SAN DIEGO — Can Mexicans experience racism in the United States?

You had better believe it. It's been happening in the U.S. Southwest for more than 170 years.

The land grab known as the Mexican-American War was aptly characterized by former President Ulysses S. Grant as "one of the most unjust (wars) ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the two-year conflict in 1848 by spelling out a requirement that the descendants of Mexicans left behind in the vast territory that would be divided into eight states be treated with fairness, respect and dignity.

Yeah, not so much. There were segregated public schools, movie houses and community swimming pools. Scores of Mexican Americans were denied professional opportunities and brutalized by police.

Now, as greater numbers of Mexican immigrants find their way to jobs in the Midwest, the Northeast and the South, this phenomenon of racism against Mexicans may soon be coming to a city or town near you.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The scourge has already arrived in Asheboro, North Carolina, where officials at a local high school recently withheld the diploma of 18-year-old Ever Martinez Lopez for the sin of displaying a smidgen of cultural pride. They tried to bully him into apologizing for exercising his right to free speech by wearing a piece of cloth draped across his shoulders on top of his graduation gown. Unfortunately, the item is — for nativists and cultural conservatives — akin to a red cape waved in front of a bull: the Mexican flag.

Lopez's parents came from Mexico. And this was his small way of showing them respect and thanking them for making his education possible.

What happened next should never happen. Not in this country. A widely circulated video of the graduation ceremony shows Lopez pausing as he reaches out to shake the hand of Principal Penny Crooks. The student engages in a brief conversation with Crooks who — according to Lopez's family — ordered him to remove the flag. Lopez refused. He kept the flag on, and walked across the stage.

I love this kid. I was born in the United States, just like both my parents and three of my grandparents. My great-grandparents were Tejanos who didn't cross a border as much as a border crossed them. I'm more American than most of the jerks who tell me to "Go back to Mexico!" And even so, I gotta say: This kid screams "American." My tribe is ornery, and it doesn't respond well to being pushed around and told what to do. This little troublemaker fits right in.

Crooks didn't see it that way. While the graduate did receive an empty diploma book on stage, he was supposed to pick up his personalized diploma the next day. But school officials refused to give it to him, claiming that Lopez had violated the graduation ceremony's "dress code."

C'mon folks, you can do better than that. Does anyone really believe that, had Lopez worn the Stars and Stripes across his shoulders, he would have been humiliated this way?

This was racism, pure and simple.

Spare me the lame argument about how Mexicans can't be the victims of racism because there is "no Mexican race." Sure, once upon a time, biologists claimed that there were really only three races — White, Black and Asian — but that theory went out of style with the horse and buggy.

Today, social scientists recognize that race is a social construct. Simply put, in a society made up not of test tubes but of human beings, the concept of race has no firm and objective meaning. It means only what society decides it means, and that has everything to do with how some people treat other people.

The officials at Asheboro High School treated Ever Martinez Lopez very badly indeed. They're the ones who should apologize.

And we should say so. Isn't that the lesson of the last year? Racism isn't just black-and-white. It comes in all colors.

School officials finally backed down. Lopez got his high school diploma this week, but — from the looks of it — no apology.

For the record, I'm not big on the Mexican flag. I prefer the Stars and Stripes. I don't feel any kinship with my grandfather's ancestral homeland. I'm more of an American Mexican, and the "American" part comes first.

In fact, that's exactly why what happened here offends me so much — and why it should also offend you.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at ruben@wctrib.com.

© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group