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How Race Is Made in America by Natalia Molina

How Race Is Made in America Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts

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Chapter One: Placing Mexican Immigration within the Larger Landscape of Race Relations in the U.S.

In 1930, Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University, Roy Garis, submitted his "Report on Immigration," an intensive study of Mexicans in the United States to Representative John Box of Texas, a diehard opponent of Mexican immigration, to present at the House of Representatives extensive hearings regarding three bills which all had the same end goal: to place countries in the Western Hemisphere on quotas just as had been done to European countries under the 1924 Immigration Act. Reducing immigration from Mexico in particular was a major priority and one bill suggested limiting immigration from Mexico to 2,500 persons per year (H.R. 8702).1

The study was comprehensive, canvassing the Southwest where the majority of Mexicans settled for work and examined their economic, political, and social impact on the United States. Garis's arguments carried great weight and parts of his report were reproduced in articles in the popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. While the report focused on Mexican immigration, Garis established in his opening paragraph that Mexican immigration would cause a long-term racial problem by linking it to slavery:

Abraham Lincoln once said that 'this country could not endure half slave and half free.' When one considers the present effects of immigration from the countries to the south of us, especially from Mexico, he is forced by the logic of the developments to conclude that the United States can not endure part citizen and part foreign."2

Garis attempted to persuade his audience that while many supported Mexican immigration because it provided a cheap labor source, it also had negative sociopolitical and cultural effects on U.S. society, just as slavery had.

Garis went on to connect Mexican immigration to past immigrant groups. In his report, Garis cited both the Commissioner General of Immigration and the Secretary of Labor (the Department of Labor housed the Immigration and Naturalization Service) as expressing these sentiments. Garis summed it up as follows:

"We barred the gate to Europe and closed the door to Asia, but the entrance to the South has remained open. The restrictive program is thereby virtually nullified, [sic.] for to admit peons from Mexico and similar types of immigrants from the other non-quota countries while restricting European and excluding oriental [sic.] immigration is not only ridiculous and illogical-it destroys the biological, social and economic advantages to be secured from the restriction of immigration."3

Garis' comments refer to how the 1924 Immigration Act most drastically affected Europeans, notably Southern and Eastern Europeans, whose immigration numbers were capped, and Asians, who were completely barred from immigration to the United States. Nativists sought to limit the large number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe because they were considered to pose social, political, cultural, and economic problems to the United States. To mitigate the perceived problems, Progressive era reformers developed Americanization programs to assist with health, education, housing, and child and maternal welfare but many of these programs were based on the notion that these immigrants were inferior to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. A case in point is prohibition, the social movement that let to the eighteenth amendment in 1920, which outlawed the manufacturing and selling of alcohol. Prohibition was fueled, at least in part, by Protestants' beliefs that immigrants, many of whom were Catholic, needed to be reformed.4

Immigrants that spoke out against the government, espoused socialist or communist politics, organized in unions or political machines, were seen as unassimilable and labeled enemies of the government.5 These attitudes intensified after the U.S.'s entrance into WWI in 1917 and fueled a "Red Scare." The U.S. government perpetuated the movement by developing programs, such as the campaign led by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, which targeted immigrants as radicals, subversives, and communists, and led to their arrests and, in some cases, subsequent deportation. The Ku Klux Klan, which had declined by the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877), was revived again in the 1910s. Spreading to the North and now targeting both blacks and immigrants (many of whom were Catholic or Jewish). The KKK espoused its tyrannical hatred against those they whom they they thought were destined to destroy the racial and religious homogeneity of the nation.6

Mexicans escaped much of this kind of targeting of immigrants in the 1910s and early 20s. They immigrated in smaller numbers, were confined mainly to the Southwest, and a large number were sojourner laborers who worked for a season and then returned home to Mexico. This meant that they did not tend to settle down, join unions, naturalize, or vote. These reasons, coupled with the lobbying power of large-scale employers from agriculture and industry, as well as diplomatic and trade interests insured that no quotas were imposed on immigrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere. Such a move demonstrates how capitalist needs could eclipse desires for a racially and culturally homogenous nation. Garis' analysis of the new racial order that was to arise from changes to immigration policy prompted him to argue that Mexican immigration was just as threatening if not more so than southern and eastern European immigration.

After the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, it was as if people looked around them and questioned why the U.S. had curtailed immigration from Europe and not from Mexico. In the aftermath of the passage of the Act, the discourse around Mexican immigration shifted. For one, the demographics of Mexican immigration changed. Mexican immigration began to increase. In the two years leading up to the 1924 Immigration Act, Mexicans consisted of 10.9 percent of the total number of admitted immigrants. In the three years after the passage of the act, their numbers jumped to 16.1 percent. By 1927, Mexicans were second only to Germans in terms of the number of new immigrants. A long view of the 1920s decade reveals that in that period, Mexicans comprised over 11.2 percent of the total immigrants admitted to the United States.7 In addition, in search of work, Mexicans moved further into the interior of the nation, farming sugar-beet fields in Denver, toiling in Chicago's factories, and laboring in the steel mills of Pittsburgh.8 Lastly, long seen as racially inferior, but a generally malleable workforce, stereotypes of Mexicans as criminal, social burdens, diseased, and unassimilable intensified. As such, attempts to curtail Mexican immigration after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act increased.9

What I highlight in this chapter and in this book is that one of the key ways to establish Mexican immigration as a problem was to compare Mexicans to racialized groups familiar to Americans through the use of racial scripts. As such, people increasingly began to look at Mexicans through a relational lens. In the post-1924 period, both proponents and opponents of Mexican immigration regularly compared Mexicans to other racialized groups in order to portray Mexicans as more or less desirable, respectively. These racial scripts provided a shorthand through which to construct Mexicans as inferior. It was common, for example, for white Americans to discuss Mexicans as "the negro problem" of the Southwest. White Americans argued that Mexicans were not like them. The best way to make this point clear was to compare Mexicans to other groups who had already been defined and established as non-white, non-normative, and unfit for self-government. As Mexicans became thought of as another "other" and as outside the body politic, they were increasingly positioned alongside groups such as Indians, Asians or blacks in immigration discourse. Discourses about these racialized groups were key in informing Americans what "Mexican" meant. When it comes to immigration, we understand each new "other" in relation to groups with which we are already familiar. As such, this chapter demonstrates a central premise of racial scripts: racialized groups are linked across time and space. This refers to how once attitudes, practices, customs, policies, and laws are directed at one group, they are more readily available and hence easily applied to other groups.

It is also important to understand when and why racial scripts work. Paying attention to the conditions under which racial scripts emerge-the social structure, the material conditions, and the historical context-explains what is at stake in a racial script. Mexican immigration was (and continues to be) primarily labor migration. The fact that Mexicans escaped the quotas of 1924 does not signal an acceptance of immigrants but a need for labor. Both those for and against Mexican immigration drew on racial scripts. Examining these moments in the long immigration debate era reveals that what was at stake was not the purported maintenance of U.S. racial purity, but the need to manage labor. This gets at a key tenet of the history of the United States: despite the deep tradition of racial hierarchy and racial exclusion built into the American system, the dynamics of capitalist expansion always worked at cross purposes to the goal of racial and cultural homogeneity. In other words, as the United States expanded both territorially and economically, the demand for labor almost always trumped the social desire to maintain racial purity.10

In this chapter, I use the concept of racial scripts to examine the constructions of "Mexican" that emerged under a new immigration regime during post-1924 immigration debates and that are still with us today. Specifically, I examine nearly two-dozen bills proposed by the House and Senate restricting immigration from countries in the Western hemisphere, from 1925 through 1930. These dates mark the period immediately after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, when many expressed their outrage that Mexican immigrants were not subject to the same quotas as Europeans, through 1930, by which time the Depression had set in and repatriations, voluntary and involuntary, and restrictions on visas severely curtailed Mexican immigration. I refer to this period as the long immigration debate era.

We need to be able to see how these long, intense, and sustained conversations on race shaped the meanings of "Mexican" during this phase of the immigration regime (and for years to come). Historian Mae Ngai's foundational work is key to understanding how it is that the deportation policies developed during this period helped make some undocumented immigrants "legal" (such as European immigrants), while marking others as "illegal" (mainly Mexicans) even though Mexicans had escaped quota restrictions.11 Yet, much more work needs to be done to better understand how the category "Mexican" came to be so demonized during the inter-war period, and immigration policy and discourse is a rich site for this.

Employing the concept of racial scripts, I widen my perspective to look at various other groups that were discussed in the hearings, debates, correspondence, newspaper articles that I have mined through archival research on Mexican immigration to argue that blacks, Indians, Asians, and colonial subjects had a strong presence in these forums to cue people how to think about Mexican immigration, as if giving them a racial script. Thus, racial scripts refer to more than just a stereotype. They show how power is always at stake in racial categorization and how once formed, those racial categories can easily be transferred to new groups. To put it simply, racism builds on past racial acts.

When looking at the history of Mexican Americans, we cannot point to landmark Supreme Court cases that clearly mark them as inside or outside of legal or social citizenship as we can for blacks and Asians.12 Mexicans have been considered legally white and eligible for naturalization since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Their racial exclusion is not marked in the same way as that of blacks and Asians who were written out of whiteness, and at points in history, citizenship, in absolute terms.13 Yet, we need to learn to read race not just in the rulings but in between the lines. Despite their access to citizenship, Mexican Americans' indigenous background marked them as racially non-white. It also linked them to Native Americans who were not only seen as racially other, but who had a different relationship to U.S. citizenship and civil rights because of their sovereignty and rights purportedly guaranteed by treaties, which were commonly violated. As such, Mexicans have a different relationship to whiteness that Asians and blacks do. Thus, we must turn to key periods, such as the long immigration debate era, rather than only landmark legal decisions, to understand the racial formation of Mexicans in the United States. In the next three sections, I examine racial scripts that reoccurred regularly during the long immigration debate era to argue that they contributed to negative cultural constructions of Mexicans, even in the face of failed legislation.

 

Racialization of Mexicans in the Nineteenth Century

Before I examine racial scripts that circulated during the long immigration debate era, I turn to the longer racialization of Mexicans in the U.S. so that we may establish which scripts emerged in the nineteenth century that may have effected the racialization of Mexicans into the twentieth century and beyond. After the U.S. War with Mexico (1846-1848), Mexicans entered the U.S. linked to two competing racial scripts: indigeneity and whiteness. The U.S. War with Mexico and the ideology of Manifest Destiny that justified it highlighted Mexicans' inferior racial position due to their indigenous roots. But in the aftermath of the war, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans residing in the acquired territories were also extended U.S. citizenship, a privilege only extended to whites at the time. These conflicting scripts that simultaneously marked them as legally white but socially and culturally "other" and inferior would serve to complicate their status for generations to come.

Moreover, Mexicans were entering a nation at a time when other racial scripts were already in circulation and were written into the very fabric of American society. Racial difference had been codified in U.S. founding documents. The Naturalization Act of 1790 deemed only those considered "free white persons" to be eligible for naturalization. U.S. citizenship. In addition, the Constitution continued to allow for slavery, including the importation of slaves until 1808 (Section 9, Article I), while the fugitive slave clause (Section 2, Article IV) required escaped slaves be returned to their owners. Moreover, for taxation purposes, whites were counted as "whole persons," but indigenous peoples were dismissed simply as "Indians not taxed" and slaves counted as "three fifths of all other Persons" (Section 3, Article I).

The systematic and institutionalized racism directed at blacks and Indians in relation to citizenship, property, and systems of unfreedom meant that when Mexicans were forcibly incorporated into the U.S., they were already stepping onto an uneven playing field. With this kind of ideological and institutional framework, racial scripts that deemed racialized bodies as inferior were easily transferred to Mexicans once white Americans began to come into regular contact with them in the 1810s and 1820s, especially during the 1830s during the Texas War of Independence from Mexico, and then again, of course, during the actual war with Mexico, as well as in the framing of the Trea