According to Roediger and his allies, nineteenth century American culture defined many European immigrant groups, such as Jews, Italians and the Irish, as non-white. Differences in language, religion and culture from dominant Anglos marked these groups as outsiders. Elites created increasingly complex racial hierarchies that placed Northern and Western Europeans at the apex, and which defined Southern and Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians as neither white or black.
As non-whites, groups such as the Irish in Northeastern cities such as Boston and Tejanos in South Texas experienced their own taste of discrimination, though in most cases considerably less bitter than that endured by African Americans. As labor radicalism began to rise, these groups, consciously or not, struck a metaphorical bargain with traditional "native" Anglo-Saxon elites. Immigrants would gain membership within the white race provided they surrendered their ethnic identities, accepted white supremacy and disavowed radicalism. In return, they would receive both material benefits, such as better housing and schools than their black peers, in addition to the "psychological" wage of membership in a superior caste. Yet, immigrant groups paid the wages of whiteness by alienating themselves from possible allies in their struggle for genuine political and economic power.
A second generation of whiteness scholars, many based in Texas, moved the focus on racial construction to the Old Confederacy. With the 1997 publication of "The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture," Neil Foley became the first Texas scholar to apply this paradigm to the Lone Star State. Foley argues that Texas represents a unique opportunity for studying the mutability of whiteness. To Foley, Central Texas is particularly fascinating, given demographics that include Southern African Americans, Tejanos and Mexican immigrants, and poor whites from the Deep South. In this so-called “shatterbelt” whites occupied both the highest and the lowest economic rungs and the relative social position of poor whites, blacks, and Mexicans varied with the economic needs of the wealthy Anglo planters.
Foley and other Texas whiteness scholars built their arguments on the following propositions:
1. Each generation of Texans redefines racial categories as suits the political and social conditions of that time and these definitions are tied to political and economic conditions.
2. Marginal white men in Texas often embraced racism because of their perceived shared identity with white elites, or their desire to join the ruling caste.
3. Race and gender discourses did not flow in one direction, from the social top to the bottom. Marginalized white workers, Mexican Americans, African Americans and women used their own constructions of race and gender to resist domination by the wealthy white men who ran the state.
Foley contends that if a group never faced racial demotion, the urge to embrace white supremacy would diminish over time. He demonstrates, however, that impoverished Anglo sharecroppers in nineteenth and twentieth century Texas faced the loss of their racial position. Wealthy cotton growers began exploiting Mexican and black sharecroppers as cheaper sources of labor than white farm workers flirting with political radicalism. Elite Anglos warned of the threat posed by "white trash" descended from inferior stock. Such whites faced exclusion from the racial ruling caste and poor whites responded by re-committing to anti-black racism. The fluidity of racial categories gave whiteness both its allure and its power to coerce compliance with a social structure that provides few material benefits for poor whites.
Foley was among the first Texas historians to suggest that race is not just something possessed by African Americans, Mexicans and Indians. Whiteness too is socially constructed and its meaning is continually contested. Foley’s work provided the groundwork for two other major studies of white racial identity in the state. In "Lynching to Belong: Claiming Whiteness Through Racial Violence: (2007), Cynthia Skove Nevels corrected the notion promoted by earlier writers like Fehrenbach who depicted Texas’ white population as uniformly Celtic in origin. Nevels pointed out that even the most thoughtful Southern historians like C. Vann Woodward paid virtually no attention to Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the former Confederate states. The number of these immigrants was low for the South as a whole in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. “But if overall percentages look puny when considering the South as a region,” Nevels writes, “they gain significance when one examines particular patterns of immigration settlement . . . In certain areas of the post [Civil War] South, foreign immigration was by no means insubstantial.” Nevels observed that while Mexican immigrants to Texas have been studied, other “marginal whites” have been neglected in Texas historiography. Nevels makes a provocative argument that Italian, Irish, and Czech immigrants in late 19th century Brazos County purchased membership in the white race through the brutal torture and killing of black men. Such rituals of racial oppression, she writes, were rites of passage for the growing number of marginal whites occupying Central Texas.
As Neil Foley’s student, in "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" (2006) I applied the whiteness paradigm to an urban setting. I compared the relative success of Mexican Americans and Jews in achieving white identity. I argued that elite Gentiles perceived their upper class Jewish neighbors, the great merchant families such as the Marcuses and the Sangers, as a conduit for an ambitious city to achieve “world class” status.
I noted that Christian eschatology, popularized in the United States by Dallas minister Cyrus Scofield, portrayed Jews as playing the key role in bringing about Jesus’ Second Coming. Scofield’s popularization of prophecy belief provided a path by which at least middle and upper-income Jews could be accepted as subordinate members of the ruling white race. At the same time, the same Gentile powerbrokers re-semitized lower class Jews toiling at textile sweat shops or involved in union organizing in the 1930s. The quest for whiteness produced mixed results for Mexican Americans as well. A tiny number of Mexican Americans, if they were wealthy, light-skinned and sufficiently fluent in English, might have occupied the margins of whiteness, but most found their working class and poor backgrounds consigned them to a status at times indistinguishable from African Americans.
As noted earlier, major academic trends prevailing in the rest of the country often take longer to affect Texas historiography and as such whiteness remains a relatively new approach among Lone Star scholars and as such has not yet created a large body of work centered on this state. Perhaps because of its newness, whiteness studies have not drawn the criticisms in Texas that it has elsewhere. Critics outside of the Texas history discipline have complained that whiteness scholars are projecting twentieth century ideas of race into the past and that the conclusions of historians like Foley concerning an alleged choice by the European ethnic and Mexican working class to be “white” cannot be verified through objective documentation. While whiteness studies have come under question, a second strain of post-modernist theory surfaced in the last twenty years offering alternative interpretations of racial identity.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.