Quest for Equality

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Neil Foley. Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2010. 240 pp. $27.50, ISBN 9780674050235.


Quest for Equality offers a short analysis of the mostly parallel, although sometimes intersecting, paths that African American and Latino (broadly defined, although the book largely focuses on Mexican Americans in Texas and California) civil rights movements took between the 1930s and 1960s. Foley argues that, although advocates of civil rights for African Americans and Latinos sometimes found common ground for collaboration, most often their interests were too far apart: While African American leaders sought to break down the color lines of Jim Crow, Mexican American leaders sought to place the people they represented on the white side of that color line.

The introduction begins with an analysis of the ambivalent place of people of African ancestry in Mexico. In spite of the importation of 200,000 African slaves into New Spain during the seventeenth century alone, Mexican culture has largely ignored the presence and influence of Afro-Mexicans, instead focusing on the country's indigenous and European roots. Yet, racial stereotyping of people of African descent remains prevalent in Mexico's popular culture. From this exploration, Foley summarizes the recent extensive work on race relations in Latin American countries—more based on gradations than on a black-white dichotomy—to lay a groundwork for how relations played out in the United States.

The first chapter discusses how Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, meant to keep the nations of the Americans away from a potential alliance with Axis powers, initially seemed useful to both Mexican American and African American civil rights leaders as a means to advance their agendas at home. After all, both sets of leaders pointed out that the majority of Latin American peoples would not be considered white, and that discrimination in the United States could backfire internationally. Yet, in the end, discrimination against African Americans did not significantly affect U.S. relations with countries like Brazil, deflating the possibilities of that line of protest (32). However, the U.S. government did find that reducing discrimination against Mexican Americans in the Southwest was largely in its interest because the Mexican government, a needed ally, frequently defended not only Mexican nationals but people of Mexican ancestry. For example, after the establishment of the bracero program in 1942, the Mexican government refused to issue visas to workers in Texas until the state passed a law tamping down on discrimination against Mexican Americans—yet leaving Jim Crow discrimination against African Americans untouched.

The second chapter focuses on fights over workplace discrimination during World War II. To head off labor leader A. Philip Randolph's planned march on Washington in 1941, the Roosevelt administration established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (56). Both African American and Mexican American leaders tried to use that committee to force open the workplace for (mostly male) members of their respective constituencies. Again, though, in spite of some cooperation, the groups found themselves working in parallel tracks. In the face of strong white resistance, federal leaders knew they could not force an end to Jim Crow; while many African Americans fought that system (with some seeking fulfillment of the second half of the promise of separate but equal and others seeking to break it down entirely), many Mexican American leaders made sure they were on the white, not black or colored, side of the dividing line.

The third chapter focuses on the postwar period and attacks on segregation in education. Again, Mexican American and African American leaders found themselves fighting parallel battles on this front. Some cooperation existed between Mexican American and African American advocates, especially Thurgood Marshall and George Sánchez. However, cases striking down segregation for Mexican Americans were based on the notion that the law did not explicitly provide for separate facilities for them, as it did for African Americans, while the NAACP sought, and ultimately gained, a full reversal of Plessy v. Ferguson.

In the epilogue, Foley notes that, perhaps ironically, the breakdown of Jim Crow brought a greater assertion of a minority identity among disparate Latinos, not just Mexican Americans. No longer was an assertion of whiteness necessary, but rather a hindrance to addressing the many issues, not just political, that faced many communities. Nonetheless, Foley notes the distinction drawn by the U.S. Census's use of the term "Hispanic" as an indicator of ethnic identity but not race—people classified as Hispanic can be of any race. Thus, Foley closes with a discussion of the nature of ethnic and racial identities, including how they can obscure more than they illuminate. In the end, he concludes that different groups will cooperate when they have mutual objectives (156-157), but that even then forming alliances within one community, much less across communities, remains extremely difficult to accomplish.


David McKenzie, Spring 2015

In this short (156 pp) yet deep analysis, Foley expands an understanding of civil rights activism between the 1930s and 1960s by showing the parallel tracks that African American and Mexican American leaders took in asserting the civil rights of their groups. The work is stronger on the Mexican American side of the equation, which is no surprise because of Foley's expertise and previous work. Nonetheless, Mexican American civil rights struggles during this period are significantly less known, and less researched, than are African American struggles, so largely the new ground Foley is breaking comes from adding a layer of Mexican American struggles to the well-known African American story.

This layer that Foley adds is extremely complex, and yet Foley handles its complexity well. As Brown-Nagin shows in Courage to Dissent, African Americans in one city—Atlanta—were far from a monolithic community. Foley continually reminds his readers that what he classifies as Latin America (generally undefined, although it clearly includes Haiti) consists of 19 countries with related but separate histories, including with regard to ethnic relations. On top of this, Latin Americans in the United States had significant factors, including economic status, national or ancestral origin, region, and skin color separating them. Thus, although Foley overall, albeit subtly, laments lack of solidarity among Mexican Americans (not to mention other Latin Americans) and African Americans, the story he tells shows why this solidarity generally did not develop.

Foley deftly combines local, national, and international factors in telling this story. For example, the first chapter builds on the story Mary Dudziak tells in Cold War Civil Rights by bringing the story back into the 1930s and applying it to the Good Neighbor Policy in showing how federal officials first worried about the role segregation and discrimination would play in inter-American relations. However, Foley never loses sight of what was happening on the ground in different places, and how those factors played into the larger picture.

Overall, Quest for Equality is a book that should be read as part of a civil rights curriculum, as it complicates the story of civil rights before the 1960s by breaking down the black-white dichotomy. After all, in much of the United States's landmass, ethnic relations have not simply involved black and white.

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