It's no longer news to anyone that Californians are
mixing across ethnic and racial lines like never before. Over the
past generation, the social barriers to intermarriage have steadily
eroded. Indeed, it has become commonplace for analysts and
commentators to point to the state's racially and ethnically-mixed
future. Within a few generations, so goes the refrain, the average Californian
will be an ethnic amalgam with equal parts Asian, Latino, black and
Anglo ancestries. Not only have we fashioned a politically correct, culturally
neutral image of California's mixed future, but we have studiously
ignored the role of Latin Catholic culture in all this mixing.
While we may have accepted mixture as a fact of life, Californians are
still not at all clear what it means. Two years ago, businessman Ward
Connerly sponsored an ill-fated ballot measure that sought to prohibit the
state from collecting racial data except for medical and law enforcement
purposes. He contended that the rising frequency of intermarriage had
made the concept of race irrelevant.
More recently, the Board of Regents of the University of California
rejected another Connerly proposal that would have added a "multiracial"
box on student application forms. While Connerly argued that the
proposed category would give students another option in defining themselves,
critics complained that it would make it harder to identify and
collect data on minorities. Furthermore, the university must comply with
federal government guidelines that insist on boiling all Americans down
to five categories -- four racial and one ethnic.
So intent is the federal government on maintaining the legitimacy of
the current racial system that the U.S. Census Bureau has proposed
eliminating the "some other race" category from the 2010 decennial
questionnaire. Largely driven by the increase in the Latino population, the
2000 census revealed that "some other race" had become the third-largest
racial category in the nation. Ninety-seven percent of those who chose
"other" as their race were Hispanic. It seems that Latinos are wreaking
havoc on America's understanding of race. Indeed, nationwide, 42 percent
of Latinos refused to categorize themselves as belonging to one of the
four standard racial categories. In California, that percentage was as high
as one in two.
If approved by Congress, the elimination of the "some other race"
category would force a large percentage of Latinos, two-thirds of whom are
of Mexican origin, to choose a racial label they evidently do
not feel applies to them. The controversy is only the latest
skirmish in the age-old battle between two racial systems:
the Anglo Protestant and the Latin Catholic. Nowhere will
the collision of these systems be more intense than in
In American history, the first battle between these two
perspectives on race occurred in New Orleans after the
Louisiana Purchase. Under French and Spanish rule, Louisiana
had a three-part racial system consisting of whites,
blacks and free people of color, who were racially mixed.
But as Anglo Americans gradually solidified their legal
and cultural control of the region, the system was pared
down into two categories. Indeed, by 1892 Homer Plessy,
who was seventh-eighths white, was arrested for sitting in
a railroad car reserved for whites. Imposing a binary racial
system required the obliteration of any in-between racial
category, the denial of racial mixture, and the assertion of
the primacy of racial purity. The legal battle over Plessy's
arrest eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court where, in
an 1896 ruling in the seminal Plessy v. Ferguson, the court
established the doctrine of "separate but equal."
A similar process occurred after the American conquest
and annexation of the Southwest. Under Spanish
and Mexican rule, racial categories were relatively fluid.
While frontier Mexicans were not oblivious to race and
tended to favor lighter-skinned individuals, skin color
alone was not a major obstacle to social advancement.
Mexicans tended to define people by culture and class in
addition to race. While Anglo Americans viewed "black" or
"Indian" as purely biological -- and as such inflexible --
classifications, Mexicans understood them as cultural categories
as well. An Indian was not simply someone with
Indian blood, but he was also an individual who behaved,
dressed and spoke "like an Indian." A mid-19th century
American visitor to the Southwest commented that while
nomadic Indians hostile to Mexican settlements were considered
"indios" by the Mexicans, those assimilated natives
who spoke Spanish and lived largely according to Hispanic
custom were considered Mexicans.
Like the French, the Spanish and the Mexicans also
acknowledged racially-mixed, in-between identities. Furthermore,
it was not uncommon for a racially mixed
individual to change his racial classifications over time.
Indeed, a host of the original settlers of Los Angeles changed
their race between 1781 and 1790. For example, though
identified as a mulatto in 1781, Manuel Camero had
become a mestizo by the next census in 1790.
But once in charge, Anglo Americans imposed a more
rigid racial order on the region. The first anti-miscegenation
laws in the Southwest were passed not long after the
Americans established control. Although Mexican Americans
were generally not affected by this type of legislation,
since under the treaty that ended the Mexican American
War they were entitled to legally claim whiteness, they
were nonetheless sensitive to the prejudice that inspired it.
Whereas Texas and Arizona early on passed anti-miscegenation
laws, New Mexico, with its large number of Mexican
Americans in the territorial Legislature, refused to
approve a similar measure. By the end of the 19th century,
as Anglo migrants poured into the Southwest, racial lines
had become less pliable and Anglo-Mexican intermarriage,
which had been common in the years before and
after the American takeover, became a rare occurrence.
In the South, the absence of black blood was the
primary determinant of whiteness. But in the Southwest,
whiteness -- indeed Americaness -- was more often defined
in opposition to Mexicans. Whereas segregation
against blacks was institutionalized, the segregation of
Mexicans was generally extended unevenly and informally.
Either way, it was understood that in the new order
race was neither malleable nor subject to mixing.
The distinction between the Anglo and Latin approaches
to racial difference stems from two competing
theological strains of the Christian faith. Protestantism
had emerged in Northern Europe contemporaneously with
the spread of the printing press and the availability of
books. Whereas for centuries, Latin Catholics had studied
the Bible by looking at the magnificent stained glass
windows of their cathedrals, Protestants were encouraged
to make direct access to biblical texts. In other words, while
Catholics internalized their beliefs through the use of
symbol and ritual, Protestants stuck closely to the written
word. Indeed, 16th-century Protestant reformers protested
the prevalence of pagan superstition among the Christians
of Europe and urged a more biblically-based or literal
interpretation of God's will. Through the centuries, Catholicism
had borrowed and absorbed a huge number of
rituals and symbols from the very peoples they had converted.
The more literal-minded Protestants sought to eliminate
the open-ended ambiguity of folk Catholicism. The
difficulty was that symbols are, by definition, open-ended.
By contrast, printed texts lend themselves to more exacting
and precisely defined interpretations.
The two Christian faiths' missionary efforts among the
Indians of the Americas illustrate the fundamental difference
in their attitude toward the "other." While Protestant
missionaries tended to be rigid and uncompromising in
their approach to indigenous religious, Catholics had
learned to accept and sometimes encourage cultural and
spiritual syncretism. Whereas Protestant missionaries were
determined to preserve the doctrinal and cultural purity of
their faith, Catholics willingly experimented with the fusion
of disparate belief systems.
The Anglo-Protestant emphasis on theological purity
and the Latin-Catholic willingness to accept blending
presaged the differences between their respective approaches
to race and racial mixture. The Anglo-American conception
lent itself to the emergence of a pluralistic society, in
which groups would and should remain distinct, while the
Latin-Catholic world view encouraged the practice of racial,
cultural and religious mixture, providing that the Latin-Catholic heritage remained the pre-eminent ingredient.
One cannot properly understand the increase in crossethnic
marriage in California without acknowledging the
Latinization of the state. While racial attitudes have become
more liberal over the past generation, they alone
don't account for the market increase in intermarriage.
Today, two-thirds of multiracial and multiethnic births in
California involve a Latino parent. The 1948 court case,
Perez v. Sharp, that led to the end of anti-miscegenation
laws in California was filed by a Mexican-American woman
married to an African-American man. In other words, the
rise of intermarriage in California is not occurring in a
neutral field, but in an increasingly Hispanic Catholic
This does not mean that racism or the concept of race
will disappear. But race will be seen as a more fluid
category, similar to how we view ethnicity today. In other
words, race will increasingly be understood as a cultural as
well as a biological classification. The Latinization of
California has facilitated the re-emergence of the Latin-
Catholic view of race, but it is not likely to obliterate the
Anglo-Protestant perspective. Indeed, the tension between
the two world views is likely to stay with us for some time
to come. For the foreseeable future, Californians will have
to balance the dual notions of synthesis and separation,
mixture and pluralism. In the meantime, the state and
federal government should think twice about obliging all
Latinos to conform to Anglo-American racial logic.
Copyright 2005, California Journal