Race and Classification: The Case of Mexican America

By Ilona Katzew; Susan Deans-Smith | Go to book overview

7 Race and Erasure
The Hernandez v. Texas Case

Ian Haney López

COURTS IN THE UNITED STATES have long wrestled with the racial identity of Mexicans. In 1897, a federal judge in Texas opined that a “pure-blooded Mexican… would probably not be classed as white.” In contrast, another Texas court, writing in 1951, contended that “Mexican-Americans as a race” are not “a separate race but are white people of Spanish descent.”1 These decisions reflect the liminal position of Mexican Americans, who have historically operated on the cusp between white and non-white identity in U.S. society. But they also tell us about more than just Mexican racial identity, for they provide as well trenchant insight into the nature of race in the United States generally. In that regard, one case stands out. In 1954, just two weeks before issuing the historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education that would end de jure school segregation, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hernandez v. Texas unanimously declared unconstitutional the practice, widespread in Texas, of excluding Mexican Americans from juries.2Hernandez deserves our attention partly for reasons of historical accuracy. The Mexican American community has long been an active participant in the struggle for racial justice in the United States, and Hernandez brings this fact to the fore. Hernandez also has contemporary relevance because it represents the first extension of Constitutional protection to Latinos as a class, no small matter now that Hispanics constitute the largest minority group in the United States. But I concentrate on Hernandez here for what it teaches us generally about race and the relationship between categorization and subordination.

Conservative justices on the Supreme Court have been arguing since the mid-1970s for a doctrine of colorblindness, postulating that the achievement

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