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.