Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 2)

So-called “whiteness studies” stemmed directly from postmodernism and became one of the most popular and one of the most criticized academic trends in the last twenty years. Before the 1990s most race scholars either accepted the reality of racial categories or, in the case of Marxists, saw class position as the base upon which society rested and race as a distracting superstructure diverting attention from the underlying economic conflict. Beginning with the 1990s, post-modernist historians saw race as a worthy category of analysis in and of itself. Beginning in the early 1990s, scholars of racial ideology like David R. Roediger, Noel Ignatiev and Theodore W. Allen published major works that suggested that white racial identity did not represent a valid biological category and that the definition of whiteness varied over time. Like Chandler, whiteness scholars such as Roediger asked why white workers rallied around their racial identity and supported anti-black politics when they had potentially much more to gain by finding common ground with blacks, Latinos and other economically oppressed groups in resistance to the power of rich whites.

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.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm.... Since you have a PhD in history, I'm surprised you don't have an answer already. Did you ever run across anything that pointed out the fact that Texas was (for the most part) settled by WHITE COWBOYS during the Western Expansion? Sure, there were other races involved, but the majority of these people were WHITE FOLKS.

As the TEXAS STATE FAIR is a celebration of the STATE's HERITAGE, what color would you suggest the cowboy should be? Black? Hispanic? Native American? East Indian?

It seems you aren't content to accept the HISTORICAL RECORD for the State of Texas which clearly proves these facts, and also have a problem with the reality that states it's the VICTORS who write the history, and not the losers.

Had the MEXICAN's retained control of this land, then perhaps there would be a MEXICAN VAQUERO standing tall in Dallas.

Of course, chances are better than 50-50 that this land would be as poor and impoverished as MEXICO is today, had they won the War of Texas Indepencence.

And UT Austin handed you a PhD? For the sake of this State, I hope you aren't actually in a position to influence our young people. We used to have more pride in this state and its heritage than to allow folks like you to assume positions of influence.

Michael said...

I love how conservatives are too gutless to ever identify themselves. Actually, the state wasn't settled by white cowboys. The era of the cowboys was brief, happening in the late 19th century. Texas was home to a large Native American population before the arrival of mostly Southern born farmers and planters. History didn't begin with the arrival of the white man. The point of the essay is that "Big Tex" reflects only a small part of the state's past and completely conceals its diversity. The wealth of the state in the first half of the 19th century, which you attribute to white men, depended on the slave labor of African Americans, just as the state later depended on the labor of Mexicans, blacks and others in the agricultural, construction, ranching, oil and other industries. Your comments about poverty and Mexico reveal ignorance about the colonial position that country occupies vis-a-vis the United States. Frankly, I don't think history should be a zero sum game in which one group has to overshadow all others and in which one group claims credit for what was created by "white," "black," "brown," "red" and "yellow" people.

Always Proud Texan said...

Yes, anonymity is my choice and I certainly was not aware of the fact that one could determine another's political persuasion because they choose to not list a name or email address.

Apparently, your (self-stated) preference in aligning your thinking with "liberals" has caused you to miss the recent rash of retribution sponsored by the Democratic party against those classified as "conservatives."

The "thought police" are indeed alive and well in 2010, and working hard to further the liberal agenda even if it means a few dirty tricks now and again. Their mantra seems to be that the end justifies the means. Explain why I should take this risk?

Taunting me with anonymity doesn't change my message one bit, nor does it say anything regarding my political leanings. Political identity is irrelevant to the points I made. Why are you attempting to classify me?

I find it revealing that you apparently see the world as being divided into two separate groups. Your perception that I represent a conservative agenda is frankly irrelevant. I really have no agenda other than questioning your reasons for bemoaning the fact that "BIG TEX" doesn't properly represent Texas' cultural diversity.

Your attempt to question my knowledge of Texas history is to be expected. Of course, it is common knowledge that there were Native cultures in North America long before those "offensive" white people arrived.

Nor will I attempt to apologize for their transgressions, for doing so is also irrelevant and has no real bearing on the issue, as I see it.

So, your position is that had the MEXICANS retained control of this region, their prospects for forming an effective government would have somehow increased? Perhaps this is so, but we have no way to ever know that, do we? Not something that can be argued really since one can't turn back time.

I also get a very strong sense that you fancy yourself as a spokesman for the downtrodden minorities in this state who aren't properly represented by BIG TEX.

I suppose this posturing is in keeping with a liberal agenda, so you are to be congratulated for staying on point at least.

I'd like to apologize for questioning the validity of your PhD. Clearly, you met the requirements and were rewarded appropriately.

I'd also like to point out the fact that your liberal agenda, and all that entails, are most irrelevant to history. Texans are proud of their accomplishments and out of this sense of pride came the State Fair celebration. The fact that BIG TEX is white requires no apologies or regrets.

That's the way it was, and no amount of revisionist history will ever be able to change that. Not sure why yuo're trying, either.

If BIG TEX doesn't properly represent these minorities, then how do you propose it be fixed?

You've used a STATE ICON as a lightning rod to further your LIBERAL agenda, and aren't doing a very good job of concealing this reality.

Why don't you spend time working on issues that foster a sense of unity and pride among all Texans INSTEAD of trying to tear down the things within this culture which did just that?

How many minorities have you interviewed who have a problem with BIG TEX being white? I'd be interested in seeing those results if they even exist.

Paint him with every color in the rainbow if you must, but it isn't going to change the history that you seem so unwilling to accept, either.

Attempting to both denigrate and obscure our history by encumbering it with today's "political correctness," (READ LIBERAL AGENDA) is tantamount to un-ringing a bell, Sir. Even those with degrees from TU haven't been able to crack that code yet.

Michael said...

Your obsessive attacks on "liberals" and "political correctness" make your position on the political spectrum pretty obvious. And, yes, anonymous attacks are always gutless. My name is out there and I don't mind taking the shots. You choose to hide. That speaks for itself.

Michael said...

Also, the idea that the left has enough power to retaliate for anything is a joke, They can't get bills passed holding 60 seats in the Senate. If anyone is guilty of oppression, it's the right. It's right-wing bigots who deny gay Americans equal protections under the law and will keep the 40 million working class Americans with no health insurance from having access to decent health care. This is the last remaining superpower.

Anonymous said...

I am a new poster. My name is Travis. Does that make what I say more relevant now that you know my name? I'd like you to answer Anonymous' question about how you would propose to FIX the offensive Mr. Tex. Obviously, whites have no place in your revisionist history. So how should Tex be redesigned? An ambiguous transsexual Mexican/Indian? Why does Tex being white infuriate you? Is the predominant culture of Texas not an Anglo one? I agree that Mexico has had a profound effect on the culture of Texas but you are delusional if you think it is more than the influence of white Europeans. People like you that want to steal my heritage and culture and rewrite history make me sick. Before you start your tired diatribe, I'm not a Republican or a conservative.