“The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness,” post-1945 (Painter)

“The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness,” post-1945. “Included now were Mexicans and Mexican Americans … Since the mid-1930s, federal and Texas state laws had defined Mexicans as white and allowed them to vote in Texas’s white primary.”

The Second World War rearranged Americans by the millions. […] Louis Adamic had dreamed of a second, more homogenized immigrant generation, and one had already started in the Civilian Conservation Corps, fruit of the New Deal’s earliest days. Now, a decade later, millions rather than tens of thousands left home.

Let us remember that this mixing occurred with several notable exceptions. Black Americans–who numbered some 13.3 million in 1940–were, of course, largely excluded. Their time would come much later, and with revolutionary urgency. But also excluded were Asian Americans. Even so, other Americans–provided they qualified as white for federal purposes–experienced a revolution of their own. Indeed, the white category itself had expanded enormously, well beyond European immigrants and their children. Included now were Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

[360] The handsome Julio Martinez from San Antonio plays a leading role in the multicultural Army squad of Norman Mailer’s best-selling war novel The Naked and the Dead (1948). […] Since the mid-1930s, federal and Texas state laws had defined Mexicans as white and allowed them to vote in Texas’s white primary.[4] While Asian American and African American service personnel were routinely segregated and mistreated, Mexican Americans fought in white units and appeared in the media of war, witness the boom in popular war movies like Bataan (1944), staring the Cuban Desi Arnaz (who in the 1950s would become a television star as Lucille Ball’s husband in the long-running I Love Lucy series).

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 359-360.

(N.B.: this account is largely wrong, and symptomatic of an all-too-frequent mistake in the historical studies of expanding constructions of whiteness)

  1. [4]Thomas A. Guglielmo, “Fighting for Caucasian Rights: Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and the Transnational Struggle for Civil Rights in World War II Texas,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1215-16. After 1945, Native American Indians were included with Caucasians (1232).

1936, El Paso: Bureau of Vital Stats reclassifies Mexicans as “colored” population (Foley)

In 1936, in El Paso, Texas, white city officials challenged the traditional classification of Mexicans as whites in the city’s birth and death records. The county health officer, T. J. McCamant, and Alex K. Powell, the city registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, adopted a new policy of registering the births and deaths of Mexican-descent citizens as “colored” rather than “white.”[14] Both McCamant and Powell claimed that they were simply following the regulations established by the Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census and that officials in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio used the same classification system.[15] McCamant also acknowledged that changing the classification of Mexicans from white to colored automatically lowered the infant mortality rate for whites in a city where Mexicans comprised over sixty percent of the population, most of whom were poor and suffered higher rates of infant mortality than did whites. Because the El Paso Chamber of Commerce had hoped to market El Paso as a health resort for those suffering from tuberculosis and other ailments, it became [131] necessary to disaggregate Mexicans from the white category on birth records and to move them into the colored category, thereby automatically lowering the infant mortality rate for “non-Hispanic whites.”

The Mexican American community of El Paso, as well as Mexicans across the border in neighboring Juarez, became furious over this racial demotion and mobilized to have their whiteness restored. Members of the El Paso council of the League of United Latin American Citizens and other community leaders immediately filed an injunction in the Sixty-fifth district court. Cleofas Calleros, a Mexican American representative of the National Cahtolic Welfare Council of El Paso, wrote to the attorney representing the twenty-six Mexican Americans who had filed the injunction, “Is it a fact that the Bureau [of the Census] has ruled that Mexicans are ‘colored’, meaning the black race?”[16]

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 130-131.
  1. [14]Herald-Post, Oct. 6 and 7, 1936; La Prensa (San Antonio), Oct. 10, 1936; and New York Times, Oct. 21, 1936, in Cleofas Calleros Collection, University of Texas at El Paso, hereafter cited as CCC. All references from this collection are from box 28, folder 1 (“Color Classification of Mexicans”). See also Mario García, “Mexican Americans and the Politics of Citizenship: The Case of El Paso, 1936,” New Mexico Historical Review 59 (Apr., 1984): 187-204. García, who based his article on the same file from the Calleros collection, argues that Mexican American leaders used the controversy over racial classification of Mexicans “to show Anglo leaders that Mexicans would not accept second-class citizenship.” (p. 201). While that is no doubt true, García mistakenly argues that Mexican Americans used the politics of citizenship rather than race in forging racial identities as whites. As Caucasians, Mexican Americans asserted their own racial superiority over African Americans and other “people of color.”
  2. [15]Mr. Calleros to Mr. Mohler, memo, Oct. 9, 1936, p. 1, CCC.
  3. [16]Ibid., p. 2.

1930: U.S. Census guidelines on counting “Mexicans” as “not definitely white, negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese” (Foley)

Third, the U.S. Census had always counted persons of Mexican descent as whites, except in 1930, when a special category was created for “Mexicans.” The question of Mexican racial identity became especially acute during the immigration restriction debates of the 1920s. This broad exemption from immigration quotas led to the historic congressional debates in the 1920s by restrictionists determined to close the door to Mexicans. The Bureau of the Census decided that beginning with 1930 it would establish a new category to determine how many persons of Mexican descent resided in the United States, legally or illegally. Before 1930 all Mexican-descent people were counted simply as white persons, because the racial categories at that time included Negro, White, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. The 1930 census [130] created, for the first time in U.S. history, the separate category of “Mexican,” which stipulated that “all persons born in Mexico, or having parents born in Mexico, who are not definitely white, negro, Indian, Chinese, or Japanese, should be returned as Mexican.” This meant that census workers determined whether to record a particular Mexican household as “white” or “Mexican.” About ninety-six percent of Mexican-descent people were counted under this new category of mexican; only four percent were counted as white.[13] Mexicans had, for the first time in U.S. history, been counted as a nonwhite group. The government of Mexico as well as numerous Mexican Americans protested this new classification. Bowing to pressure, the U.S. government abandoned the category of Mexican in the 1940 census but sought other means of identifying the Latino population, by identifying those with Spanish surnames or households whose dominant language was Spanish.

Neil Foley, "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line," in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, 123-144 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 204), 129-130.
  1. [13]