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Race, la Raza and Spiro T. Agnew

19 August 2008

Latinamericanistas who post in English invested a lot of bandwidth this last week in discussing Spanish racism.  By total coincidence, also last week

…the United States Census Bureau has just released a projection – based on current birth, death and immigration rates – which predicts that white people of northern European descent will no longer make up a majority of the country’s population by the year 2042.

I’m not completely sure the timing of the report — just as it looks as if the United States will elect a “non-white” President — was coincidental.  The Census Bureau report assumes “if present trends continue” that the largest growth in “non-whites” will be among “Hispanics.” “Hispanics”, though, “may be of any race.”   At various times, the Census Bureau has counted various Latin Americas as other “races”, and for many years, Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) were “white”.

Also co-incidentally, though I probably should be working on other things, I’m antsy to get the advance copies of my book,  Gods, Gauchupines and Gringos (which looks at Mexico as a multi-racial, multi-cultural society) and have been screwing off.  Somehow — and I’m not sure the circumstances — I ran across reference to myself in a neo-nazi website which is convinced I’m Jewish.

I’m not, but what’s interesting is the nazis were linking to a discussion I was in about the difference between the meaning of “race” in different cultures.  Weird, huh?  Nazi-logic says that because I’m a “white guy” who doesn’t think the definitions of “race” are carved in stone, I can’t be “really white”… ergo, by … Jewish.  The Nazis are — in goes without saying — fucking idiots, and they’re too stupid to realize it, but they make a point… access to power requires assimilation and toleration by the elites, more than skin color.  The Nazis are never going to be part of the elite, however it is defined — just by being in the same census data category as the elites.  Normally, people of color — and even white outsiders — are only let into the “club” one at a time.  Even when a large number of individuals are in the club, there are still reservations about the group collectively.  The club doesn’t resort to crude phrases like “towel head” around an Egyptian doctor, but the doctor is expected to be on his best behavior, and live by the club rules.

I stuck around the Nazi site long enough to look at their ridiculous discussion of “white Mexicans” (something I’ve heard before), and the assumption that because “white” is the default top dog in the United States, it is in Mexico.  Both somewhat false assertions.  All of which leads to Spiro T. Agnew.

In the 18th century the Rationalists attempted to categorize everything, including human beings.  In determining how things (and people) are related, this was a great scientific break-though:  Linneaus’ taxonomic system was arguably the most important scientific breakthrough of all time — allowing us to look at the natural world in some systematic way.  The downside was that once you start putting people into categories, you want to ‘rank’ those categories.  You mix in the natural tendency of people, especially the ruling group, to assume they are inherently the best and “‘we’re #1” — whoever we are —  and everybody else falls somewhere down the list.

On the Iberian Peninsula, a multi-ethnic society of different languages, cultures and religions, the pre-Rationalist attempts to keep Castillian nobility — with their ethnic roots in Gothic and Viking raiders — in control and out of the professions.   By using religious qualifications — sangre puro — they froze out the Jews, Muslims and southern Spaniards who would make up the bulk of Latin American Spanish immigrants.  Where those immigrants — in blissful ignorance of racial categories and hierarchies — together with the native American peoples and the involuntary African immigrants — complicated the hell out of any attempts to neatly create Rational categories of the human population.  As I write in my book:

… Mexicans simply ignored these distinctions. Most people were poor farmers or general laborers, where racial classifications didn’t matter for the most part. For professions limited to people of entirely European ancestry, such as medicine, qualified people simply changed their family records. Sometimes bribery was involved, and sometimes the people who were supposed to enforce the restrictions simply went along with the deception. If a town needed a doctor and an indigenous doctor was available, then a European could usually be found to claim the new doctor was his cousin.

…The only restriction that couldn’t be ignored was the one between Spaniards born in Spain and Spaniards born in México. For the Mexican-born criollos, even those who had maintained pure Spanish ancestry, that difference mattered. More and more, the criollos saw their interests conflicting with the Spanish-born gachupines.

This was not “anti-white” and an inversion of the racial categories, but simply a rejection of them.  There are “white Mexicans” and many of them are well-to-do, but that has more to do with later immigrants (in the late 19th and early 20th century) who arrived at the right time to make fortunes.  And not all “white Mexicans” are Spaniards, or wealthy.

When I first started working on my book, Vicente Fox was always held out as “proof” of Mexican “white” supremacy.  Fox was an exception — probably the first President of entirely European descent in a century.  Obregon may have been mostly European (and, possibly Irish, though the evidence is mostly wishful thinking by Irishmen who think any name beginning with the letter “O” is Irish.  But he was blue-eyed), but he never really commented on it, nor did he probably care.  And, ironically, Fox would not be considered “Spanish” by many in Spain because his mother was Basque, not Spanish.   Even in the early 19th century, presidents of African ancestry were not unknown.

Fox was also unusual in being overtly Catholic.  At least since Juarez (a Zapotec, with no Euopean ancesty, by the way), overt religiousity has been something of a handicap in Mexican politics.  Nominally, the presidents have all been culturally Catholic, but then, so are nearly all Mexicans.

In the United States, Rationalism — including categorization and creating hierarchies — have always been  important.  The English colonists did not never practiced assimilation, but separation between the various social groups — the settlers, the indigenous peoples and the African slaves.  And, despite our belief that the United States is much more socially inclusive than other countries, even the settlers stayed fairly separated for generations.

If Mexico was supposedly controlled by Spaniards, the United States is still controlled by the English.   Since the 1790 census, which listed 32 percent of the population as being of British descent (including Irish), only four presidents have been of non-British descent:  Martin Van Buren, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (both of whom were at least of half-British descent) were New York Dutch (the only non-English considered part of the “establishment” in colonial times) and German-descended Dwight Eisenhower.

John F. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt listed “Dutch Reformed Church” as their religious preference,  but all the rest listed various English-based Protestant denominations, or — like the four who listed no religious preference (Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulyses S. Grant and  Rutherford B. Hayes — the mid 19th century was a little less churchy than we think), they all followed “mainstream Christian” — English Protestant at that — beliefs.

The “main” categories — white, black, Indian, other — have pretty much held up over the centuries.  But who is considered part of the “in-group” has grown — where it was only those of British descent in the 1790s, Germans, Irish (begrudingly) and others were slowly added to the “in crowd”, usually after a generation or two after immigration.   Catholics (at least those of European descent), Lutherans and other Germanic Protestants, other European Protestants and even the Jews have been folded into the mainstream “community of (acceptable) faith” — becoming, for all but the craziest of white supremacists, “white”.

As my blogamigo Nezua has taken pains to point out to me, persons of color (even those who have one “white” parent) are not easily assimilated. The person of color who does break into the “club” is normally one that has assimilated the values of the mainstream culture.  I had to go through the Vice-Presidents of the United States before I found a person of (some) color … Charles Curtis, 31st Vice-President (Herbert Hoover was the President) who was “of color” … his maternal grandparents were of mostly Native American.  Curtis stands out in another way — his first languages were French and Kansa, not English.  But, he was of English descent on his father’s side.    Assimilation was even more rare in the past, but appearing becoming mainstream (like Curtis) always was more important than “race” (and, in some quarters, having roots in the British Isles still is).

In Mexico, the “color line” is more fluid.  Discrimination against Indigenous people is based as much on their status as outsiders to the mainstream culture as skin tone.  For Mexicans, the amazing thing about Benito Juarez is not that he was an “Indian” who became President, but that he overcame cultural deprivation and grinding povery.  While “race” is mentioned in the Constitution (as in not discriminating because of…), the definition is fluid and ad hoc.

Religion isn’t asked by census takers, and “race” is mostly guesswork, based on “ethno-linguistic studies”.  In other words, if you speak Spanish and live in the city, and your twin brother speaks Nahuatl and lives on a farm, he’s probably Indigenous and you’re probably not. But, then, what about the United States’ “falling” white population?

Richard Rodriguez, the California author, in his memoir Days of Obligation (1992, Viking Penguin) writes about his “Hindu” relations.  This has always fascinated me.  Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, who emigrated to California in the early 20th century — mostly farmers — came to the United States at a time when  immigration law discouraged Asian women immigrants, and California law at the time made inter-racial marriage illegal, but as “persons of color” the “California Hindus” could — and did — find Mexican-American wives.   Much as African slaves in colonial Mexico did by marrying indigenous women, their children were slighly less unassimilated than the parents, and slightly closer to being considered “mainstream.”  Later immigrants from India were often professionals, and it becomes almost amusing to watch the contortions those who speak of “Judeo-Christian Values” or “our European Heritage” go through to include the “good Indians” (not just the Fresno Punjabis, but Charles Curtis, as well) … and Chinese, and Vietnamese, and Korean, or individual African-Americans, or Latinos.

Faced with the eventual non-marjority status of “whites” there has been a lot of talk about what will happen within U.S. culture.  One assumption of the study is that Latinos will continue to have more children than other Americans.  One of the crazies — Steve Sailer, writing for the white supremacist frets that:

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, immigrant Latinas in California in 2005 were having babies at the rate of 3.7 per lifetime, compared to only 2.4 for Mexican women back home in Mexico.

… which ignores the very good job Mexico does in making birth control available to the poor.  There’s no reason to assume the second generation (who all studies indicate will be English-speaking) will also have a higher birth rate than other Americans in similar economic circumstances. But, then, Sailer is looking for something to worry about:

…Hispanics today make up 23.4 percent of all Americans between 15 and 44, yet they only account for four percent of the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing. (Heck, only two of the 23 players on the 2006 U.S. World Cup soccer team had Spanish surnames.)

Sailer is, of course, nuts. But what we see is that Mexican and Hispanic people — are still “aliens” to some whites. People like him will never expand “whiteness” to include “Hispanics” but I don’t see that it matters.

Tariq Nelson, a Black American Muslim who — as a person of color and a religious minority — has more authenticity to speak on the meaning of the projected population shift than I do.  On his always worth reading blog,  he speculates on what it will mean as immigrants assimilate into the mainstream.

The census does not take these shifts into account. Dr. George Yancey’s book Who Is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide argues that Asians and Latinos are following the same pattern of assimilation as Irish and Italians and eventually will (socially) be white. However, the social dichotomy will shift from being white/non-white to black/non-black. It is an excellent and interesting book and I suggest it to those who are interested in this topic.

In other words, this means that some groups will get the best of both worlds. They will simultaneously enjoy the privileges of whiteness and the protection of minority status. This is why it is so important for black children to kick butt in their studies and work extremely hard as the next 20-25 years will be challenging for them. Only the strong will survive the coming “diversity wars”.

It doesn’t sound pretty. Nelson makes an astute observation though. With the Rationalist need for categories and hierarchies, and the assumption that the largest single category is going to be the “normal” one, and the rest the “other”,  it will be easier for the “ins” to change the terms that define who has  the easiest access to power (Nelson worries it will be the “non-black”).

Unlike Mexico, where the majority simply out-bred and always outnumbered the small elites, and created a more or less homogenous CULTURE but with wildly varying ethnic heritage,  it seems in the United States, people hold on to separate cultures and the elites find it easier to co-opt the minorities with which they have the most in common.  The New York Dutch were easy to assimilate and even allowed to hold absolute power.  The Germans, Irish and Italians … on probabion.  On the other hand, with “whites” a minority,  it may be difficult whites may chafe at their single lump identity — as “Hispanics” do today.  The mainstream — not to mention the elite — will have to find other ways to decide who gets to join the club.

Jacob Sullum, of the Libertarian website, Reason, says:

We’ve become so accustomed to this arbitrary definition of “ethnic and racial minorities” that it’s easy to lose sight of how bizarre it is. Is there a single objective criterion that unites these particular ethnic and racial minorities while distinguishing them from all the excluded groups? Is there any rational reason why a descendant of Spaniards, say, should count as a real minority, whether or not his ancestors spent time in Latin America, while a descendant of Italians does not? What is it, exactly, that makes Indians more ethnic than Albanians?

Or, for that matter, Greeks? Spiro T. Agnew, fucked up royally and was a scumbag, but so far he is the only “white ethnic” Vice President,  a trail-blazing “credit to his census-data category” before his time.

(PHOTOS: (Spiro T. Agnew); “Superheroes Multiracial” Dulce Pinzón)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mr. Rushing permalink
    19 August 2008 10:57 pm

    I thought that this story about whites becoming a minority is nothing new. If we based everything on skin color and not ethnicity things would be a lot better.

    I think that Americas facination with analytical study has caused us to always try to improve while at the same time we have people who struggle to maintain the status quo. This has meant white guilt over Obama. I know that a lot of people think that having a black president will solve all race issues. I think that this is problematic because it fails to address the issues and stances of Obama. Zimbabwe has not improved simply because they have a black president, so why would America?

    I have been hoping that John McCain nominates Bobby Jindal (a son of Indian immigrants, even though he is anti illegal immigration) so that we have a real debate. White guilt bothers me. It is a racist notion that people have to make ammends for their ancestors did that they did not do. It also bothers me that Black Republicans are racially joked upon by white Democrats who say that they are just trying to be white.

    The US has a lot of issues, but we are trying to overcome them. Teddy Roosevelt said that there should be no such thing as a hyphenated-American that we are all Americans and that where our ancestors came from does not matter.

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