White Framing of Latinos: Nothing Subtle Here

My 72 year old neighbor helps my husband chop down a tree that had been damaged in a storm last winter, so as a thanks we invite him and his wife over for a BBQ. My neighbor, who is a retired Vietnam veteran asks me about my next book, which is on undocumented Latino youth. He responds with a statement that left me stunned and speechless. He says: “Mexicans are a unique immigrant group. They are the only immigrant group in U.S. history that isn’t interested in upward mobility. They are perfectly fine working in the fields.”

This is a perfect example of the social construction of Mexicans that leads to perverse, perverted policy design vis-a-vis tough on crime, mass incarceration, school tracking etc. It is also an example of what Feagin calls racism in the backstage as I’m not sure my neighbor knows my parents are Mexican. He knows I’m “something” but I believe that because he only knows I’m a college professor he isn’t sure what my race could be—certainly not a Mexican-American professional. So, I have been made privy to two racist comments about Mexicans in our neighborhood in the past week, but this is another blog. Returning to the belief that Mexicans lack the desire for social mobility. The consequences of this stereotype on Latinos are found in many public policies.

According to the well-known scholars and leading figures in the public policy studies area Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, public policies are strongly implicated in the reinforcement of social stratifications of different target groups. Some groups get constructed (i.e., middle class and/or business) as being worthy of advantage, while other groups (minorities, feminists, or homeless) are often socially constructed as social deviants whose differences from the mainstream should be subject to scrutiny as potential threats to the public order and prevailing norms. A description of Schneider and Ingram’s book states, “Public policy in the United States is marked by a contradiction between the American ideal of equality and the reality of an underclass of marginalized and disadvantaged people who are widely viewed as undeserving and incapable.” That is how Latinos are impacted by public policy in America. This is explains why the Dream Act has not passed or comprehensive immigration reform for that matter, resulting in far greater obstacles through life than necessary for most Latinos.

Did I say anything to correct my neighbor’s perspective? I wish I could report that I responded with something witty such as, “I should have stayed in the fields like my parents working 12 hour days getting sprayed w/pesticides for less than minimum wage instead of going to college and then to grad school to become a professor!” Or something less sarcastic, more wise and kind such as, “Mexican immigrants and other Latinos are stuck in low-wage jobs because of large complex societal impediments that make upward mobility almost impossible.” But I said neither of these statements. Instead I just stared in stunned silence. Did his wife say anything? She “fixed” it by adding, “Well, at least the Mexicans we know are like this.”

In Policy Design for Democracy Schneider and Ingram explain that politics, culture, socialization, history, the media, literature, and religion all contribute to the social construction of societal groups and the individuals associated with those groups.

White Eurocentrism is expressed in candidate Mitt Romney’s comments about how “Culture makes all the difference” when describing the difference in economic development between the U.S. and Mexico. This statement was described as “ahistorical, prejudiced and very biased” according to Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

All this contributes to strong messages about the inferiority of Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups that my neighbors have learned quite well.


  1. wyatt

    Without a defense of your neighbors words, I must say your response to them was curious to me. The notion that certain cultures are progress resistant doesn’t have to be a racist idea.
    It can just be true, and not have to be full of all the meaning you attach to it. There’s a proverb that says: “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, but the property owner has much to worry about.” I’m an educated man who was raised to labor and toil, and the wisdom of these words ring true to me. I’ve spent 3 decades doing work in Honduras (Meso-America), and most of my beautiful and amazing friends from there are what I would call progress resistant. That’s why I love them! I go there to learn from them — get a new healthy perspective. It seems to me as though your response held as much disrespect for your race as your neighbor’s supposedly did.

  2. Maria Chavez Author

    There is no disrespect for my race by stating that it is wrong for people to justify the oppression of Latinos with flawed arguments of lacking aspiration. Progress and oppression are not connected in the way you are suggesting. My interpretation of what my neighbor said to me was the correct interpretation. It is narrow-minded thinking to claim that “progress resistant [is a] new healthy perspective” while wanting more opportunities, options, and freedoms from “labor and toil” are not. There is nothing “healthy” about seeing your father worry about whether he had enough gas in the car to make it the fields and back home that day. It is one thing to understand what it takes to provide for your family and the hard work your family did to provide for you. It is another thing to know that they want more than the fields for you. There is nothing wrong with challenging the belief that Mexicans want more than the fields for our children. You are using the Rick Santorum flawed logic that he uses against Obama, that is, if one aspires for something better like a college education for one’s children then that person is being elitist. My neighbor’s statement that we lack the aspiration for social mobility is a racist belief that we, Latinos should be happy in our subservient place. This is the modern version of the justification southern slave owners used to make about how happy and content blacks were as slaves.

  3. Joe

    Thanks Wyatt for raising this issue, and Maria for the original post and the savvy response too. It is significant too that it is the very undocumented and other immigrants that your neighbor is stereotyping who are the ones (at least a great many of them) who have RISKED their lives to come to this country to “make good lives” for them and their children. Many die or get injured crossing the border each year seeking upward SES mobility — and/or working hard for that in difficult occupations here in US. Social science data show too, very clearly, that Latino immigrants are more likely to be working and in the labor force than whites or the native-born US population. That is, on average they are “harder working.”

  4. wyatt


    There are many statements made in your original column as well as your response to me that I have a different perspective on. Not a racist perspective, just a different one. I hope and trust that you would believe that such non-racist yet different ideas could be possible. If not, you may want to look at some of your own constructs and see how they may be dictating your views about people from the dominant culture, or as you say those with eurocentric views.

    So I’m curious, why did you assume your neighbor couldn’t conceive of you as a Mexican-American professional? Maybe he had just read a sound piece of scholarship by the likes of Lawerence Harrison, and extrapolated that Mexican-Americans don’t mind working in the fields? Do you really believe he thought “all” Mexicans fit within his statement? Why the rush to racism? It’s obvious that not all Mexican-Americans feel such about labor, but that doesn’t preclude some or most from just such a mindset toward life. I work with and around Mexican men a great deal of the time, and I find them to be inspiringly content and hard workers. I try to get my son around these men as much as possible, that he might learn. Why the denigration of this mindset of contentment at labor?

    As an aside, what you say was just a “fix” by the neighbor’s wife, “Well, at least the Mexicans we know are like this,” was actually an observation that I would make, and I’m not a racist. Sometimes I wonder if scholars and pundits even spend time with or know the people they purport to advocate for.

    Regarding the cited work of Schneider and Ingram, there is a dissonance between what they espouse and what you accuse. They make the case that “Public Policy” constructs Latinos among others as unworthy, deviant, undeserving, incapable, or potential threats. In your interpretation of your neighbors remarks which you roundly defended as accurate, you accused an individual of malice for holding beliefs that you have no way of knowing he held. Are you saying that he was incapable of shaping his own view outside of the control of the mighty hand of public policy? And if so, maybe you could examine your own construct about the motives and character of people from the dominant culture.

    Also, you might want to read Harrison. He makes a good case that oppression and resistance to progress indeed have a profound connection.

    And finally, since you brought up politics in your dig at Romney, I think it’s fair to say that immigration reform has not taken place because we don’t have a leader in the White House with the character and leadership skills to just do it (it ain’t rocket-science), or that there are political entities and the Media that benefit from racial tension, and there’s a greater payoff in votes to keeping it unresolved.

    Also, the substance of Romney’s remark, if you don’t assume racism, is true. Culture matters! Unless you really believe that there is no difference between the way Northern Europeans took over North America and Spain took over Meso-America.

    Since I’ve been a subscriber to Racism Review I have been taken aback at the jumps in logic, and unsafe assumptions that are in the articles I read — seemingly just be able to point to racism in everything. The passion of my life is racial reconciliation, and developing world community development. I wish there were more writings about solutions, and less about pointing fingers at people from the dominant culture. It doesn’t help to find racism, or it’s roots, or it’s effects, if you don’t act to change it. We long for guidance to that end.

    • Joe

      Wyatt, you need to keep in mind that Maria is a veteran social science researcher, knows much more about these oppression of Latinos issues than you or indeed most Americans, and has interviewed herself many Mexican Americans about their everyday lives and experiences with the commonplace and extensive white racist framing of and actions against Latinos (there is much evidence for that last point on white framing of Latinos in several research books and articles like our work here, if you are interested: How the United States Racializes Latinos: At Home and Abroad Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Books, 2009; and Cobas and Feagin, “Latinos/as and the White Racial Frame,” Sociological Inquiry 78 (February 2008): 39-53; and Cobas and Feagin, “Language Oppression and Resistance: Latinos in the United States” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31 (February, 2008): 390-410.) She has many accounts of discrimination and racist framing from this research (see her new book, for example), her extensive knowledge of the Latino and white oppression literature, and her own years of experience with white racism on which she bases her admittedly brief discussion of what happened in that event, and also of the white ethnocentrism and racial framing of Mitt Romney. She is not in the least jumping to conclusions in her assessment.

      Also, for many whites referring to “cultural” differences is old code from the white racial frame for “we whites are superior.” One can, of course, demonstrate in numerous ways that other cultures are superior to the war-mongering and imperialistic (white-created, mostly) “culture” of the US, but one does not even hear that interesting debating question speculated upon by mainstream whites, right?

      Your passions are fine, but you need much more research and literature to back them up.

      • wyatt


        Please forgive the tone of the next couple of sentences, but I feel like I should tell you the truth, then I’ll get on to the substance of your reply. What you just wrote to me is dripping with condescension. You have no idea who I am, or the extent of my experience in social justice work, my time in academia, or my background and upbringing. Additionally — and to be clear, I am not referring to Maria Chavez, because I’m unqualified to do so — I don’t necessarily have respect for a “veteran social science researcher”, based on the very view of a social scientist that you cite as someone I need to read. Feagin, in “The White Racial Frame” states that Social Science is in fact slow to change and adapt to new ideas out of “fear for their own careers, as well as out of concern for accepted scientific constraints.” And that among social scientists, “Views of society are regularly screened for conformity to preferences of elite decision makers in academia and society generally.” Not only does he admit that white liberal elites are generally the gatekeepers, he goes on to explain that the ideas of social science researchers are vetted through research granting, faculty advisers, promotion reviews, and “public criticism of scholars who deviate.” I do not need to defend my credibility as someone who can work to make change in the realm of social justice, just because I don’t meet academia’s definition of a social scientist. If you are interested in change for people of oppression, maybe you should embrace a guy like me. I’ve never had to interview oppressed people to know what it’s like for them. When you’re alongside them, it’s pretty common sense application of empirical evidence and human nature. All that said, I’m loathe to boast because I feel like I am just scratching the surface of understanding my human brothers of other races. Also, I am just now starting to interview two groups of people to gain an understanding of their mindset and situation, but I don’t think interviewing people is necessarily a superior method for gaining understanding.
        Finally, you indicated basically that when most white people talk about culture, it’s old code for “whites are superior.” I understand on a deep level why that perspective is put forward (notwithstanding the social science), because many times it’s true. However, it’s not just talk of culture that gets this branding, it’s talk of any kind that get’s pegged as “code” for racism. So a white guy can’t even make small talk at a barbeque. There are no bounds to the subject areas and types of statements that can be pegged as code for racism, so the concept unchecked loses all intellectual discipline. I look forward to reading more of Feagin and others that you have recommended, but I’m saddened by the undisciplined use of the “white racial frame” concept.

        • Joe

          The main issue I see in your comments on Maria is whether her research and experiential data support her main argument about an incident. The research data are solidly behind her on her points, that is the key issue I see in regard to the probable validity of her comments. Whites frequently reveal in their small talk their racial framing of the world, according to much research on Latinos and others, and that is her key point. If you have research data showing this is not true for whites much of the time, please do cite and discuss that. You do not need to explain your credentials, but you do need to provide some research evidence to critique fully and well Maria’s extensive research based background for her analysis, in my view. This is a research oriented blog, in theory and usually in practice.

        • Maria Chavez Author


          Thank you for your insights and I appreciate your comments. My original blog posting is based on a particular instance and not intended to be a piece of research. However, I think it is a useful and telling anecdote that is consistent with the research that I’ve done and with the body of theory and literature that has been regularly discussed on this site. That is my point—it is an everyday experience of a larger phenomenon. This is what I found in my book, Everyday Injustice: Latino Professionals and Racism. Joe correctly identifies that what I’m doing is reflecting on a personal experience in the context of the research that I, and many others who contribute to this site, have done.

          Undercutting it by questioning my mindset about “the dominant culture” or “labor” does not change this. Nor do discussions of culture or intimate knowledge of the culture, which as an aside, I have. It seems to me your philosophy is that the way things are are just fine for most people who work in the fields on the one hand, and on the other hand, you assume the best intentions by whites and others who make gross generalizations about an entire group of people.

          I disagree with a good number of your points. People of good faith disagree. I think some of your points are worth consideration. However, others are not. Your goal of racial reconciliation in the world is a worthy one.

  5. wyatt

    I understand what you are saying, and that your neighbors statement seemed to you to fit into the findings of your research. However, allow me to address just the short reply you made to me, as it may reveal something.
    1. When I stated that you may have as much disrespect for your race as your neighbor, it was not in the context of your neighbor wishing to justify oppression as say at the start. (Something you didn’t even accuse him of in your original post, btw.) Plus, I never made an argument related to lack of aspiration. I quoted an old proverb, made the claim that the state of Latino aspiration was manifestly true, and voiced my appreciation of it.
    2. You state that I am narrow-minded because I wish to gain a new healthy perspective on being content with less. How does valuing a mindset that has me slowing down, appreciating community and family, and yes being content with my lot make me narrow minded? Also, I never said it was unhealthy to want more opportunities, options, and freedoms from labor and toil, as you claim.
    3. What does seeing your father worry about gas in the car, or wanting more for your children than what you got have to do with being Latino? We’ve all experienced similar.
    4. I never said “There is [some]thing wrong with challenging the belief that Mexicans want more than the fields for [their] children.”
    5. I have never once in my whole life thought, much less said something as ridiculous as: “if one aspires for something better like a college education for one’s children then that person is being elitist.” Plus via this statement you attach me to a polarizing politician, without providing any context in which he said it.
    Respectfully, this is a series of assumptions, jumps in logic, and putting words in my mouth. I trust that this is not a standard for “Social Science”. Pardon me if I come to your following statement with a credibility gap.
    “My neighbor’s statement that we lack the aspiration for social mobility is a racist belief that we, Latinos should be happy in our subservient place.”

    I realize that this is a research oriented blog. I just think it’s important to remember the truth of what Feagin states in his introduction to White Framing, as I pointed out to Joe. If the research has a purpose, let’s not lose sight of it. If the research is strongly pointed in one direction as Feagin claims, it may not be achieving it’s goal. Is the purpose racial harmony, or “get the white guy”? I can understand if it’s the latter, and frankly, I have yet to see much from social science that seems to have harmony as it’s goal. At least be honest about the goal. Maybe you could approach your neighbor with harmony as the goal and simply ask him further about his words, and see if he’s open to seeing his white racial frame — should you discover it to be there.
    I look forward to reading your book. I’l be curious to see how many white people you interviewed. Also, is there such a thing as a “Latino Racial Frame”, and is it capable of projecting negatively on other races? Just curious.

    • cordoba blue

      Hi Wyatt,
      I just want to actually agree with a point you made. It has actually puzzled me on this site before. I write on here frequently and sometimes the rest of the bloggers give me a hard time. lol But that’s Ok. I still think it has more to offer than any blog I’ve ever seen. The depth with which people engage the issues on this site is incredible.
      The point I want to address is: Is the purpose racial harmony or “get the white guy”? Sometimes I wonder about this myself. There is a great deal of anger on this blog directed at white people. It’s true that white Europeans practiced a great deal of imperialism on this planet for centuries to the detriment of other races who were not as technologically advanced. This historical fact has influenced many people who write here to the extent that sometimes generalizations are stated about white people that are (if I may so) specious and would apply to all humans, not merely whites.
      For example, one commentator said once, “Getting the last word in. That’s a white thing”. As if other races, when arguing, don’t want “the last word”? This is a human trait, not a white one. Another commentator once said, “Our school hours are based on white ideas of when school should be in session”. As if in Africa, school is held from 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm?
      Another commentator said that white people aren’t free of racism merely because they marry a black person. “Merely” because you marry a black person? How much empirical evidence is necessary for a white person to achieve the true anti-racist seal of approval? Another blogger made a contribution, and at the end wrote, “Take that white America!”
      You get the idea. There’s alot of anger here and it’s hard to blame them sometimes. But because of the deep-seated resentment and anger, sometimes comments are made that aren’t exactly what I’d call scientific. Let’s face it, the topic of racism is emotional. Especially if you’re one of those races who has been either financially or emotionally hurt by the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful countries on this planet are composed of white people. So basically white people, by logical conclusion, get to make most of the rules.
      This situation, as it stands, makes it really difficult to separate the social SCIENCE part from the “take that white America” part. But it’s still a great blog with extremely intelligent passionate people commenting. Stick around and you’ll appreciate what I’m talking about.

  6. cordoba blue

    Also, wanted to add that white people feeling and acting out their ethnocentrism is not merely historical..note Sikh shooting spree. America really was promoted as a true melting pot for centuries when Europeans Wanted the country to fill with new immigrants.
    Then when some of the immigrants were labeled as undesirable, for whatever reason, immigration was discouraged. The message was two-fold: Come to America where freedom of religion and nationality and socio-economic levels are all welcome/Don’t come if you’re TOO dark-skinned, practice a religion that differs TOO MUCH from Christianity, have customs that are a little TOO DIFFERENT from white northern Europeans or wear FUNNY clothing.
    Where was the line drawn? What was considered “too far off the norm?” It’s anybody’s guess, but it hurt alot of people who really dreamed of coming to America to make a new life outside of feudalistic Europe and Asia. Many millions came here and were truly welcomed. But many millions came here and were snubbed, sneered at, ostracized, ridiculed, and discriminated against. And it HURT! Thus, the understandable mix of social science with emotional responses. Again, racism is visceral. It is intertwined with pain.

    • wyatt

      Cordoba Blue

      Thanks for the insight. There’s a lot of truth in your words. Regarding anger from non-European descendants, I’m trying… and succeeding more every day to humble myself and deeply understand the bitter emotions that travel insidiously through the legacy of conquest and oppression. If a person has any pride of being at all, it would take strength from outside of them to not let that anger come through in their daily lives. Especially with reminders and triggers at every step. Like you said the question is one of reconciliation. Harmony(the benefit) is the ideal, reconciliation(the work) is the task at hand, right? It takes a priority on reconciliation to keep in mind the effects of Race Fatigue on white people. A perfect example is my own journey to realize how many things I was doing to help poor people, and people of oppression, that actually had an opposite negative effect. Now I try very hard not to be patronizing. Guess what, now I’m convicted that even that can be patronizing. We can’t win. We must have the forgiveness from those who bear the legacy of our oppression. There’s no other way. My conviction, and the focus of all my present efforts, is that it must begin with white people. I wish that social science could help, but I don’t have faith in their gatekeepers, who ironically are white. (I wonder: do the gatekeepers of social science love people of color, or do they just hate America? Because the ensuing public policies don’t seem to be helping much.) Maybe we can inspire the Maria Chavez’s of the world to break free from white elites and focus her work on reconciliation. I could get her funding if she wanted :), and it would not have strings attached. Anyway, thanks again for the insight. I am new to this blog, and learning about it as I go. I hope to be more productive in future posts.

      BTW, I’m reading an interesting book about black and white pastors from the 90’s who really dug in and worked toward reconciliation in their church. Very gritty and honest, not pretty, but helpful. I’m pleasantly surprised! You may know of it. It’s called “More than Equals” Perkins & Rice.

      • cordoba blue

        Thank YOU for your insights Wyatt. You bring a fresh perspective to this blog.You raise lots of questions I have wondered about myself. Again, there are people on here who appear, at first reading, to hate America. But if you keep listening to them, you do realize they are Very Compassionate people. Sometimes they do seem to believe a true (almost Utopian society) is achievable.
        However I do not, unhappily, believe any group composed of 400 million fallible humans will ever get along like peas in a happy little pod.We are, after all, the species “men”, who have a long history of inflicting pain and suffering on one another whether because of race, territory, food,or sometimes just plain sadism.And no other species on Earth harms another, just to enjoy seeing it suffer! No other species! Doesn’t exactly make you proud does it?
        But it certainly is up to the “powerful” whites, at this historical juncture, to realize, self-examine, and educate themselves regarding the enormous amount of pain that racism inflicts on minority groups each Second of Every Single Day.
        One exercise to really open your mind: pretend you’re black for one day. Just get in your car and imagine you’re black, instead of white. Imagine all the little conditions and situations you would encounter and have to deal with that you don’t have to deal with as a white person. After Only One day of this (and you have to do it for the entire day or it doesn’t count!)how do you feel? Emotionally exhausted? Exactly! Now multiply that by 365 days and however many years of age you are. Now you begin to comprehend.It’s scary.
        Just as a reminder, I’m white, so no I can’t say I completely understand this paradigm. But by playing this “game” if you will (and calling it a game is really a misnomer)you walk literally into another dimension. Try it sometime.
        Please stick around. You will never regret the time and energy you invest here, and you will gain another college education in the process.

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