In a seminar I taught last spring on automation and the US-American work ethic, I devoted a lecture to the myth of the “lazy Mexican.” This is the Mexican you might remember from Speedy Gonzales cartoons. To be sure, Speedy, the “fastest mouse in all Mexico,” initially seems to be a bad example. (See here, for example.) But racism handles exceptions well, as long as they prove the rule by contrast. Speedy is starkly different from the cartoon’s supporting cast, the stereotypically snoozing, drawling mice and cats of Mexico. And when we watch Speedy run circles around his clumsy adversaries, we’re invited to feel the superiority that some Anglo Americans have felt toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans at least since the Mexican American War (1846-1848), which ended with US annexation of nearly half of Mexico’s territory. (See Laura Pulido’s interview in the episode of “That’s Racist” below.) The myth of the lazy Mexican justified the appropriation of land from people who weren’t using it properly anyway, since they preferred siestas to hard work.
In my lecture, I tried to bust the myth of the lazy Mexican with historical context and sociological facts. Is this also the correct response to the most notorious anti-Mexican of our day, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump? When Trump labels Mexican immigrants rapists, my first impulse is to present statistics to the contrary. When Trump’s mostly Anglo supporters chant Build that wall! and claim that Mexicans are “stealing” their jobs, I want to point out that Mexicans and Mexican Americans work at the low-wage, disrespected jobs that enable middle- and upper-class consumerism. As US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera writes in “Mexican Differences Mexican Similarities”: “You dance on the floors we mop the floors/ You sleep in hotel beds we make the hotel beds.” Trump supporters should redirect their frustration at the companies that have outsourced and automated their livelihoods.
But are political affiliations propositional statements that can be overturned by valid opposing statements? I doubt it. Blatant inconsistency is the essence of anti-Mexican politics in the United States. As Trump shows, Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been stereotyped as both exceptionally lazy and annoyingly employable—as both the laggard characters in the background of Speedy Gonzales and the crafty, manic, ever-busy Speedy himself.
In a recent documentary about Brexit, a teenager from an English town echoes Trump’s contradictory rhetoric. He claims that Brexit was necessary to stop immigrants—many of whom were racialized by the “leave” campaign—from stealing jobs. In the very next breath, he moronically asserts the exact opposite point: immigrants must be stopped because, as parasites on welfare programs, they don’t work. But intelligence is beside the point in this paradigmatic case of racial fantasy. As the political philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues, racist political affiliations rest on the fantasy image of others who undeservingly enjoy what “we” cannot: decent jobs, abundant leisure, or in the case of antisemitism, financial power.
This is why the mainstream media’s bid to defeat Trump with “fact checking” has failed. Trump’s supporters know very well that he obfuscates, fibs, and even outright lies. But they will still vote for him because he performs the politically incorrect “honesty” that they feel is necessary to identify the people—the “lazy” and/or hyper-industrious Mexican, the “fanatically” devoted Arab, the “criminal” and/or “welfare queen” African American—whose enjoyment is keeping America from being “great again.” If few can explain exactly what being “great again” means, that’s not a sign of ideological failure. The stupidity of racial ideology is a powerful form of compensatory enjoyment.
Trump’s racism, therefore, shouldn’t be debated. To do so is only to bolster the illusion that it is the sort of factual discourse that can be debated.
The proper political response to racism is to defeat it. The proper political response to racist populism is antiracist populism.
This is an opinion piece for HSG Focus, the magazine of the University of St Gallen.