Are Mexicans a “race”? (And is Mark Halperin a “journalist”?)

If you think too hard about the fact that the Republican Party is about to nominate for President a man who calls a judge born in Indiana, both of whose parents were citizens, “a Mexican,” and says that the judge’s ethnic pride makes him unfit to handle a case involving that nominee, it will just make you sad and angry, which doesn’t do anyone much good, though it might cheer you up that no even reasonably prominent Republican has been willing to defend Trump on this. (Alberto Gonzales doesn’t count.)

So instead of the outrage to common decency, the rule of law, and the fundamental principle of American patriotism that descent doesn’t define citizenship, let’s concentrate instead on the side-show provided by the ever-willing Mark Halperin.

When his colleague John Heilemann called Trump’s latest ravings “pure racial politics,” Halperin replied “No, it’s not racial … Mexico isn’t a race.” Some commenters are willing to treat Halperin’s point as technically correct, though irrelevant to the larger issue involved. That’s too generous to Halperin.

Yes, Twentieth-Century anthropologists defined “race” in terms of a handful of groups sharing biological ancestry, and that’s the current use of the term in popular discourse: “Caucasian” is a “race,” while “Italian” is not. (Scientific discourse is a more complicated matter.)

But “race” in English and its cognates in the Romance languages derive from the Latin radix (=”root”), and through at least the Nineteenth Century the primary meaning of “race” was simply “descent group.” The distinction between biological and linguistic relationships wasn’t clearly made, and the differences between, e.g., the “Anglo-Saxon” English and the “Celtic” Scots or Irish were understood as “racial” differences.

Nazi ideology was based on this older concept of “race.” A definition of “racism” that leaves out Nazi hostility toward Jews (and Slavs and Roma), and their belief in a Nordic “master race,” leaves out a lot. And of course the Nazis were not alone in regarding Jews as a “race.” When Australia largely rejected Jewish refugees from Hitler, one official said, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

The differences between European-descended people in the U.S. and most Mexicans is in fact “racial” (in the restrictive contemporary sense of the term) as well as national and linguistic; most Mexicans trace the majority of their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Americas and not to Europe.

So it would be charitable, but wrong, to treat Halperin’s remark as heartless and pedantic but technically correct. It was merely his usual derp.

Footnote Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel isn’t the only case where he’s not getting much backing even from those Republicans who have verbally endorsed him; he was also pretty much alone when Hillary Clinton shredded him on foreign policy. The wheel of karma still turns, and time wounds all heels.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

32 thoughts on “Are Mexicans a “race”? (And is Mark Halperin a “journalist”?)”

  1. Don't really know enough Spanish or grammar to comment on the first question, so I won't. Since the Oxford Dictionary defines "journalist" simply as "a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television," the answer to the second question is that Halperin can indeed be a journalist even as he is also a brownnose.

    Better questions might be: Is Halperin a person of integrity, no; is he a decent human being, no; is he a good journalist, again, no. But clearly he is a journalist because you're reading what he's written and published.

  2. most Mexicans trace the majority of their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Americas and not to Europe.

    That's putting it a bit too strong. Most Mexicans are mestizo/mixed european and indigenous ancestry, and their ancestry is on average about 50-60% European (and over 60% European if we're talking about paternal ancestry). It does vary a lot, though, with a higher percentage of European ancestry in northern Mexico and a higher percentage of indigenous ancestry in southern Mexico.

    1. …and a sprinkling of African along the coast near Veracruz, and enough Irish (who fled the famine to a Catholic country) that Obregon is thought to be originally O'Brian.

  3. (1) Q. "Is a cartoonist a newspaperman?"
    A. "Is a barnacle a ship?" –Walt Kelly, immortal cartoonist
    (2) I think this went off on the wrong foot when Tapper framed the question around race in the first place. What Trump wallows in is not just, or exactly, racism but bigotry.
    Example: I used to know a woman who grew up in New Bedford. She was 2nd gen French-Canadian (largest ethnic minority in New England) and her family went to St. Jean (or whatever), the francophone Catholic church. At one point, the Father Pierre had the girls in for a Serious Talk, which was about not under any circumstances to socialize with the Portuguese boys (who went to São João, the Lusophone Catholic church on the other side of town), because they "only wanted one thing" and also the Portuguese beat their wives.
    A few years later, she learned that Father Lúcio had had the Portuguese girls at São João in for a Serious Talk…
    That's not racism, it's just prejudice and bigotry.

    1. Seconded. Also, it's not that uncommon to think of/ refer to people as "nationality X" when their ancestry is nationality X. (For example, you'll not infrequently, here in MA, hear about the "Irish" in South Boston, Holyoke, etc. Very very few of them have parents who are not US citizens.

  4. A related quibble is whether Trump is properly described as a misogynist. My old OED gives the single definition "woman-hater". Trump doesn't hate women. He likes them, in their place as sex toys, flunkies and trophies to exhibit to other men. Were Achilles and Agamemnon misogynists in their fight over Briseis? (Not that Trump is otherwise comparable to real or legendary Bronze Age warrior leaders, a role requiring great physical courage and fighting skill as well as braggadocio.) Usage may well have changed to include the sense of "a man who despises women as inferior".

    1. I think you're using a too narrow definition of "hater". It isn't enough to have a limited vision of women that you approve of; Trump does hate women as they are in the world.

    2. Actually Trump looks a lot like Paris. Troublemaker from the start (sent away to boarding school/Agelaus), ditched his first lady for a pretty face, beauty contest impresario (and chose winner in response to a bribe), cowardly fighter, caused misery for his backers (the Trojans) just like the investors Trump stiffed in bankruptcy

    3. Misogyny…racism…sexism..homophobia…etc. aren't they all generally the same psycho-social phenomena?

  5. Trump's complaint would be a valid thing to take up within the legal system, but hawking it on Twitter and TV should disqualify it. It would be very damaging to allow the bullying of a potential president to affect the court.

      1. Personally, I have no sympathy for Trump's issue, whether real or not, but why do you think the judge's advocacy for Mexican and Mexican-American interests could not be considered to present the appearance of partiality against Trump? And why would raising the issue jeopardize Trump's lawyers' law licenses? If it would, that would indicate our judicial system is politicized beyond acceptable limits.

        1. The answer is right there in the link that you're responding to. (And it's a great read–thanks very much, Mr. Neal, for linking it.)

          Search for the paragraph that begins with "a related misconception" and the blockquote that follows.

          1. One thing does puzzle me: How can ethnicity be a plus at one point, (Sotomayor being, not "wise", but "a wise Latina".) but not a negative at another? It seems to me that either minorities have no real complaint if their group is under-represented in the legal system, or that a judge is of a different ethnicity from the defendant IS relevant.

            It's either a relevant consideration in both instances, or irrelevant in both. I lean towards irrelevant, of course, but the double standard does seem obvious.

            Oh, the blockquote? I can't see anything in it that suggests Trump's lawyers would risk disbarment if they raised this issue.

          2. A country that was once dedicated to protection of individual rights has become one that is more interested in protecting the "rights" of identity groups and interest groups.

          3. If Trump's legal challenge were based solely on Curiel's race/ethnicity, it would be out of bounds. Elsewhere, however, it has been claimed that Curiel is or was a bit of an activist in Mexican-American relations. If that is the case, a challenge would be based on his behavior and the relationship of that behavior to Trump's positions on Mexican-American relations and not merely his Mexican heritage.

        2. It has nothing to do with the case. If one came up charging a Trump business with discrimination against employees or job applicants of Mexican origin, there might be a point and Judge Curiel might well recuse himself. But the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court did not recuse themselves on Hobby Lobby, nor should they have done. If you can't trust federal judges to leave their private opinions in the robing chamber, a neutral judiciary is impossible.

          Trump is accusing Curiel of unprofessional conduct, a very serious charge at any time, that can only be made with strong evidence. Without evidence, it's a racist smear. Coming from a candidate for the highest office in the land, it leads to the conclusion that if elected, Trump would violate the independence of the judiciary like many a demagogue before him.

          1. It's fine for you to argue for a certain outcome to the question, but my comments had to do with whether the challenge itself would be unethical in the context of our judicial system.

          2. For a lawyer, officially accusing a judge of bias without any evidence of actual bias leads to sanctions. If Trump's lawyers can point to a series of rulings that show bias, they're free to make the accusation. Just saying that someone's ethnicity, or previous political advocacy that is entirely unrelated to the current case, makes them unfit to hear the case is unethical for a lawyer to engage in. Given that no one has been able to make any sort of case that Judge Curiel's actual rulings are in any way prejudiced against Trump, no decent attorney is going to follow Trump's lead in these accusations.

          3. I'm pretty sure that evidence other than previous rulings is admissible in such a case. Merely the ethnicity of the judge of course would not be and apparently would lead and has lead to sanctions.

  6. It looks to me as if what matters is the bigot's definition. If trump thinks Mexicans are a race then his dislike of them is racism, that is, it is bigotry motivated by attitudes about race. That the bigot's notion of race is incorrect does seem to me to matter.

    And of course the particular category of bigotry that Trump's attitudes fall into is much less important than its existence. Whether dislike of individuals of Mexican descent is racism, or ethnic hatred, or the result of unhappy experience in high school Spanish class is of minor interest.

  7. As often, the real issue here is a broader one. It doesn't start with race; it ends there.

    It starts with Trump's narcissism, his conviction that he is always right. Therefore a process that gives him a bad outcome must have been "unfair" — biassed or corrupt. Only processes that give him the outcomes he weants are "fair" and that is the only criterion of "fairness".

    This is the real problem and a very serious one.

    The rest is what kind of story he can tell to appeal to some audience to discredit or overturn an adverse outcome. Was it bias? What kind of bias? This is where the identity or group affiliation of the biassed actor comes into play, as a means of acheiving resonance with that audience. Thus "racism", although it is exactly the same phenomenon where the differentiator is not "race", but economic or educational status, or sexual orientation.

    So getting sidetracked on a definition of "race", when (however defined) it is only one possible differentiator, is a pure waste of thought. Trump will attack anyone who thwarts him, based upon any possible characterization. This is the real problem.

  8. An excuse for some Frenchsplaining. Not all auditors may get the wordplay in Menélas' lines. The lyric is Je suis l'époux de la reine…, I am the husband of the Queen. Normally this would be pronounced /lepu/. But What you hear is /lÉ™/ ˈpow/, le pou de la reine, the flea of the Queen.

  9. Easier analysis: Trump is, like all of us except Native Americans and pure-blood descendants of slaves, descended from immigrants. If Joe Scarborough is right that Judge Curiel's family has been in this country longer than Trump's (on his grandmother's side:–or even if he isn't and Trump can claim the same number of generations of "American" existence as Curiel–the only logic that explains Trump's comments is the following: Descent from European, i.e. "white," immigrants raises no issues of bias or trustworthiness. But descent from Mexican–probably mestizo, as the above commenters say–immigrants is another matter. In other words, the issue isn't immigration. It's whiteness. Q.E.D.

  10. If I didn't think Halperin was just trolling/derailing, I'd wonder whether his attempt to score points was a sign of a cognitive deficiency. Everybody who's raised a child has gone through the annoyance of the language-lawyer phase: "You told me not to throw the ball inside the house, and I didn't. I tossed it." "You said you'd tell me to turn my lights out at 9, but it's 9:02 now, so I don't have to turn my light off." And so forth. Halperin acts as if he still thinks such tactics are smart.

    1. Oh, God, my 7 year old is in that phase right now. Combined with pretend hearing impairment: "Oh, I thought you said not to eat the iced bream. And we don't even have any!"

      Still, Halperin actually does have a point. We have these different words, bigot, racist, sexist, misogynist, for a reason. They mean different things. It isn't too much to ask that people use the right one, instead of picking one, and using it as an all purpose epithet.

      1. I'd buy that argument, except for two things. First, as a bunch of people have noted above, "race" has long been used to mean ethnic group, especially by people engaged in ethnic discrimination/"cleansing". Second, if Halperin had been making that argument in good faith, he would have immediately followed up with the term of opprobrium that he felt was more accurate.

        1. Fair enough, it's a better argument for some of the other 'bigotries' that get mislabeled "racism", like aversion to Islam.

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