One of my favorite things about American racism is that the nation’s commitment to white supremacy has both encouraged imperialist wars of conquest and then horrifying the racial sensitivities of Americans to their results. In 1846, the U.S. went to war with Mexico for no justifiable reason (unless you think expanding the nation’s slave empire is a good reason) and stole the northern half of that country. Much to James Polk’s surprise, the Mexicans did not want to give up their northern frontier. Polk finally ordered the military to take Mexico City since the Mexicans wouldn’t surrender. Under General Winfield Scott, the army engaged in a brutal, blood-soaked five month campaign that finally managed to capture Mexico City in September 1847, a very important moment in Mexican public memory.
After Scott took Mexico City, some of the biggest supporters of American expansion noted that since they already controlled the capital, why not just annex the entire nation? One big problem though. What to do with all the brown people? They aren’t black so we can’t enslave them all. Plus there’s so many of them. But they certainly aren’t white so they obviously can’t be allowed into the nation as equals.
John C. Calhoun stepped into the fray to give his opinion about why we couldn’t annex all of Mexico because it would upset the nation’s racial balance. This is part of his speech to the Senate given on January 4, 1848.
The next reason which my resolutions assign, is, that it is without example or precedent, wither to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection—never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.
I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped—the Portuguese at least to some extent—and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.
Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. And even in the savage state we scarcely find them anywhere with such government, except it be our noble savages—for noble I will call them. They, for the most part, had free institutions, but they are easily sustained among a savage people. Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.
The next two reasons which I assigned, were, that it would be in conflict with the genius and character of our institutions, and subversive of our free government. I take these two together, as intimately connected; and now of the first—to hold Mexico in subjection.
This isn’t the only case of American commitment to white supremacy getting in the way of colonial expansion. The anti-imperialist movement was full of white supremacists in the late 1890s, arguing that bringing the world’s darker peoples into the United States threatened American institutions. They didn’t win that fight. But after the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, employers in California saw a new source of cheap labor. With everyday people of California committed to keeping their state white, they protested against both Chinese and Japanese immigration, getting the former excluded in 1882 and the latter heavily restricted in 1907. Such a thing wasn’t possible for the Filipinos since they were now Americans. Filipinos came over by the thousands to work on the farms and in the fish canneries. Even worse, Filipino men began marrying white women, using the courts to get around California’s miscegenation laws. This caused huge outrage in California. The upshot of it all was the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which gave the Philippines independence in 1946 in exchange for the immediate end to almost all Filipino immigration.
In the end, many Americans decided that colonial expansion was not worth the price of brown men having sex with white women.