Recent reports indicated that FEMA was cutting—and then not cutting—hurricane relief aid to Puerto Rico. When Donald Trump recently slandered Puerto Ricans as lazy and too dependent on aid after Hurricane Maria, Fox News host Tucker Carlson stated that Trump’s criticism could not be racist because “Puerto Rico is 75 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.”
This statement presents racism as a false choice between nonwhite people who experience racism and white people who don’t. It ignores the fact that someone can be classed as white by one organization but treated as non-white by another, due to the way ‘race’ is socially constructed across time, regions and social contexts.
Whiteness for Puerto Ricans is a contradiction. Racial labels that developed in Puerto Rico were much more fluid than on the U.S. mainland, with at least twenty categories. But the island came under U.S. rule at the height of American nativism and biological racism, which relied on a dichotomy between a privileged white race and a stigmatized black one that was designed to protect the privileges of slavery and segregation. So the U.S. portrayed the islanders with racist caricatures in cartoons like this one:
Clara Rodriguez has shown how Puerto Ricans who migrated to the mainland had to conform to this white-black duality that bore no relation to their self-identifications. The Census only gave two options, white or non-white, so respondents who would have identified themselves as “indio, moreno, mulato, prieto, jabao, and the most common term, trigueño (literally, ‘wheat-colored’)” chose white by default, simply to avoid the disadvantage and stigma of being seen as black bodied.
Choosing the white option did not protect Puerto Ricans from discrimination. Those who came to the mainland to work in agriculture found themselves cast as ‘alien labor’ despite their US citizenship. When the federal government gave loans to white home buyers after 1945, Puerto Ricans were usually excluded on zonal grounds, being subjected to ‘redlining’ alongside African Americans. Redlining was also found to be operating on Puerto Rico itself in the insurance market as late as 1998, suggesting it may have even contributed to the destitution faced by islanders after natural disasters.
The racist treatment of Puerto Ricans shows how it is possible to “be white” without white privilege. There have been historical advantages in being “not black” and “not Mexican”, but they have not included the freedom to seek employment, housing and insurance without fear of exclusion or disadvantage. When a hurricane strikes, Puerto Rico finds itself closer to New Orleans than to Florida.
An earlier version of this post appeared at History News Network
Jonathan Harrison, PhD, is an adjunct Professor in Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida SouthWestern State College and Hodges University whose PhD was in the field of racism and antisemitism.