Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice

Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice

Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice

Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice


In 1968, ten thousand students marched in protest over the terrible conditions prevalent in the high schools of East Los Angeles, the largest Mexican community in the United States. Chanting "Chicano Power," the young insurgents not only demanded change but heralded a new racial politics. Frustrated with the previous generation's efforts to win equal treatment by portraying themselves as racially white, the Chicano protesters demanded justice as proud members of a brown race. The legacy of this fundamental shift continues to this day.

Ian Haney López tells the compelling story of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles by following two criminal trials, including one arising from the student walkouts. He demonstrates how racial prejudice led to police brutality and judicial discrimination that in turn spurred Chicano militancy. He also shows that legal violence helped to convince Chicano activists that they were nonwhite, thereby encouraging their use of racial ideas to redefine their aspirations, culture, and selves. In a groundbreaking advance that further connects legal racism and racial politics, Haney López describes how race functions as "common sense," a set of ideas that we take for granted in our daily lives. This racial common sense, Haney López argues, largely explains why racism and racial affiliation persist today.

By tracing the fluid position of Mexican Americans on the divide between white and nonwhite, describing the role of legal violence in producing racial identities, and detailing the commonsense nature of race, Haney López offers a much needed, potentially liberating way to rethink race in the United States.


Racial beliefs and practices harm large segments of our population. Yet few of us see society's current state as unnatural or unjust; most deny that race or other structural forces limit the life chances of individuals and groups. We do not believe that our attitudes or actions are based on racial considerations. Instead, race has become common sense: accepted but barely noticed, there though not important, an established fact that we lack the responsibility, let alone the power, to change. The color line has come to seem a fiction, so little do we apprehend its daily mayhem.

In contrast, activists in the civil rights and racial pride movements of the late 1960s forcefully challenged the common sense of race by demanding new rights and by building new identities. In 1968 the residents of East Los Angeles, then and now the heart of the largest Mexican community in this country, took to the streets to fight for better schools and to protest police brutality in their community. To understand and define their place in the United States, the Mexican insurgents articulated a new racial identity for themselves. Before 1968, leaders of the Mexican community had claimed to be white. After that year, and still to this day, many Mexicans insisted instead that they were Chicanos, proud members of a brown race. This book uses two criminal prosecutions of Chicano activists to explore efforts by the Mexican community to grapple with racism and, more importantly, with the nature of their racial identity.

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