undocumented workers assisting them in regularizing their immigration status. CASA also provided politically oriented rights education. Taking place in the ferment of the 1960s, different radical and left tendencies, including nationalists, were attracted by CASA’s conjugation of a class base with social justice and liberation aspirations. CASA’s original program reflected the distinct challenges and obstacles that Mexican immigrants, especially the undocumented, faced. CASA began growing, chapters, local committees, and nucleos (or units) were formed in different parts of the country. It provided a venue for protecting the rights of the undocumented and also organized them as workers. CASA’s development helped forge political organizing that reflected the multinational nature of the U.S. working class and focused on the undocumented. In many ways, CASA resembled the contradictory nature of this period: workers, students, leftists, political exiles, trade unionists, and veterans like Corona, identifying and converging on a critical problem impacting primarily the Chicano community and its social movements. All agreed that this had broad ramifications that could not be resolved by various political initiatives addressing either working class or nationality rights separately. CASA combined these two issues in a new way. In the early 1970s, CASA-HGT began participating in the immigration legislation debates of those years. A national immigration coalition was formed and a part of its leadership eventually joined CASA. Many of the new members joining CASA were activists who saw in third world revolutionary movements, especially Cuba, and Marxism-Leninism, models and strategies that could be emulated in the United States to transform our world. The CASA-HGT bilingual newspaper, Sin Fronteras “Without Borders,” (its masthead also proclaimed, “We are One because America [the continent] is One”) had national distribution and printed thousands of copies at its peak. Originally published in San Antonio, Texas, Sin Fronteras had been the newspaper of the National Coalition for Fair Immigration Laws and Practices, promoting its work and focusing primarily on immigration issues. Sin Fronteras was later moved to Los Angeles as part of CASA-HGT’s transition into a left-wing national organization. By 1973, CASA-HGT as a result of some its newer members’ work on national immigration reform issues, began engaging the left, developing notions of the “national question,” and posing broader questions of political power and organization. By 1974, Bert Corona and Chole Alatorre resigned mainly over differences in political organizing strategies. The founders insisted on solely continuing the local organizing of undocumented workers; while the emerging new leadership, headed up by Antonio Rodriguez and others in Los Angeles, saw in CASA the kernel of a movement-building process that was part-national liberation, part-MarxistLeninist, and part Magonista Mexican working-class organization (after the
Flores Magan brothers, anarcho-syndicalists leaders of the 1910--1920 Mexican Revolution). Corona and others re-adopted the name Hermandad Mexicana Nacional for their organization and allowed the new leadership to retain not only the name CASA but to accept responsibility for the legacy of legal work it had embodied. The full name, CASA-HGT, was retained, signaling the dual nature of the vision that guided the organization’s further development until its demise less than four years later. After Corona and Alatorre left, membership shifted, in part due to the separation between CASA and the new HGT offshoot. The Hermandad continued with CASA’s original mission of organizing locally and serving the needs of immigrant communities and workers, with Corona as its head. Meanwhile, the new CASA began developing radical political perspectives on a broad range of issues-international solidarity, the nature of the Mexican nationality in the United States, and a redefinition of the U.S. Mexico border as a politically enforced division imposed on the Mexican people especially impacting working class sectors in the United States. CASA defined its base as “Mexicans in the United States” (which included Chicanos/Chicanas, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans) and identified the undocumented worker as strategic to fighting for democracy, equal rights, labor rights, and liberation. The new CASA leadership particularly developed close relations with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), including organization-toorganization exchanges and trainings. Some CASA members spent time in Puerto Rico, while PSP members worked with CASA members in their locales. Others had ties with leaders and parties in Mexico’s communist and left movements. These influences helped CASA further develop its orientation towards Marxism-Leninism, pushing it towards a party-building model of organization and a different and maybe even more mature internationalist approach to the U.S. working class anchored by its view of the centrality of the undocumented, not only in the United States but in the entire hemisphere. The period 1976-1978 was one of decline for CASA and the Chicano movement as a whole. CASA lost membership and unity of purpose. Various estimates put CASA’s membership between 10,000 to 15,000 members at its peak. CASA finally died before 1979 set in. The reasons for the various divisions, splits, and declining membership call for an in-depth analysis by those directly involved. Here we can just suggest a few. There were, first, growing differences over the politics of the organization. Questions arose: Are we a socialist organization or just committed to defending and promoting the rights of the undocumented? Do we just organize Mexican workers or are we a multinational organization? How do we develop organic Marxist-Leninist positions on various issues facing the left and the Chicano movement? A major split in the movement developed in the wake of the 1977 national conference on immigration held in San Antonio, Texas; its roots certainly preceded this period but flowered in the aftermath of this important gathering. Maybe the conference was the last opportunity of the ebbing Chicano movement and for various left and socialist forces attempting to influence it for their own purposes--just like previous radical elements saw in CASA the kernel of working-class political organization. Many questions have to be asked as to why CASA almost came to a halt during the summer and
fall of 1977, when it launched into internal assessments that affected its external work. By December 1977, the national leadership was divided along at least three lines. Then key members, some responsible for the Sin Fronteras newspaper-also representing key ideological and political leadership as well-resigned at one of the final national coordinating committee meetings. Some of those differences hid other deep questions: what were the roles, direct and indirect, of the Mexican and U.S. Communist Parties, Trotskyists, and other U.S. left formations within CASA? I believed at the time that Carlos Vasquez, who was editor of Sin Fronteras and in the leadership of CASA’s National and Political commissions, represented a nondogmatic position that said we should not become a Marxist-Leninist formation. He along with Antonio Rodriguez and others in the divided leadership had very developed theories of nationality and international solidarity, and they expressed a class analysis of the history of Mexicans in the United States, the Chicano movement, and other questions before the movements. Vasquez resigned from his positions. CASA members continued struggling with organizational, political and ideological issues rising from its turn to Marxism- Leninism and new issues such as party building and the “national question.” I remember that our regional organization disagreed so strongly with some of the last issues of Sin Fronteras (after Vasquez left) that instead of selling it we paid for our assigned copies ourselves. The period 1979-1985 saw these three trends emerge out of CASA and develop in various directions. Carlos Vasquez restarted his publishing house, Prensa Sembradora (with, I believe, a newspaper of the same name). Other leaders that split from CASA, Jose “Pepe” Medina, Felipe Aguirre, and Juan Jose Gutierrez, and others, continued working on the international organizing of migrant workers. They had previously focused on building the HGT, and continued on this project after leaving, organizing Mexican migrant workers at their point of origin. The HGT offshoot developed a “Bill of Rights of the Undocumented” around 1982 that was quite progressive and farsighted. In the Midwest, ex-CASA members led in the formation of a coalition to develop a national movement in support of the undocumented. Rudy Lozano, a prominent CASA leader in Chicago, also played a leading role in electing Harold Washington mayor of Chicago by forging the black-brown unity crucial to Washington’s victory. (Later, Lozano was assassinated, possibly by drug dealers who resented his work to end that traffic.) Antonio Rodgriguez and other CASA members in different regions of the country played key roles in organizing coalitions and support for legislation that would protect the rights of the undocumented. The question remains: Why did CASA fall apart? A major reason was certainly disagreement at the center over party building vs. building a national organization focused on the undocumented. This problem intensified a general lack of clarity and purpose, combined with a lack of political experience with Marxism-Leninism, the left, international solidarity, and other areas. It was significant that this CASA emerged, taking on these issues, at the same time that broader social and left movements were also entering
into a serious decline and we saw less movement, less interest in continuing the political struggles, and widespread exhaustion. The outcome might have been different if CASA-HGT had defined itself as a primarily political and Marxist-Leninist organization back in 1968 but it hadn’t. The rise and decline of CASA in the 1970s also paralleled the rise and decline of many other revolutionary organizations of color with strong left, antiracist, and internationalist orientations. By the early 1970s, this included the PSP, the Black Panther Party, the Congress of African Peoples, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, many sectors of the Asian-American movement and the American Indian Movement which, like many of its counterparts, suffered fierce repression and persecution. Some ex-CASA members also documented the impact of police infiltration that contributed to its demise. When CASA-HGT transitioned into an aspiring left formation, it left behind the majority of its supporters and base. Bert Corona and Chole Alatorre continued the original work that had characterized CASA-HGT’s unique contribution at its inception: local community-based organizing and defending the rights of the undocumented. Although the new CASA continued this work, too, its new socialist orientation did not help reconnect it to its original base. This was another example of political concepts without a social base. Again, that important lesson: social bases are not transferable. To give an extreme example of the effects of these errors, there were cases of CASA nucleos expelling workers because the socialists in them thought the workers were backward. So not only did CASA in the last few years have a dwindling base but it was also expelling members who represented its natural social base: working-class people. In a parallel development, the content of Sin Fronteras at least in the last year became increasingly inaccessible and politically incoherent for CASA’s base. CASA also had a positive side to the second half of its history. Its Marxist Leninist study circles were exemplary and studied a mixture of third world revolutionary theory (Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, Cuban revolutionaries, the Mexican Revolution, and other Latin American, Asian, and African revolutionary movements). This grounding came from CASA’s theoretical and political leadership which included Antonio Rodriguez, Nativo Lopez, Felipe Aguirre, Pepe Medina, Carlos Vasquez, Ruben Solis, and a few CASA women including Evelina Fernandez, Evalina Marquez, Isabel Rodriguez (Antonio’s sister) and the brilliant, unforgettable Magdalena Mora, who died at age twenty-nine. This group of individuals, including others in different parts of the country and at different times in CASA’s short history, provided the theoretical and intellectual grounding that guided CASA during more than half of its existence. CASA’s worldview was also advanced by such exposure as Carlos Vasquez’s report back from a Middle East conference in the mid-1970s, when he came back blown away by the Palestinian struggle and their uncompromising militancy, which led him to write an “internal” document with very original thinking on the “national question.” Another writer close to CASA was the noted scholar Juan Gomez Quinones. In those final years, CASA also
developed organizationally in some positive ways including a more precise division of labor, and greater accountability.
CASA struggled to build a national organization for “Mexicans in the United States” with left leanings, driven by a politics grounded ostensibly in Marxism-Leninism, the antiracist struggle, and third world revolutionary liberation theories and movements. Non-Mexicans were also members. As a national organization CASA was present in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Texas, Washington State, New York, Mexico, and possibly other regions. Its total membership, peaking at about 12,000-15,000 in 19681973, declined considerably once Corona and his compas left, and still further to less than 2000 by the end of 1977, when CASA split into at least three factions or trends. Unlike other left formations of color, for example, the August Twenty-Ninth Movement (ATM), CASA did not join with other left and Marxist-Leninist formations in the next and final generation of party building that developed between 1976 and 1989. Individual CASA members went in several directions: into the U.S. Communist Party, Mexican parties and left unity movements; and regional immigrant rights coalitions and other civil rights and electoral coalitions at the local, state, and even national levels. Others successfully continued organizing projects begun under CASA. A fair number of ex-CASA members went into the immigrant rights movement that began coalescing in the late 1970s. In 1977-1979, there was a short-lived attempt at doing a critical assessment of CASA with a view to a possible regrouping, but it did not go anywhere nationally. The most important work of this closing period included Prensa Sembradora, which lasted until about 1982, seeking to continue the legacy of Sin Fronteras before CASA declined; the group around the Hermandad, and the contributions made by the other top CASA leaders and members that added significantly to the political maturation of Mexican-American and Latino working-class and left politics generally and helped give birth to the contemporary immigrant rights movement. The issue that ignited CASA’s rise, the undocumented, has become more central than ever to working-class rights and to people of color. It raises critical and yet to be resolved theoretical and political problems at capitalism’s center: the nation-state, nationality, citizenship, race, and labor and capital mobility. The undocumented need more CASAs to rise and attempt to solve an issue that in hindsight has been at the heart of the development of the U.S. peoples and the working class. A protracted struggle and commitment will be required of all who enter into this realm where a left without borders-internationalist, multicolored, and led by women and men of all sexualities-is a key part of the solution.
Mike Davis, “Buscando America” from Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City
The Latino Metropolis is, in the first place, the crucible of far-reaching transformations in urban culture and ethnic identity. For half a century the designers of the US Census have struggled to create a category that would successfully capture all the individuals, regardless of race or household language, who share distinctive Latin American cultural roots. After early vacillations over whether Mexicans were a “race” (yes in 1930; no in 1940), several alternate statistical universes, including the category of “Persons of Spanish Mother Tongue” (1950) and “Spanish Surname” (1960), were tried and abandoned because of heavy numerical leakage. In population sampling for the 1990 Census, census workers simply asked people if they identified with any of twelve national identities: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and so on. Households with positive replies, independent of answers to other identity questions, were enumerated as “Hispanic” - a category adopted in the 1970s by the Nixon administration and first deployed in the 1980 Census. This is at best a bureaucratic expediency. In California and Texas, for example, “Latino” is generally preferred to “Hispanic,” while in South Florida it is considered bad etiquette; on the East Coast both labels are common currency. Scholars, meanwhile, have tried to draw battlelines between what they discern as different politics of usage. Juan Flores, for example, condemns “the superficiality and invidiousness of the term “Hispanic” in its current bureaucratic usage.” Agreeing with him, Suzanne Oboler (who devotes an entire book to the subject) and Rodolfo Acuña both claim that “Hispanic” is principally favored by Eurocentric Spanish-surname elites in opposition to grassroots identification with “Latino.” In the same vein, “to identify oneself today as a ‘Hispanic,’” Neil Foley writes, “is partially to acknowledge one’s ethnic heritage without surrendering one’s ‘whiteness.’ Hispanic identity thus implies a kind of ‘separate but equal’ whiteness with a twist of salsa, enough to make one ethnically flavorful and culturally exotic without, however, compromising one’s racial privilege as a White person.” Geoffrey Fox, on the other hand, argues that “‘Hispanic,’” with its emphasis on Spanish-language heritage as the foundation of meta-ethnicity, has no implied racial or class agendas and is simply preferred by most immigrants from Latin America.” The debate is unlikely to be resolved. Indeed, there is broad critical awareness that both labels fail to acknowledge the decisive quotient of indigenous genetic and cultural heritage in the populations they describe. Both meta-categories, in fact, were originally nineteenthcentury ideological impositions from Europe: “Hispanicity” from Liberal Spain and “Latinity” from the France of Napoleon III. Consanguinity
(expunged, as Paul Edison has emphasized, of any indigenous component) was invoked to legitimize the reconquests attempted by both powers in the 1860s: France in Mexico and Spain in Santo Domingo. Bolivar’s and Marti’s encompassing Americanismo, meanwhile, has been stolen and parochialized by los gringos. It goes to the very heart of the history of the New World that there is no current, consensual term that adequately reflects the fusion of Iberian, African and “Indian” origins shared by so many tens of millions. Moreover “Hispanic” and “Latino” can no longer be decoded as synonyms for “Catholic.” Certainly syncretic New World Catholicism, with a thousand-and-one Aztec and African gods masquerading as santos, remains, together with the mother tongue, the most important common heritage of Latino immigrant communities. And few crosscultural trends are as impressive as the recent flocking of other Latin American Catholics and even Anglo New-Agers to the cult of Mexico’s Virgin of Guadalupe (who also reincarnates the powers of the goddess Tonantzin) as she has made her way al otro lado. (A digital laser replica of her image recently completed a triumphal procession of the Los Angeles archdiocese. “The 3·by-5-foot copy, blessed by the pope, toured some 50 local parishes before a farewell appearance in front of 50,000 worshippers at the L.A. Coliseum.”) Yet if murals of La Morena, radiant in her blue, star-studded shawl, sanctify the sides of tiendas from San Diego to Atlanta, the adjoining storefront will most likely be a Pentecostal church. Even in the city that the pobladores named “Nuestra Señora” (La Reina de Los Angeles), Spanish-language Protestant denominations (especially Pentecostals) are running neckto-neck with the Pope. Latinos equally reinvigorate US Catholicism (supplying 71 percent of its growth since 1960) and energize its evangelical competitors. In this new dispensation, the traditional antinomy of Latino/Hispanic versus Protestant collapses, and, as Carlos Monsivais wryly suggests, the immigrant may now pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe: “Jefecita. I am still faithful to you, who represents the Nation, even though I now may be Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Adventist, Baptist or Mormon.” US Latinos as a Latin American Nation (Millions) 2000 2050 1. Brazil 170.0 1. Brazil 241.0 2. Mexico 98.9 2. Mexico 144.9 3. Colombia 42.3 3. US Latinos 96.5 4. Argentina 37.0 4. Colombia 71.6 5. US Latinos 32.0 5. Argentina 54.5 Source: CEPAL(UN). “America Latina: Proyecciones de poblacion, 1970--2050,” Boletin Demografico 62 (July 1998). Other estimates put the us Latino population as high as 100 million by 2040.
Yet, if there is no reducible essence to latinidad - even in language or religion - it does not necessarily follow that there is no substance. In playing with the Rubik’s Cube of ethnicity, it is important to resist the temptation of prematurely resolving its contradictions. “Hispanic/Latino” is not merely an artificial, racialized box like “AsianAmerican,” invented by the majority society to uncomfortably contain individuals of the most emphatically disparate national origins who may subsequently develop some loosely shared identity as a reactionformation to this labeling. Nor is it simply a marketing ploy - like the right-wing Coors brewery’s opportunist promotion of the 1980, as the “Decade of the Hispanic” - that exploits superficial national similarities in language, cuisine and fashion. To be Latino in the United States is rather to participate in a unique process of cultural syncretism that may become a transformative template for the whole society. Latinidad, Flores emphasizes, has nothing to do with “post-modern aesthetic indeterminacy. ... It is practice rather than representation of Latino identity. And it is on this terrain that Latinos wage their cultural politics as a social movement.” As in Octavio Paz’s famous definition of mexicanidad, to be Latino is “not an essence but a history.” It is a history that will largely be made over the next generation. It has geopolitical significance because US Latinos are already the fifth largest “nation” in Latin America, and in a half-century they will be third only to Brazil and Mexico. Alternately, they will become the world’s second largest Spanish-language-origin nation. Because contemporary US big cities contain the most diverse blendings of Latin American cultures in the entire hemisphere, they seem destined to play central roles in the reshaping of hemispheric as well as national US identities. There is a parallel here, of course, with the role of postwar London as a melting pot of anglophone Caribbean diasporas that has simultaneously transformed the meanings of “Englishness” and “Caribbeaness.” The dialectics of identity in the US case, however, are more complex because in each of the three cities that have made claims to be the “capital of Latin America” - Los Angeles, New York and Miami - the recipes fur latinidad involve strikingly different national ingredients. National Composition of Latino Populations in the US, 1990 1. Los Angeles Mexican (80%) Salvadorean Guatemalan (6%) (3%) 2. Miami Cuban (66%) Nicaraguan Puerto Rican (11%) (6%) 3. New York Puerto Rican Dominican Colombian (5%) (46%) (15%) Mexican (4%) Ecuadorean
Source: US Census 1990. What is hidden in these figures as well as ignored in most discussions of Latino identity is the rapidly growing population that identifies as multiple nationalities or heritages, ranging from, say, Mexican-Salvadorean to CubanKorean and Ecuadorean/Jewish. “’Other” is the spanner in the works of the US ethnicracial hierarchy.
Moreover, these national components themselves are not pregiven or unchanging essences. As immigration researchers have been reminding us since the days of Thomas and Znaniecki’s monumental The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1919), identities brought to the United States are reassembled into “ethnicities” within the contemporary force-field of the majority culture and its “others.” The complex and often conflicting elements of immigrants’ previous identities, including fierce subnational allegiances to region and locality, as well as deep ideological divisions between religious and secular-radical subcultures, are strategically edited (and usually simplified) into usable ethnicities in the face of competing claims and pressures of other similarly constructed groups. Diasporic “Mexieanness” in El Paso, for example, does not mean the same thing as being Mexican en la patria just across the river in the twin city of Ciudad Juarez, just as being “Dominicanyork” or “Nuyorican” is significantly different from being Dominican in Santo Domingo or Boriquen in San Juan. (These, of course, are not necessarily exclusive identities, but situational identities between which individuals move back and forth in daily or annual itineraries.) Nor are ethnic identities necessarily stable over time. In Los Angeles, for example, each major generation of Mexican-origin youth has elaborated a different self-conception vis-a-vis Anglo society. Caught in a no-man’s-land between ascriptive systems of race and ethnicity, “Mexican-Americans” in the 1930s through the 1950s expressed the pragmatic preference to be recognized as a hyphenated-ethnic minority along the lines of Polish- or Italian-Americans rather than to become a racialized caste like Blacks or Chinese. Mexican-Americans during the 1940s and 1950s, Foley argues, signed a “Faustian pact with whiteness ... in order to overcome the worst features of Jim Crow segregation.” Failed mobility and reinforced barrioization, together with the charismatic influence of militant Black nationalism, led “Chicanos” in the 1960s and 1970s to discard Mexican-American assimilationism in favor of separatist claims to an indigenous origin in a southwestern Aztlan. (In privileging the myth of the Mexica, however, the Chicano movement unfortunately simplified a cultural heritage of magnificent diversity: Olmee, Tarascan, Zapotee, Mayan ... even Morisco and Converso.) The striking reemergence of mexicanidad in the 1980s and 1990s, on the other hand, is rooted in massive immigration and the expansion of the Spanish-language public sphere.
(It is also, as we shall see later, an expression of the new structural synchronicity and intensification of ties between most immigrants’ old and new homes.) Recently, it has become popular in Southern California for young people to hyphenate their identities as either “Mexicana-Chicana” or “Chicana-Mexicana” depending on whether their families are first-generation immigrants or not. Some Chicana/o intellectuals and writers, moreover, have tried to shift the debate about ethnicity beyond rhetorics of hyphenation. Like their counterparts in the “Irish Studies” movement, they are exploring the terrain that lies beyond the antinomies shaped by Anglo-Saxon colonization or the cultural reifications that ground traditional nationalism. Indeed, some of the most influential avantegardists, like Ruben Martinez and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, have embraced the “Border” – everything that represents the interpenetration of social formations and stands between simple choices of national identity - as a distinctively Latino and dialectical epistemology. (“We deMexicanized ourselves to Mexi-understand ourselves, some without wanting to, others on purpose. And one day, the border became our house, laboratory, and ministry of culture.”) Aptly titled Frontera Magazine - editorially committed to “poking around at the fringes, in the dustpiles and under the heaps of what’s left over after all the definitions have been established” - provides a regular stage for the delirious subversion of reified ethnicity as well as reaching that larger audience of young, hip Chicanos tuned into Culture Clash, Tijuana NO, and Rage Against the Machine. Yet “post-nationalism” may have acquired its current purchase among border literati precisely because of the massive reassertion, over the last generation, of the physical and cultural continuity of Mexico in the US Southwest. Complex experiments in identity politics - unthinkable in the white-majority 1960s - are anchored in the confidence that Aztlan is no longer nationalist myth but historical fact. For Puerto Ricans, by contrast, the national question is agonizingly unresolved and in some sense untranscendable, with a majority of the island’s voters in a recent plebiscite endorsing “none of the above” rather than the Hobson’s choice between culturally self-liquidating statehood and economically unviable independence. The largest remaining nineteenth-century colony has by narrow hut persistent electoral pluralities preferred the limbo of “commonwealth” to any definitive resolution of its status. As in the nearby French Antilles, independistas contribute decisive leadership to every social, labor and environmental struggle but, in the face of debilitating economic dependency, cannot find a fulcrum to enlarge their stable but tiny 5 percent of the vote. This structural stalemate, together with the declining fortunes of the mainland diaspora (discussed in Chapter 10),
gives Puerto Rican identity politics a traumatic urgency, sometimes bordering on revolutionary desperation (for example, the Macheteros), that is only reinforced by the US media’s virtual blackout of island life. Indeed, as one boriqueña wryly suggests, the only thing visibly Puerto Rican in mainstream culture is Jennifer Lopez’s voluptuous culo. Furthermore, these split-level processes of identity formation - the forging of ethnicity and meta-ethnicity - take place in regional contexts of unequal ethnic control over media and symbol systems. The programming of the 500 Spanish-language radio stations and two Spanish-language television networks in the United States often fails to reflect the true heterogeneity of Latino cultural and experiential worlds. In Los Angeles, for example, Salvadoreans, Guatemalans and Ecuadoreans - as well as indigenous immigrants like Zapotecs, Yaquis, Kanjobals and Mixtecs - struggle to defend their distinctive identities within a hegemonically Mexican/Chicano popular culture. In Chicago, on the other hand, comparably sized Mexican and Puerto Rican communities gingerly explore their cultural and political common ground, using latinismo, as Felix Padilla has shown, to leverage their clout within Cook County machine politics. (He usefully contrasts two modes of constructing latinidad: the fundamentally “weak” mode of passive, symbolic identification with a common language community; and the “strong” mode of active mobilization as an ethnic political bloc.) In Miami’s Little Havana, meanwhile, the poorer Nicaraguan community (estimated Dade County population: 200,000) chafes under the cultural and economic dominance of Cuban elites. (With 5 percent of the national Latino population, Miami has nearly half of all Spanishsurname businesses.) Although the Cuban percentage of Dade County’s Spanish-surname population fell from 83 percent in 1970 to 66 percent in 1990, the counterrevolutionary agenda of aging exile leaders still exercises authoritarian censorship over Miami’s major Latino cultural and media institutions, as well as influencing national Spanish-language television programming, which is skewed toward “white” Cuban-American talk shows and Venezuelan telenovelas. There has been considerable local resentment, sometimes expressed in public protest, against Miami’s “exploitation” of the huge captive Spanish- language media markets in Los Angeles and New York. Market I. Los Angeles 2. New York 3. Miami 4. San Francisco 5. Chicago Largest Latino Markets, 1996 Annual Retail Sa1es $28.9 billion $17.6 billion $ 9.0 billion $ 6.0 billion $ 6.0 billion
Source: Website: www.hispanic.market (1999). In New York, by contrast, the Puerto Rican community, hich in 1960 comprised four-fifths of the Latino population, now accounts less than two-fifths in the wake of the great Dominican migration of the 1980s and the new Mexican influx of the 1990s. (The Dominican population is now projected to surpass the Puerto Rican by 2010.) The disappearance of a single dominant group has spurred intercultural exchange as well as competition between all the Spanish-speaking and Caribbean-origin communities. Latinization, moreover, has been intertwined warp and woof with New York’s Caribbeanization. The racial diversity of New York Latinos, including so many black Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans, promotes, as Flores points out, a “more reciprocal and fluid relationship” to African-American culture. Younger writers and artists in La Gran Manzana, like the stellar Dominicanyorker Junot Diaz (Drown), openly advocate a radical politics of color. And, again in contrast to Los Angeles (where only 14 percent of married people of Mexican origin were married to someone from another ethnicity) or Miami, fully half of the Spanish-surname marriages in New York are intermarriages between different Latino nationalities. The cosmopolitan result is a rich, constantly evolving sabor tropical in food, music, fashion and language - always freshly spiced by the latest arrivals from Latin America. Some prominent Latino intellectuals. embracing a messianic neoBolivarism, see in this New York-style cultural syncretism the seeds of new creolized identities on national, even hemispheric scales. “Ironically,” writes Silvio Torres-Saillant, “Simon Bolivar’s desideratum of a unified Latin American nation and the ideal upheld by Eugenio Marla de Hostos of an Antillean federation find in us a strange kind of fulfillment. We have come to articulate a collective identity, not in our native homelands, as Bolivar and Hostos had dreamed, but within the insecure space of the diaspora.” Likewise for Flores. Latinos are the new American counter-culture. “As each group and regional culture manifest itself in the new setting, and as they increasingly coalesce and interact in everyday life, New York is visibly becoming the source of a forceful, variegated alternative to mainstream North American culture.” Ilan Stavans, on the other hand. believes that the mainstream culture itself is being inexorably Latinized within a complex dialectic of transcultural exchange between old and new Americas. The rise of “Latinos agringados” addicted to hamburgers and Friday night football, he asserts, is tendentially balanced by the emergence of “gringos hispanizados” infatuated with chiles and merengue. (He was writing before the current “cross-over” celebrity-boom of Selena, Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, Sammy Sosa and Jennifer Lopez.) Similarly, the
Brazilian futurist Alfredo Valladao, fascinated by the store signs in Miami and Los Angeles that say “Se habla ingles” sees the new Spanish-language “beachheads” in US cities as research laboratories for the cross-fertilization of North and South American cultures. The result, he confidently predicts. will be a new hegemonic global culture: “a Pan-American twenty-first century.”
René Francisco Poitevin, “Latinos and David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness”
A disturbing aftermath of the pro-immigrant demonstrations recently held in dozens of cities across the United States, besides the obvious anti-immigrant backlash, has been the increase in Black/Brown tensions. Particularly alarming has been the way in which Latinos are being accused, not only by conservatives but by Progressives as well, of being the latest permutation of a long history of immigrant groups arriving to this country and making it, to quote Toni Morrison, “on the backs of Blacks.” This argument is part of a broader narrative which claims that Latino struggle for social equality is being waged at the expense of African Americans. According to this argument, Latinos are bound to assimilate and become the new whites, a situation that will put them economically above, and in antagonistic relation to African Americans. So goes the story. But is it true? This essay takes a look at David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness to make the case against the so-called Latinos-are-White thesis, and against the apparently imminent Black/Brown debacle. Working Toward Whiteness helps us understand how Latinos “throw a wrench” into our traditional Black/White mode of looking at race relations — and why they cannot be easily collapsed into a Black/White racial binary. I will make the case that so-called transformations in Latino racial consciousness have to do less with actual shifts in Latino identity, and more to do with a poverty of theory. By taking a closer look at the way we theorize immigration and race relations in this country, this essay hopes to contribute to the discussion on how we strategize for effective anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing, and how to think about new theoretical interventions.
To be sure, Working Toward Whiteness is not about Latinos, but rather the Southern and Eastern European migration that brought 13 million people to the United States between 1886 and 1925 — and how this population, which definitely arrived as “non White,” became White within the span of few decades. The book, which divides its seven chapters into three sections, tells the story of this European racial transformation through a three-way account of the specific contexts underlying the arrival of these “new immigrant” groups, the nature of “Whiteness” as a form of racial
consciousness which developed after arrival, and the explicit intervention of the State as a necessary condition for the institutionalization of Whiteness. But why use a book on early European migrants to talk about Latino migration today? The short answer is that by putting race at the core of how immigration and assimilation is socially embedded, and by looking at assimilation as Whitening as well as Americanizing (9), Working Toward Whiteness provides a very important framework for understanding how Whiteness is socially constructed — and for sorting out whether Latinos are in fact becoming ‘the new Italians.’ The punch line (I hope I’m not giving away too much of the plot here) is that for early twentieth century European migrants to become White — and let’s not forget that they came in as racially “in between,” neither White nor Black — they had to first, embrace a racial identity predicated on the discrimination of Blacks, and second, become the direct beneficiaries of white-supremacist state policies aimed at institutionalizing this newly acquired white identity. The book argues that in a country where European immigrants and others were judged on the basis of race, and in which citizenship was commonly denied to those classified as non-White, the perks to be gained by embracing Whiteness — together with the concrete penalties that came with being associated with non-Whites — were too tempting to be ignored. Equally important for the development of Whiteness during this period is the active role of the state as a necessary condition for “creating” Whiteness. Simply put, individual choice alone was not enough to congeal such a diverse European ethnic mix into a “monolithic Whiteness.”(138) Therefore one of the most important lessons from Roediger’s book is that European assimilation into Whiteness had less to do with skin color and more to do with power structures and state regulations.
Long Latino History
How many “second generation” Mexicans does it take to change a bulb in the United States? Roediger’s answer: lots and lots. In a context where academic research seems to be obsessed with the “second generation” question as the main way to determine whether or not Latinos are assimilating, Roediger refreshingly reminds us that Latinos have actually been in this country for hundreds of years now, and that they have not exactly experienced upward mobility during that time. Quite the contrary.
Working Toward Whiteness documents the historical depictions of Mexicans as “greasers,” the naming of lower-status jobs as “Mexican jobs,” the implementation of restrictive covenants to keep Mexicans out of decent housing — not to mention the couple of million Mexican Americans who were deported during the 1930s and 1950s. The point here is not to imply that there are no important lessons to be learned from looking at the children of first-generation immigrants. It is, rather, to show the limits of explanatory models of assimilation that narrowly reduce incorporation into U.S. society in terms of whether or not Latino kids are learning English or marrying outside their group — all the while refusing to take into account the importance of race and discrimination in constituting what it means to become “American” in this country.
Another refreshing feature of Roediger’s book is the way it reminds us that our current race/ethnicity divide is actually more “messy” (Roediger’s term) than social science wants us to believe. For one, in the early 1900s, there was no such thing as “ethnicity” as we understand it today. We can find debates on “nation-races” and “color-races” during this period, but the idea that we could use “ethnicity” to differentiate between Europeans and other racial groups was simply nonexistent. For Roediger, the way we reinsert “ethnicity” back into the early 20th century, as a way to explain why new European migrants became White, has to do more with the politics of academia now than with clarifying what was going on back then. (28) That the race/ethnicity divide is very fragile indeed became clear in the 2000 Census. More than 10 million Latinos, or about a quarter of all the Latino population in the United States, said that they belonged to the “Latino race.” What makes these numbers even more dramatic is that “Latino,” according to the U.S. government, is not a race but an ethnicity. But if Latinos are becoming “White” according to some critics, then why are millions refusing to embrace the White (or Black) identity and going out of their way to say that they are something else? What does it mean for our dominant Black/White racial paradigm and the way we account for race relations in this country? Roediger’s book reminds us that these Latino numbers are not the exception to the rule, but that they simply reflect, once again, the messiness of racial categories — a messiness that cannot be taken care of by simply invoking a Black/White racial divide.
Will Latinos Embrace Whiteness?
Even if we entertain the possibility that, contrary to “second generation” theorists, Latinos might not be assimilating even if we are willing to complicate our understanding of racial categories to allow for such a thing as a Latino “race,” together with the possibility that the Black/White racial paradigm might not quite work in the case of Latinos, the question still remains: are Latinos going to turn their back on African Americans and embrace Whiteness the way the new European immigrants did? Recall that in order for Southern and Eastern Europeans to become White two things had to happen: European immigrant groups had to embrace an anti-Black identity (see Roediger’s Section II), and this newly embraced Whiteness had to be institutionalized through state laws and government programs (see Section III). The Federal government’s response to this need to institutionalize Whiteness through state policies and subsidies was the New Deal. The New Deal not only created and literally paid for a new generation of segregated neighborhoods, it also became the sponsor and enforcer of restrictive housing covenants. The New Deal also strengthened the institution of “White unionism” through legislation that excluded a large number of Black, Latino and Asian workers (notably, agricultural labor) from the protection of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act — in effect, making the idea of fairness and economic citizenship a matter of race. Of course, the New Deal also brought us the 1935 Social Security Act, which despite being “universal,” managed to leave out a great deal of workers of color through exclusions based on low wages and episodic employment. The end result of the Social Security legislation was that Black and Mexican women, who not surprisingly were concentrated in these low-wage sectors, were the most affected by these policies. In short, the New Deal formalized a new White regime that was being already implemented through everyday practices at home, in public spaces, in houses of worship and at the workplace. The relevant lesson is that Latinos — who are certainly not beneficiaries of such state policies today — are a long way from becoming the “new Whites.” Indeed it is clear from the last Census that millions of Latinos are refusing to embrace Whiteness. While it is also true many Latinos also see themselves as White — after all, Latinos are not immune to anti-Black and anti-people of color stereotypes — this situation would make Latinos “in-between people”
at best, certainly not White. And when you look at their long history of solidarity and collaborations with Blacks, it makes sense to think of Latinos’ racial consciousness shifting toward a “people of color” identity — not Whiteness. The strongest evidence against the claim that Latinos are becoming White is the lack of current government policies designed to make Latinos “White.” Simply put, there is no Latino “New Deal” channeling hundreds of millions of dollars for new Latino housing (as happened with European immigrants), or New Deal-type legislation geared toward giving Latinos the upper hand against other groups on labor issues or government assistance programs. If anything the exact opposite is true: New government policies have been aggressively criminalizing Latinos (as the money being spent in building a wall across the border and HR4437 clearly confirmed earlier this year); and Washington is either eliminating benefits or downsizing those social programs that help Latinos the most.
Capitalism and Immigration
This is why Latinos are a long way from becoming the “new Irish” or “new Italians.” The counter-claim, that it is just a matter of time before some New Deal-type of arrangement on behalf of Latinos, misunderstands a deep contradiction in the way U.S. society deals with non-European immigrants. Simply put, without immigrant cheap labor capitalism could not survive — so the State must let them in so that they can be exploited. On the other hand, constructions of American identity require the existence of an “Other” to allow us to define “ourselves” in opposition to that which we are not — namely “illegal” immigrants of color. During the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, Asians were the “Other” of American national identity as demonstrated by the long record of anti-Asian exclusion Acts. Since 1965 Latinos have become the new “Other” in opposition to Americans, as demonstrated by the way ‘Mexican’ has become synonymous with “illegal” in public immigration discourse. This is why the government will not, anytime soon, implement a New Deal-type of program on behalf of Latinos. Claims that Southern and Eastern European migrants went through an “otherness” similar to what Latinos are undergoing now do not understand the way in which European migrant discrimination has always been qualitatively different from Blacks and Latinos — a point which is highlighted in Roediger’s book.
Latinos’ Real Conditions
Last but not least, one more point needs to be acknowledged in our discussion of Latino/Black relations and claims of Latino shifts toward Whiteness. The latest economic indicators show that Latinos are actually suffering as badly as African Americans in virtually every category. When you look at Latino and Black numbers for median income, poverty, unemployment, health insurance rates, dropout rates, graduation rates, incarceration rates and home ownership rates, the fact is that these two groups are basically at the same level. The only category in which Blacks are clearly doing worse than Latinos is incarceration rates — and you can guess which group is quickly catching up. The real challenge confronting us, which still needs to be recognized by organizers and academics, is not that Latinos might become the new Whites, but that Latinos might actually become the ‘new Blacks,’ a situation that, if true, would collapse our Black/White racial paradigm, and pose profound political challenges for multi-racial coalition building in this country. This hardly means that African Americans are doing better now, or that old-fashion racism is fading away. The majority of African Americans are, if anything, doing worse now than before, as confirmed by the criminal government response to Katrina victims, and as the right-wing agenda committed to erasing race from public discourse and public policy continues to succeed. This essay is not meant to romanticize a Black/Latino alliance either — whatever coalitions and partnerships emerge between these groups must be created out of concrete material conditions and struggles. The challenge confronting us is how to move forward in a way that upgrades our theories of race relations while avoiding pitting groups against each other. Hopefully you will agree with me that Roediger’s book moves the discussion in the right direction.