I have recently been reading an important new book, Manifest Destinies, (New York University Press, 2007) by University of New Mexico law professor, Laura E. Gómez , who shows that in the early period after the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico, from about the late 1840s to the 1880s or so, the New Mexico territory had political control substantially shared by the Anglo intruders and established Mexican elite. Because they wanted statehood, which was delayed for decades because the territory was not predominantly white, the local Anglo elite developed a “progressive” racist view that saw the Mexican elite as somewhat inferior to Anglo Americans but still as European and “Spanish” (when in fact they were mixed-race, and substantially Indian in ancestry) and thus as “white enough” to be citizens and to play a political role. (Whites outside the territory, including in Congress, still saw the Mexican elite as not white and as fully inferior in the usual white racist framing of Americans of color .)
Serving in the territorial legislature, the Mexican elites thus came to play an interstitial, coordinating-political, and thus oppressive role between the Anglo whites and the very oppressed Indian populations (and, later, enslaved and free African Americans brought by new Anglo colonists). The Mexican elite defined themselves as white rights-holders and tried to accent their whiteness to relate to the more powerful Anglo whites, even to the point of shifting from an antislavery view to a proslavery view after the U.S. invasion of the area. (Some in the Mexican elite also held Indian slaves.)
Her analysis shows the important impacts (then, as now) of the dominant white racist frame coming in from outside what was once northern Mexico. It may also help in understanding the fluctuating accents on whiteness and non-whiteness in some parts of the Mexican American population since that time, especially in the middle and upper classes, to the present day. Gómez concludes her book by assessing this contemporary relevance:
“At least a small slice of that relevance concerns the twenty-first-century legacy of Mexican Americans’ history as off-white—sometimes defined as legally white, almost always defined as socially non-white.” (p. 149)
And, to that I would add, defined as socially non-white by whites who held the social power to create and enforce such definitions. Gómez has given us an important new insight into the white racist frame.