George I. Sanchez, Ideology, and Whiteness in the Making of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, 1930-1960

Article excerpt

Let us keep in mind that the Mexican-American can easily become the front-line of defense of the civil liberties of ethnic minorities. The racial, cultural, and historical involvements in his case embrace those of all of the other minority groups. Yet, God bless the law, he is "white"! So, the Mexican-American can be the wedge for the broadening of civil liberties for others (who are not so fortunate as to be "white" and "Christian"!).

George I. Sanchez (1958)

By embracing whiteness, Mexican Americans have reinforced the color line that has denied people of African descent full participation in American democracy. In pursuing White rights, Mexican Americans combined Latin American racialism with Anglo racism, and in the process separated themselves and their political agenda from the Black civil rights struggles of the forties and fifties.

Neil Foley (1998) (1)

THE HISTORY OF RACE AND CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH IS complex and exciting. The history of Mexican American civil rights is also promising, particularly so in regard to understanding the role of whiteness. Both selections above, the first from a Mexican American intellectual of the mid-twentieth century and the last a recently published statement from a historian of race and identity, are nominally about whiteness. But the historical actor and the historian discuss whiteness differently. The quotation from the 1950s advocates exploiting legal whiteness to obtain civil rights for both Mexican Americans and other minority groups. The one from the 1990s views such a strategy as inherently racist. The historical figure writes of Mexican Americans and African Americans cooperating in the pursuit of shared civil rights goals; the historian writes of the absence, the impossibility of cooperation due to Mexican American whiteness. This contrast is worth further consideration.

This essay examines the Mexican American civil rights movement by focusing on the work and ideas of George I. Sanchez--a prominent activist and professor of education at the University of Texas--in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Sanchez is the most significant intellectual of what is commonly referred to as the "Mexican American Generation" of activists during this period. As a national president of the major Mexican American civil rights organization of the era, however, Sanchez's political influence within the Mexican American community was just as important as his intellectual leadership. Sanchez pondered notions of whiteness and actively employed them, offering an excellent case study of the making of Mexican American civil rights. (2) First, this work examines how Sanchez's civil rights efforts were vitally informed by an ideological perspective that supported gradual, integrationist, liberal reform, a stance that grew out of his activist research on African Americans in the South, Mexican Americans in the Southwest, and Latin Americans in Mexico and Venezuela. This New Deal ideological inheritance shaped Sanchez's contention that Mexican Americans were one minority group among many needing governmental assistance. Second, this liberal ideology gave rise to a nettlesome citizenship dilemma. During the Great Depression and World War II, Mexican Americans' strategic emphasis on American citizenship rhetorically placed them shoulder-to-shoulder with other U.S. minority groups. It also marginalized immigrant Mexicans. The significance of citizenship was controversial within the Mexican American community and coincided with the emergence of an aggressive phase of Mexican Americans' civil rights litigation that implemented a legal strategy based on their whiteness. Third, Sanchez's correspondence with Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s and 1950s reveals early, fragmentary connections between the Mexican American and African American civil rights movements. All these topics address important interpretive debates about the role of whiteness. …