The Cosmic Race in Texas: Racial Fusion, White Supremacy, and Civil Rights Politics

The Cosmic Race in Texas: Racial Fusion, White Supremacy, and Civil Rights Politics

The Journal of American History
Volume 98, Issue 2 (September 2011)
pages 404-419
DOI: 10.1093/jahist/jar338

Benjamin H. Johnson, Associate Professor of Global Studies and History
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

In the early twentieth century, a number of Latin American intellectuals embraced racial fusion and predicted that it would one day undo the white supremacy represented by the United States. These ideas influenced Mexican American civil rights advocates in Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, who found the embrace of hybridity to be a realistic description of their own racial backgrounds and an effective rejoinder to Jim Crow’s emphasis on racial purity. Attacking the consensus that an aspiration for whiteness drove these civil rights claims, Benjamin H. Johnson finds deep ties between Mexican American and Mexican political cultures and concludes that borderlands histories can take a transnational approach without obscuring the influence of nation-states or denying the emancipatory potential of claims to national belonging.

“The days of the pure whites, the victors of today,” proclaimed José Vasconcelos in 1925, “are as numbered as were the days of their predecessors. Having fulfilled their destiny of mechanizing the world, they themselves have set, without knowing it, the basis for a new period: the period of the fusion and mixing of all peoples.” Vasconcelos wrote these words in Mexico as his four-year tenure as the secretary of the nation’s public education system came to a close and as his quest for an elected position (first the governorship of the state of Oaxaca and then the presidency) began. They appeared in La raza cósmica, an enormously influential work that circulated across the hemisphere. Whereas the U.S. intellectual and civil rights crusader W. E. B. Du Bois had prophesied that the color line would be the problem of the twentieth century, Vasconcelos confidently predicted its erasure. The struggles of a country such as Mexico, which had just emerged from a decade of revolution and civil war, were for Vasconcelos at the center of global dynamics, as they heralded the rise of the cosmic race of his title, first in Latin America and then across the globe.

Although Vasconcelos was not well known in the United States, where his predictions would have surely struck both the architects and victims of a particularly brutal phase of white supremacy as ludicrous, he did have a profound influence there. His ideas, and the postrevolutionary political and social order of which they were a part, provided Mexican American civil rights leaders in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly those involved with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a reflection of their own racial self-conception and a set of arguments with which to critique white supremacy.

This article examines the connections…

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