- Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity
Why can’t Mexican-descent peoples and African-descent peoples just get along? Subjected to a long history of white supremacy, one might think they would have organized a united front. This is the question that Neil Foley poses and answers for [End Page 228] Texas and California in the 1940s and’ 50s. Other scholars have asked this question, but Foley is the first to situate this question in these two decades.
The introduction addresses the roots of Mexican American racism against African Americans. He shows that Mexican Americans have had two sources of racism against African Americans, one inherited from the long history of racism in the United States, and the other from Mexico. Still, this Mexico-based racism is treated as an ideology without local colonial roots in New Spain or Mexico’s northern frontier. It is treated as imported racism rather than locally bred from colonial days in Texas and California. He correctly suggests blacks’ anti-Mexican attitudes come from anti-immigrant sentiment, language differences, job competition, and geographical separation. Unfortunately, the introduction fails to weave the book’s themes and provide historical context for his chapters. To address interracial relations we need to know about regions, cities, and towns that shared black and brown populations, including their differential access to education and colleges, middle class and professional clubs, working class interactions in unions, and interactions in political parties.
Despite this lack of context, Foley provides three richly detailed chapters. Though he includes substantial portions of several previously published journal articles verbatim, the three stories fit together. Chapters address the Good Neighbor policy, the Federal Employment Practices Commission, and the Méndez, Hernández, Brown, Delgado, and Sweatt cases on school desegregation. His thesis is that interracial solidarity failed because both groups worked independently, used different strategies, and because Mexican Americans were too racist and claimed whiteness.
The author places the burden of a proposed coalition unevenly on “Mexican Americans,” treated mostly as a monolithic community. He gives more attention to their claim to whiteness and less to African Americans’ claim to Americanness and their efforts to foster unity or share resources. He also says less about African American prejudice toward Mexican Americans. While he considers the failed promise of black-brown men’s solidarity, scholars can continue to imagine what African American and Mexican American women could have done. Foley reveals racist comments by Dr. George I. Sánchez, Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda, Gus García, and Félix Tijerina, all LULAC leaders. He also notes that some brown business owners excluded blacks from restaurants. The historian successfully shows that both racial groups were prejudiced toward one another, but more so among Mexican Americans towards blacks.
The author’s neo-Chicano analysis fosters a caricature of LULAC as Mexican American conservatives that recent books by Emilio Zamora, John Morán González, and Cynthia E. Orozco have countered. Zamora’s award-winning book Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 2009) found brown-black cooperation fighting job discrimination while Foley emphasizes conflict, perhaps because Zamora dove even further into the archives. Likewise, Foley argues, “LULAC was no NAACP” (126) but hardly addresses white members, white allies, and white financing the NAACP had. In the’ 40s and’50s, LULAC was unable to benefit from liberal whites’ guilt as much as African Americans; he does not address the privileged place of African Americans in the liberal white consciousness. [End Page 229]
There is no conclusion weaving’ 40s and’50s themes but there is an epilogue with anecdotal evidence mostly from the 1990s and 2000s suggesting continued racial division. Foley should be commended for tackling an important and sensitive topic and helping to dismantle the black-white binary of civil rights history, but much work remains to be done to gain a full picture of black-brown relations in twentieth-century U.S. history.