By Mark Naison (July 13, 2015)
One of my favorite new historical monographs, Theresa Runstedtler’s book about Jack Johnson “Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line” contains a memorable passage regarding differences in the way that the US and Mexico lived race in the early 20th Century.
The great African American boxer Jack Johnson, who was living in Mexico at the time, went to a restaurant owned by a white Californian with a group of his friends. When the restaurant owner refused to serve him, Johnson returned with three Mexican generals who demanded that Johnson be served. In Mexico, the generals asserted, the law recognized no difference between blacks and whites, and restaurants had no right to deny service to black patrons. “Mexico is not a white man’s country” the generals asserted, using a phrase that politicians throughout the South, and sometimes in other parts of the nation, used to indicate that Blacks would always be second class citizens.
The phrase “this is a white man’s country” was a central portion of American racial discourse from the late 19th Century right up through the 1940’s and 1950’s. It could be heard in the halls of Congress as well as in Southern state legislatures and occasionally in editorials in popular newspapers. The implication was chilling. The nation not only demanded separation of the races, but an affirmation of white supremacy that left Blacks unable to aspire to the the highest positions in political system and the economy, or unable to take advantage of the common social amenities in public spaces that whites, at least those white with sufficient incomes, were welcomed in.
It also was one way that the US distinguished itself from mixed race societies in the Caribbean and South and Central America which did not draw the color line as sharply as the US did.
This is yet another example that must be considered whenever political leaders or journalists seek to imply that the US has some kind of moral and political superiority to Mexico which might lead one to view Mexican immigration as a form of social and political contagion.
When it comes to race, that presumed moral superiority stands on a very shaky foundation.