A Different Shade of Brown: Latinos and School Desegregation

By Bowman, Kristi L. | Judicature, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

A Different Shade of Brown: Latinos and School Desegregation


Bowman, Kristi L., Judicature


Equality for Latino children can become a reality when we fully appreciate that American school children are not just Black and White-and never were.

School desegregaion cases have ong been dominated by a Black-White conception of race, yet Latinos, as an ethnic group, do not fit squarely within this binary. This disconnect has led to the popular misconception that Latinos have been largely absent from the history of school desegregation. Quite to the contrary, the first successful school desegregation case in this country prohibited the educational segregation of Latinos and Whites. Latinos' struggles have been a crucial part of the pursuit of educational equality since that case was decided by the San Diego County Court in 1931, 23 years before Brown v. Board of Education.1 In the years before and after Brown, Latinos' and African-Americans' civil rights battles have been similar, but certainly not coterminous. Now, when courts continue to restrict the use of race-conscious remedies and when the social context in which the law operates continues to change, issues of equality for Latinos and others are becoming even more complicated.

"Latino" as a category

In contemporary American society, being White-or, more importantly, being perceived as being White-is like walking with the wind at one's back: the breeze is rarely noticed by the person it helps and, even if detected, may not seem particularly strong. Walking into that same wind, however, is a much more strenuous experience. Non-Whites, including Latinos, struggle in the face of white privilege when they encounter greater difficulty finding housing or jobs; when they are subject to profiling because of their skin color or name at a police roadblock or in an airport; when others presume they are less likely to speak English or be American citizens; and when authors and editors marginalize the achievements of their racial or ethnic groups from the stories that compose American history.

The social assumption that Latinos are Non-White is hardly new. In 1954, two weeks before deciding Brown, the Supreme Court rendered a decision in Hernandez v. Texas.2 Pete Hernandez, a criminal defendant accused of murder, had been tried and convicted by an all-White jury. Hernandez challenged his conviction, arguing that because the site of his trial (Jackson County, Texas) systematically excluded Latinos from the jury pool, he as a latino had not been tried by a jury of his peers. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case, rejecting Texas's argument that Latinos such as Hernandez were White and therefore not excluded from jury service.

In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court examined the attitudes of the local community and evaluated, among other factors, the disparity in educational opportunities available to White and Latino children in Jackson County. This approach is consistent with the theory that race and ethnicity are socially constructed-in other words, the color of one's skin, one's physical features, and one's country or countries of origin do not have inherent meaning. Rather, our understandings of race and ethnicity change over time due to the fluidity of beliefs about who fits in a given racial or ethnic category, what the supposedly shared group characteristics are, and even the importance of the categories themselves.

The history of the racial classification of Latinos illustrates that race and ethnicity are not static categories: in 1848, when the MexicanAmerican war ended, and in 1850, when California gained statehood, Latinos became citizens by virtue of their "Whiteness." From 1940 through 1970, the decennial United States census generally classified Latinos as racially White. Only since 1980 has the short form of the census questionnaire given Latinos the opportunity to classify themselves as racially White, Black, Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, or Other, and ethnically as a member of a Latino subgroup. …

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A Different Shade of Brown: Latinos and School Desegregation
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