Book Launch: Mendez V. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights
Author: Philippa Strum, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; Commentators: Cornelia Pillard, Professor of Law, Georgetown University; Delia Pompa, Vice President for Education, National Council of La Raza; Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Philippa Strum began her presentation by describing the context in which she first encountered the 1946 Federal court case that became the subject of her book. When the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate Mendez v. Westminster School District in 2007, Dr. Strum was unfamiliar with the ruling. As a scholar and former professor of constitutional law, she saw an opportunity to draw attention to the landmark court decision.
Dr. Strum framed her discussion around the geographic context of southern California. She spoke about the history of conditions for Mexican Americans in the colonias and the citrus belt in Orange County. She then outlined the human story behind Mendez v. Westminster, from the first day the Mendez children were denied entrance to school to the family's decision to challenge the school's position. She discussed the prosecution's strategy for sidestepping the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent (which had established the permissibility of "separate but equal" segregation), as well as Judge Paul McCormick's role in being the first federal judge to rule that separation was not equal.
Acknowledging the importance of Mendez to Mexican American history, she said the case "was significant as a moment when Mexican Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Jewish Americans cooperated to undo what they saw as a great injustice."
Cornelia Pillard commented on the book's contributions to legal scholarship. She praised Dr. Strum's discussion of the relationship between law and society, noting both the historical and international contexts of the Mendez v. Westminster ruling. Pillard noted that the book highlights the usefulness of litigation as a tool for fighting discrimination. By going through the courts, she argued, advocates of desegregation were able to keep closer control over the terms of debate than might have been possible in the political arena. Pillard applauded Dr. Strum's "substantive vision" and cautioned that we must consider Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. Board of Education as steps toward equality, and not as solutions.
Delia Pompa discussed her personal response to the book, remarking that it evoked her own memories of attending an all-Mexican school in Texas and of overhearing her parents debating whether or not they should check the "white" box on the 1960 census form. She also identified the policy implications of the Mendez decision, asserting that we are still confronting achievement gaps, inadequate funding, and de-facto discrimination. Pompa insisted, "It has been 64 years [since the Mendez ruling], and if it takes us another 64 years to get to where we need to be, we are all in a lot of trouble."
Having written about Mendez v. Westminster during his undergraduate, graduate, and legal tenures, Thomas Saenz said he was already familiar with the case before reading Strum's book. He focused his discussion on the distinction between inter- and intra-racial discrimination, and on the historical and contemporary significance of the case. Saenz asserted that the conception that we are now living in a "post-racial" world is misleading. Mexican Americans still confront discrimination, yet the issues receive less attention due to the ambiguity of race. Saenz then discussed a bill before the Arizona legislature, SB 1070, the state's "nasty experiment" with identifying undocumented workers. He analogized the bill to Mendez, noting that the ability of police officers to make arbitrary assumptions about immigration status is a modern form of discrimination. He concluded by expressing a hope that reclaiming the historical legacy of the case would lead to its contemporary application in current discussions of civil rights.