- Racial Dynamics in Early Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas by Jason McDonald
In his introduction, Jason McDonald argues that there are few "detailed scholarly comparisons" of the African American and Latino "urban experiences" and that "scholars of ethnicity" have "generally overlooked the potential of comparing the experiences of urban-based nonwhite minorities" (2). McDonald's goal in writing this book, he says, is to "redress that oversight" (1). McDonald selects Austin, Texas, as his case study for two reasons: because of its unique geographical position between the South's "traditional 'black belt'" and the "newly 'Mexicanized" area of the Southwest, and the fact that Austin was the only major city in Texas in which the black and Mexican populations were "reasonably similar in size by 1930" (4). However, McDonald's chart—which states that Austin was 18.6 percent African American and 9.4 percent Mexican—does not seem to fully support this assertion.
McDonald emphasizes two themes throughout the book—the impact of World War I on black-white relations and the Mexican response to being racialized by Anglos. The second part was what I found most interesting. McDonald argues that prior to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and [End Page 222] 1970s, many Mexicans sought to "earn acceptance as the racial equals of whites and thereby gain access to the privileges of whiteness" and "rarely if ever displayed genuine solidarity with African Americans" (6). As a result, McDonald writes, for much of the twentieth century, "ethnic Mexicans in Texas were both wittingly and unwittingly complicit in the racialization and marginalization of the state's African American population" (8).
Despite trying to distinguish themselves from African Americans by attempting to claim their whiteness, Mexican Americans in Texas faced some of the same de facto discrimination as African Americans did. McDonald begins chapter two with a story about Mexico's Consul General for Texas who was denied service at a restaurant in a small town outside of Austin; yet, he was served at a restaurant in Austin because the rules for Mexican Americans there were sometimes more aligned with those for Anglos. Still, the city of Austin attempted to "codify racial demarcations and further restrict black-white social interaction" by significantly expanding Jim Crow laws, and Mexican Americans increasingly found themselves "viewed and treated as a pariah group by Anglo society" (66). Not surprisingly, by the 1930s, Mexicans and African Americans in Austin were more similar in terms of their "ease and level of" interaction with whites, but the key difference, according to McDonald, was that "while the extent of de facto segregation was virtually the same for both groups, de jure segregation only existed—despite a few attempts to apply it to Mexicans—for African Americans" (66). (McDonald acknowledges, however, that mestizo or indio Mexican farm workers most likely would have faced the same type of de facto and de jure segregation that their African American brethren did.)
One of the strengths of Racial Dynamics in Early Twentieth-Century Austin, Texas is the stories that McDonald tells to illustrate the point that he is trying to make—that this "tripartite segregation" that existed in Austin was unique from other cities in the South and Southwest. However, McDonald sometimes extrapolates too much from these stories. I am not sure that it is reasonable to compare the acceptance by white newspapermen of the establishment of a comisión honorífica to look after the interests of Austin-area Mexicans to the hostile reception and beating of the executive secretary of the NAACP by local elected officials when he came to establish an Austin branch in trying to make a point that Mexicans and African Americans were treated differently when they tried to contest white hegemony in Austin. Nonetheless, McDonald has written an ambitious book that gives the reader some understanding as to how three racial and ethnic groups co-existed in Austin in the early twentieth century.