“Copper Skins,” Identification for Extirpation in 20th Century Texas State Prisons

George Diaz, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

In the early 20th century the Texas State Prison system classified inmates by race. Whereas strict Jim Crow governed the segregation of Black inmates, Mexican inmates complicated the prison system’s black/white dichotomy. Although legally white, Texas prisons created terminology and ways of determining inmates as “Mexican” which kept them apart. Indeed, Texas used ‘Mexican’ as a classification years before the U.S. federal census. Aside from defining inmates by their parentage and nationality, Texas classified prisoners by their “Mexican color and characteristics.” Although “Mexican color” proved subjective and the state left this determination to the discretion of individual officers, the Texas Prison System went to some length determining what constituted “Mexican characteristics.” This paper examines attempts by the State of Texas to implement scientific and pseudoscientific research in classifying its incarcerated Mexican population. In particular, my paper focuses on the state’s utilization of anthropometric and morphological data, blood tests, and sociological information gathered as part of Harvard University’s Criminal Survey examining the relation of race and nationality to crime. In 1928, Texas allowed 363 of its inmates at the Blue Ridge Prison Farm to be used as specimens. Already designated the state’s ‘Mexican’ prison, Blue Ridge became a laboratory where the inmates not employed picking cotton were weighed and measured. Building off the work of Miroslava Chávez-García, Kelly Lytle-Hernández, and Ethan Blue, my paper examines how Texas utilized inmate’s bodies to map criminality.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 117. Dubious Data: The Politics and Myth of Border and Migrant Policing