Please join us for a colloquium being given by Cybelle Fox, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Redefining the Color Line: Mexicans, Europeans, and the Boundaries of Whiteness, 1890-1945"
Abstract: Contemporary race and immigration scholars often rely on historical analogies to help them analyze America’s current and future color lines. If southern and eastern European immigrants became white, they claim, perhaps today’s immigrants can, as well. But too often these scholars ignore on-going debates in the historical literature about America’s past racial boundaries. Meanwhile, the historical literature is itself needlessly muddled. In this talk, I borrow concepts from the social science literature on boundaries to systematically compare the experiences of Mexicans and southern and eastern Europeans in the first half of the twentieth century. I challenge the claim that southern and eastern European immigrants were ever non-white. Instead, I argue that Mexicans better fit the description of a group straddling the boundary of whiteness. Mexicans were, in some sense, “white by law,” yet they were rarely afforded the privileges of whiteness in practice. I further illustrate this boundary straddling with an empirical extension to the case of naturalization. Being “white by law” made Mexicans eligible for naturalization in the early 20th century, but being judged non-white in practice made Mexicans significantly less likely to naturalize than southern and eastern European immigrants. To make this case, I take advantage of a novel enumeration procedure in the 1930 Census that classified most but not all Mexicans as non-white, allowing me to estimate more precisely the effect of a non-white social status on the propensity to naturalize. The findings challenge whiteness historiography; caution against making broad claims about the reinvention, blurring, or shifting of America’s color lines; and suggest that the Mexican story might have more to teach us about these current and future lines than the southern and eastern European one.