Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice, 1970-Today
U.S. Latino/a Studies Faculty Lectures Series, Spring 2021
The title of this presentation is drawn from a 1970 study conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and entitled “Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest.” That study, a first of its kind exploration of the Mexican community and the criminal justice system, found that the justice system in its totality discriminated against Mexican Americans. The report, in its concluding analysis, “paints a bleak picture of the relationship between Mexican Americans in the Southwest and the agencies which administer justice in those states. Police departments, courts, the law itself are viewed as Anglo institutions in which Mexican Americans have no stake and from which they do not expect fair treatment. Acts of police misconduct result in mounting suspicion and incite incidences of resistance to officers. These are followed by police retaliation, which results in escalating hostilities.”
This presentation tests that analysis by demarcating Mexican American and police interactions from 1970 to the present day. To do that, I focus on three examples where interactions between Mexican people and law enforcement resulted in the exposure of the inner workings of the entirety of the criminal justice system. Those examples demonstrate some of the factual accuracy of the Commission’s report, while also revealing some critical elisions missing from the report’s analysis.
Brian D. Behnken is associate professor in the Department of History and the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program at Iowa State University. He also has a courtesy appointment in the African and African American Studies Program. His research and teaching interests include comparative race relations, civil rights, and ethnic history. He is the author of two monographs, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas and with Greg Smithers Racism in the American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito. He is currently completing two books on the history of the Mexican American community and its relationship with police agencies in the Southwest from the early 19th century to the early 21st century. The information discussed in this presentation comes from his second book on this subject, titled, Brown and Blue: Mexican Americans and Law Enforcement in the Modern Southwest.