Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 1)

[Note: The following essay was written as part of a 20th anniversary update of "Texas Through Time" to be published by Texas A&M Press. I post this in hope of receiving feedback from readers.]

In 1952, the symbol most associated with the annual Texas State Fair in Dallas made a memorable debut. That year, workers erected the 52-foot high cowboy “Big Tex.” In a previous life the imposing figure served as a “the world’s largest Santa Claus” created to encourage Christmas shopping in the town of Kerens. In his new incarnation, Big Tex, with his size 70 boots and 75-gallon hat, embodied the larger-than-life Texas myth.

As historian Gregg Cantrell noted in his 2007 essay “The Bones of Stephen F. Austin: History and Memory in Progressive-Era Texas,” by the early twentieth century elite Texas Progressives embraced a Western, as opposed to Southern, identity for the Lone Star State. The cowboy image served an economic purpose. Linking Texas identity with the Confederacy meant tying the Lone Star State to the “Lost Cause,” a past redolent of defeat, nostalgia and sleepy rural rhythms. In contrast, the Progressives who came to dominate Texas politics in the early twentieth century wanted to attract outside investment by linking the state with a more triumphant, Western narrative of bold, independent mavericks conquering an untamed frontier. Free-spirited and independent cowboys gradually displaced defeated soldiers in grey in the state’s mythology.

The ideas Big Tex embodied rested on racist foundations. The West stood for triumph, which in the Anglo mind meant the victory of superior whites over Mexican and Indian barbarians. Meanwhile, by the time Big Tex arose over the Fair Park landscape, the state’s historians, primarily from the University of Texas at Austin, had driven Mexican Americans and African Americans to the margins of the master narrative. Anglo writers erased the Indian and Mexican contributions to the culture of Texas, the role of black and brown labor in building the state, and the political importance of men like Texas Revolutionary Lorenzo de Zavala and African American Republican Party leader Norris Wright Cuney in the 1870s and 1880s.

In both popular culture and the state’s scholarship, Texas heroes remained monochromatic until the 1970s. Just as significant as his Western (as opposed to a Southern) identity, Big Tex was white, not black or brown, and a man, not a woman. Texas boosters and even historians saw the state’s history as a clash of civilizations, providing intellectual cover for segregation and other racially discriminatory policies in Texas, a viewpoint that has still not completely disappeared. Meanwhile, women in historical narratives appeared as ciphers, assuming importance only in their roles as dutiful housewives, widows (Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson) or as sexual diversions (Emily Morgan, the so-called “Yellow Rose of Texas” who supposedly amorously distracted Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna at the start of the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution at San Jacinto.)

As a state icon, Big Tex obviously failed to capture the ethnic diversity and economic complexities of the Lone Star state, let alone the fact that the image ignored the importance of women. This essay discusses how scholarly apartheid placed white men at the center of Texas’ historical narrative, why a more diverse narrative took so long to develop and what has happened in the last two decades to create a more sophisticated understanding of the state’s past. The politics of racial identity and historical memory, the influence of postmodernism and “whiteness studies,” as well as new approaches to examining gender, will be considered along the way. The essay ends with a discussion of how it was only in the late 20th and early 21st century that the ideology that created Big Tex as a symbol of the state could be fully understood and the difficulties in creating an alternative representation of Texas in the modern era and new areas of race and gender scholarship that might still be explored.

The weight of Lone Star mythology depressed scholarship examining race and gender in Texas for the first six decades of the twentieth century in spite of the opportunities the state offered researchers. First of all, for decades Texas history was the work of amateurs. Four decades elapsed between the Texas Revolution in the 1830s and the establishment of the state’s first two public universities, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (later renamed Texas A&M University) in 1876 and the University of Texas at Austin in 1883. The lack of credentialed historians created a vacuum filled by men like John Henry Brown, mayor of both Galveston and Dallas in the mid and late 19th century, who authored The History of Texas from 1685 to 1892. The pro-Confederate and anti-suffragist sentiments of history buffs like Brown ensured that people of color would be marginalized in the state’s master narrative. Both the University of Texas and Texas A&M remained segregated until the second half of the twentieth century, meaning that black and brown historians remained unheard outside their communities.

The old racial attitudes endured in T.R. Fehrenbach’s weighty "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans," published in 1968, which became perhaps the most popular rendition of Texas narrative history ever. Fehrenbach characterized Indians as warlike and “sadistic,” and claimed the Indian male “seldom soiled his hand with labor.” Of African Americans, Fehrenbach commented, “The Negro was never a prime mover, but always a dangerous catalyst in American life.” Tejanos failed to record substantial achievements post-Texas independence, he wrote, because they embraced a culture that belittled hard labor. “Nowhere in the Mexican ethos were the bedrock assumptions, the value system that lay so close to the Anglo heart . . . work as a virtue, transcending all necessity; wealth as desirable, if not the only desirable, basis of status; the drive for status itself.” Women were also largely invisible. Only 26 women appear in Fehrenbach’s 28-page index, with many identified by their husband’s names, such as “Mrs. James Bowie.” Several of the identified women appear in the text only as victims of Native American and Mexican military attacks.

Even after the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s to the 1970s, Texas remained relatively overlooked by American scholars because the state’s past did not fit easily within established historical niches. My description in White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 regarding the scholarly neglect of Dallas applies to Texas as a whole. “Too small [in population] in the 1860s and 1870s to merit extensive consideration in histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, too Southern to be placed in the context of the great labor battles of the late nineteenth century, and too Western to be incorporated into monographs on the Southern desegregation struggle in the mid-twentieth century,” Texas attracted little historical attention outside of the Lone Star state.

Texas thus represented a missed opportunity for understanding how race and gender are constructed in American culture. As historian Amilcar Shabazz observes in "Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas" (2004), Texas provides a fascinating contrast with other Southern states due to its status as “the South’s most unique and diverse state. It is the only former slave state that was once a part of Mexico and that has a substantial Mexican American population . . . The diversity only begins there. Texas is where the East meets the West.” In addition, Texas provided the setting for one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in the Civil Rights era. As Shabazz observes, the Supreme Court’s Sweatt v. Painter ruling (which desegregated the University of Texas at Austin law school) not only opened public colleges and universities to black students but also set a precedent for the more famous Brown v. the Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools. Historians were also slow to recognize how Texas provides an excellent case study for gender scholars. Conditions on the Texas frontier appeared to have softened the rigid gender roles imposed in other Southern states. Thus in 1925 Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, along with Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, became the first women governors in the United States. A Texas woman, Jessie Daniel Ames, led the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Texas also provided the setting for the divisive Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortions in the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Yet, these stories would not begin to be told until the last third of the twentieth century. Two historical developments changed Texas scholarship on race and gender in the 1970s. First of all, in the 1960s Gov. John Connally and Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes successfully lobbied the Legislature to substantially increase university budgets, arguing this was needed to maintain the state’s economic competitiveness. The pair hiked university and college faculty salaries, attracting more academic talent from out of state, improved and expanded the state’s community colleges, added the University of Houston to the state system and turned Angelo State College and Pan American College into a four-year schools. In addition to an upgrade of the state’s higher education system, the women’s movement and the African American and Mexican American civil rights movement successfully battled to desegregate and break down gender barriers at Texas colleges and universities. This created a pressure for more inclusive scholarship and diverse faculties, which in turn produced more sensitive and imaginative scholarship.

Secondly, a new generation of race and gender scholars tapped into the revisionist zeitgeist of the 1960s, including Lawrence D. Rice, Alwyn Barr, Cary D. Wintz, James M. SoRelle, Arnoldo de León, David Montejano and Randolph Campbell. These scholars opened the first serious examination of black and Tejano history in Texas. Most of these pioneering works in the 1970s and 1980s aimed at establishing a non-racist narrative, to provide the life stories of prominent Latinos and African Americans, to note their contributions to Texas society and to document their struggles against slavery, segregation and racial violence. These scholars expanded on what constituted history and on who could be considered historical actors.

Works like de León’s "They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900" (1983); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s groundbreaking essay "'The Mind That Burns In Each Body': Women, Rape, and Racial Violence" (1984); Montejano’s "Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986" (1987); and Campbell’s "An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (1989)" went deeper, examining how racial and gender identities are constructed, the relationship of racism to class politics, and how women, African Americans and Tejanos created counter-hegemonic cultures to resist white male oppression.

These concerns shaped race and gender historiography in the last 20 years and clearly informed the most nuanced work ever on the role racial ideology played in Texas politics: Chandler Davidson’s "Race and Class in Texas Politics," published in 1990. Beginning with Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential campaigns against liberal, pro-civil rights Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson, Davidson argues, the segregationist leadership of the Texas Democratic Party began ticket-splitting, voting Republican in presidential races and for conservative Democrats in local races. Right-wing Democrats crossed the Rubicon and became Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s as the Democratic Party became an unstable coalition of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and left-of-center whites. Davidson argued that the ascendant Republican Party in Texas benefited from instigating Anglo resentments over issues like affirmative action and illegal immigration. According to Davidson, race became the grammar by which Texans engaged in political conflict.

Davidson, in addition to de León, Hall, Campbell and Montejano, brought these insights into Texas history: that white supremacy and sexism formed a central part of Texas politics and culture; that African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women were both shaped by and shaped Texas history and culture; that the story of marginalized groups in Texas is a contingent tale swinging from the extremes of compromise and accommodation on one hand to resistance on the other; and that gender and racial hierarchies in Texas are uniquely shaped by the state’s ambiguous geographical position at the intersection of the South, the West, the Mexican borderlands and, some suggest, the southern extreme of the Mid-West. These writers provided an alternative vision of Texas history, one no longer monochromatic.

Even as a new generation of scholars launched exploration of Afro-Texan, Tejano and women’s history, a new theoretical framework fragmented the study of race and gender in the 1990s. With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe history graduate programs in the late 1980s and 1990s de-emphasized class conflict as the engine of American history. Now scholars embraced post-modernism. Post-modernist theory, with its emphasis on individual subjectivity, dovetailed into the expanded conception of historical analysis at the dawn of the twenty-first century. This scholarly paradigm rejects teleological notions of history, including the notion that history is a tale of relentless progress leading to the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. Post-modernists acknowledge that the political and economic dominance of Western society in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries carried a heavy cost of high mortality, economic exploitation, and cultural oppression to Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. Post modernists, rejecting the notion that the rise of the West represents an unalloyed good, noted that Euro-American society since Christopher Columbus made advances in medicine and technology but also brought the world colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, atomic weapons, and the Holocaust.

At its heart, post-modernism suggests that much of what has been embraced by majority cultures over the years as objective reality (that capitalism derives from “natural” human instinct; that homosexuality is “unnatural”; that gender differences extend beyond variation in genitalia; and that humans divide into discreet biological categories called “races” and each of these races has defining characteristics in terms of character and intelligence) is socially constructed.

Whether derived from the “common sense” of the people or disseminated downwards from elites, these definitions of reality serve a distinct political agenda reinforcing the existing power structure and dividing any potential opposition into mutually alienated camps: white vs. black and brown; men vs. women; straights vs. gays; the poor vs. the rich and middle class; citizens vs. the undocumented, etc. Post-modernism rejects the notion that there can be any master narrative that accurately describes any era. To the post-modernist, perceptions of reality are refracted by each individual’s identity in terms of not just race and gender, but also of class position, language, culture, age and so on.

Post-modernist thought became so pervasive that even scholars who don't acknowledge the influence of this intellectual movement still use its methods. This approach has yielded an array of important insights into not just race and gender studies but across other fields previously obsessed with "dead white men," such as political history and military history. Diplomatic historians Colin and Miriam Fendius Elman once wrote that, “Although postmodernism has had a substantial influence on the philosophy of history, it has had less influence on the actual writing of history.” The Elmans most certainly err regarding the race and gender fields. A work not grounded in particularized perceptions runs the risk of imposing a new, oppressive, exclusivist narrative on the history of any topic, post-modernists argue, so scholars influenced by this theory place emphasis on the formation of individual identity. Because of the post-modernist project, therefore, race and gender scholarship in the 1990s splintered into endless micro-categories: Afro-Texan, Tejano, Native American, Asian American, and women’s history ; biography ; racial and gender politics ; slavery ; racial violence ; immigration and ethnic studies ; histories of the various civil rights movements since World War II ; African Americans, Mexicans and women in the labor movement ; and studies of non-white culture and values. Post-modernism has proved a boon to creative research, but has also reduced analysis to ever smaller universes farther and father removed form the general public’s historic consciousness.


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.

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.

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 3)

The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault once observed that, “there are no relations of power without resistance.” Mexican Americans, caught betwixt and between the racial polarities of black and white, sought to maintain their own cultural identity while avoiding disenfranchisement. Powerful Anglos may have set the ground rules for racial discourse, but Mexican Americans and other marginalized groups waged an occasionally successful campaign to redefine terms such as “Mexican” and “brown” and “white.” Richard A. Garcia, in his landmark study "Rise of the Mexican Middle Class: San Antonio, 1929-1941" (1991), saw national identity rather than racial identity shaping the politics of the Mexican American community. In essence, Garcia questioned the stability of national identities. He saw deep divides along generational lines within the Tejano community. Garcia depicted Tejano identity politics as, to a large degree, a story of assimilation similar to the experience of other immigrants. “In many ways,” Garcia writes, “this search for identity, educational opportunities, and political efficacy was not very different from the stories of the Irish in Boston, the Italians in Chicago, the blacks in the South, or the Jews in New York.” What differentiated Mexican immigrants, Garcia suggested, is Mexico’s proximity to the United States, which allowed a continuous and at times massive population surge from the home country.

According to Garcia, “Spanish” elites claiming little or no Indian heritage dominated San Antonio until Reconstruction. These elites related more to the “Americano” dominant class than to the “Mexicano” working class and poor. As white immigration to San Antonio increased after the Civil War, marriage between the Spanish elites and wealthy Anglos declined. With urbanization, segregation between the Mexican and Anglo community deepened. At the same time incomes in the Mexican neighborhoods of San Antonio declined. These factors led to an intensified “Mexican” identity in the community, an identity that only deepened as San Antonio industrialized through the first half of the twentieth century and drew increasing number of blue collar workers from south of the Rio Grande. The number of “white Spanish” elites disappeared to the vanishing point as Anglos racialized almost the entire Mexican community. “For the Mexicans geographical and cultural separation contributed to a heightened sense of ethnicity, since they continued to perceive themselves as others constantly identified them – as Mexicans,” Garcia said.

Unlike Foley, Garcia saw racial identity as a super-structure built upon a foundation of class politics within the Mexican American community in San Antonio and between the Mexican American and Anglo populations. The continued immigration of poor Mexicans to San Antonio, even during the mass deportations of Mexican immigrants the Great Depression, moved many Anglos to associate Mexican identity with poverty, filth, crime, and illiteracy. Urbanization and industrialization, however, had created a Mexican middle class horrified by the image of their community in the eyes of their Anglo peers. Worried about their status, the Mexican middle class consciously distanced itself from the Mexican poor and began calling themselves “Latin Americans” or “Americans of Latin descent.” The middle class, Garcia suggests, embraced this identity for economic and political reasons. Rather than searching for whiteness, as Foley suggests, the Latin American middle class, sought acceptance as a distinct ethnic group valuable to the city’s economy. While some whiteness scholars detected anti-black racism shaping Mexican identity politics, Garcia suggested that the middle class Mexican Americans who formed groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens (or LULAC) were motivated by a genuine attraction to American society coupled with a pragmatic awareness that a separate racial identity from whites represented a handicap in the United States. “The ideology of this ‘new consciousness’ was clear: be proud of being Mexican in culture, but be American in politics, and most of all be industrious, efficient and productive,” Garcia writes. The middle class, Garcia argues, eased the community’s transition from being Mexican to Mexican American to Americans of Mexican extraction.

Perhaps because Chicano historians experienced the scarring generational battles over social justice and the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Garcia’s approach, with its emphasis on shifting identities tied to age groups, anticipated much Tejano historiography since 1991. For instance, Guadalupe San Miguel extends Garcia’s argument in "Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement in Houston" (2001.) San Miguel adds a twist: Mexican American identity goes full-circle. Influenced by the black liberation struggle and its fascination with Afro-centrism, San Miguel argues, young Mexican Americans in the 1960s and 1970s embraced the brown “Chicano” identity many of their grandparents brought with them from Mexico and which their “Mexican American” parents had rejected. This choice of identity with clear racial overtones, according to San Miguel, resulted in part as a reaction against a dominant Anglo society seen by Chicanos as racist and militaristic. San Miguel argues that the Chicanos’ Mexican American elders ironically also re-defined themselves as brown once they realized that anti-discrimination laws passed under President Lyndon Johnson provided economic and educational opportunities for the Latino community if they forged a non-white identity.

Post-modern scholars generally decry the racism of workers who embraced white identity, since that choice derives from negative assumptions about African Americans. Yet, while Chicanismo rejects whiteness and all its racist baggage, this ideology at its extremes substituted white power politics with a racialist Chicano supremacism. Chicanismo, like whiteness, essentialized and still rested on the idea that racial categories reflected real biological differences and that members of racial groups shared certain innate characteristics. San Miguel does not explore this important shortcoming in Chicano ideology. Also, while post-modernism emphasizes the fluidity of identity, San Miguel, Garcia, Ignacio Garcia, and other historians utilizing the generational approach to Tejano history portrayed the identity of the first “Mexican” generation in America as relatively static, a major flaw in this scholarship.

While Richard Garcia discussed class conflict between ricos and pobres in San Antonio, he did not explore in much detail the ideas of race Mexican immigrants of all classes brought with them to the United States. San Miguel noted the influence the Mexican Revolution ideology of “la raza,” the idea that Latinos represented the best traits of white, Native American and African peoples, had on the Chicano movement. He ignored, however, the older Mexican concept of blanqueamiento, the idea that Mexicanos can advance only to the degree by which people of Northern and Western European heritage can be incorporated into Mexican society. This concept divided indios, mestizos and crillos in Mexico. Did these conflicts within the immigrant community survive in an American setting? Did Mexican indios share the same view of race as their mestizo peers? Were Mayans and Yaquis in the United States ever Mexicans, Mexican Americans or Chicanos, or did they become Native Americans? Using post-modern theory, one might argue that racial identity among Mexican Americans were fluid not just between generations but also within generations. However, these questions are never answered clearly by historians using the generational approach to Tejano history.

In the 2001 edition of "Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: Mexican Americans in Houston," Arnoldo de León argued that several racial identities – “Mexican,” “Mexican American,” “Chicano” and “Hispanic” exist side-by-side in the Bayou City. De León suggested that, following the 1910 Mexican Revolution a wave of immigrants joined the already established barrios in proudly preserving a Mexican identity. Like other historians of the Tejano community, de León suggested that the “Mexican American” second generation sought to retain their distinct culture while being accepted as a white ethnicity, as opposed to a separate racial group. De León, however, did not see the Mexican American generation as seeking whiteness. Referring to the Mexican American organization LULAC, De León noted that members of that group have “come under attack for advocating assimilation. This they did, but never at the expense of renouncing ‘lo mexicano.’ Politically the LULACers were Americans, but they took pride in their cultural past.” Even as Mexican Americans fiercely battled attempts by the Department of Public Safety and other institutions to classify them as non-whites, they named their clubs and their institutions with reference to their Aztec heritage or to Mexican heroes like Benito Juarez with the same zest as later Chicanos. De León’s research suggests that Houston’s Mexican American community juggled several national identities at the same time. In the past two decades, however, middle and upper class Mexican Americans in particular experienced greater social interaction with other racial group. This resulted in increased intermarriage with their Anglo peers. The multi-cultural environment Houston “Hispanics” experienced lead to a moderate, more accommodating political approach to civil rights and a more full embrace of “whiteness.”

De León observes “Americanization” co-existed in the barrio with “lo mexicano.” Andrés Reséndez, in "Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850" (2005) , demonstrates why such questions of national identity are important for race scholarship. He documents the extreme fluidity of national identities among Mexicans, Anglos and Native Americans in the borderlands before Mexican independence and in the early national period. These national identities held clear racial implications. Two competing forces, the building of the Mexican state and the penetration of the American marketplace, pulled the population in Texas and New Mexico from 1800 to 1850 in opposite directions. Inhabitants of this volatile region traded national, and in some cases racial, identities with ease. Any number of alternative historical outcomes could have changed the later racial categorization of borderland inhabitants. Anglo residents could have been pulled closer politically to Mexico City, thereby making their “Mexican” identities more than a matter of convenience. Anglos could have found Tejanos useful allies in wars against Native Americans and, perhaps, this affiliation might have paved a road to whiteness for Tejanos. On the other hand, Anglos may have found in local natives welcome allies in the struggle against Mexican domination, thus transforming the perception whites had of Indians.

Tejano historians like De León, and Mexican American historians like Vicki L. Ruiz in "From Out of the Shadow: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America" (1998), argue that the Mexican community in the early 20th century Southwest forged a self-consciously multi-racial self-image, expressed in the community’s music. As noted below, this racial self-definition resembles similar approaches taken by Comanches in Texas. Did Mexican immigrants and Tejanos redefine “Mexicaness” as time went by? Reséndez and Ruiz’s research suggests that national and racial identities are slippery, and that an individual’s self-identification as a “Mexican” or a “Mexican American” or a “Chicano” raises as many questions as it answers. Historians like Richard Garcia and San Miguel, for all the brilliance of their work, should more closely interrogate those terms.


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.

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 4)

Native American historians have, in particular, utilized an intriguing approach based on post-modern theory that relates to whiteness studies and the generational approach taken by Garcia. Ethnogenesis traces how specific ethnic identities are created and recreated over time. Gary Clayton Anderson made the best use of this approach in his work "The Indian Southwest: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention, 1580-1830" (1999). Anderson describes the Southwest as an “emerging ethnic stew” in which dynamic Indian cultures maintained dominance for more than 200 years, even shaping the encroaching European cultures they encountered. Where Anglo historians traditionally have viewed Indian history from a teleological lens, depicting Indians as gradually worn down to the point of cultural or literal extinction, Anderson sees societies that, under the pressures of genocide and ecological and economic change continually created new identities from the fragments of decimated nations. Instead of depicting them as clinging to the past, as some of the scholarship on Native Americans suggested, Anderson’s historiographic perspective described the Southwest Indians as being cultural innovators up until the onslaught of European invaders overwhelmed them in the early 19th century.

The defeat, domination and expulsion of Native Americans in Texas, and the racist ideology underlying this policy, raises questions that could perhaps be best answered by comparative history. Anderson, in "The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875" (2005), explores whether the policies of the Texas Republic and the subsequent Texas state government towards Indians constitutes genocide. Anderson prefers the term “ethnic cleansing,” first widely used to describe Serbian atrocities during the 1990s civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “ . . . [T]he situation in Texas fails to rise to the level of genocide, if genocide is defined as the intentional killing of nearly all of a racial, religious, or cultural group” Anderson writes. “. . . Rather, Texans gradually endorsed . . . a policy of ethnic cleansing that had as its intention the forced removal of certain culturally defined groups from their lands . . . Texans would have been pleased had the groups they wanted removed simply left without violence. But these groups did not. The conflict in Texas was over land; indiscriminate killing, while common during the fighting, never became prolonged, strategic, state policy on either side.” Anderson reduces this ethnic cleansing to a cold-hearted campaign of greed and one might think that racism was irrelevant to the Anglo-Texan’s motives. One wonders, however, if the land Anglos desired had been filled with Czech or German immigrants would the ethnic cleansing have been as bloody and ruthless.

Anderson made a reasonable case for not describing Texas’ Indian policy as genocide. Unanswered, however, was why genocide did not occur. Here comparative history might be instructive. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, in his controversial study "Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" (1997) , suggests that over centuries German culture developed an “eliminationist” style of anti-Semitism – the idea that Jews were so alien and so dangerous to the German nation that only extermination of the Jews could keep the Reich safe. Consistent with post-modernist theory, Goldhagen places racial discourse at the center of his compelling narrative. For centuries before Hitler, Goldhagen contends, religious leaders, politicians, and even leftists social constructed an image of Jews as racial outsiders who poisoned the body politic and would kill their host society. The omnipresence of anti-Semitism in German culture led to a widespread acceptance and complicity on the part of average Germans in the Holocaust, Goldhagen argues. The mass murder of Jews was not pursued by Hitler in spite of the desires of the German majority, he says, but with their enthusiastic participation.

What is striking about Goldhagen’s book is how closely the German eliminationist discourse resembles the social construction of Tejanos, Mexican immigrants, and Native Americans in Anglo society from the mid-19th century to the early twentieth century. (The same could be said at different times about Anglo attitudes towards African Americans and straight perspectives on gay men and women in Texas.) Like Jews in Germany, Anglos at times perceived these outsiders as unassimilable, as unfit for citizenship, as prone to crime and violence, and as posing a danger to Texas in spite of their relatively small numbers. What accounts for the difference between Texas, where ethnic cleansing became policy, and Germany which embraced genocide? Any answer would be speculative, but without some theories ventured about the choices made by Texans, Anderson’s work seems incomplete.

Perhaps because two important Hispanic organizations, LULAC and the American GI Forum, originated in Texas (in 1929 and 1948 respectively), the Mexican American experience in Texas has attracted national scholarly interest. This is not true of the African American freedom struggle in Texas. Civil rights campaigns in the Deep South, and the leaders of the movement in that region such as Martin Luther King, Jr. unfortunately overshadowed voting rights and integration battles in Texas. This is unfortunate because Texas offers an illustration of how geography and a multi-racial environment uniquely shaped the Texas freedom struggle. Recent scholarship indicates that this state represented a key battleground in the fight against segregation and disenfranchisement, but the field remains underdeveloped.


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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 5)

So far, Texas civil rights historiography has focused too narrowly on political and legal resistance to Jim Crow and to a large extent ignored African American culture as a form of resistance. Outside of Texas, Sterling Stuckey produced some of the most exciting research on African American history with his books "Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America" (1987) and "Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History" (1994.) Building on earlier work by the anthropologist Meville Herkovits, Stuckey documents how African cultural traditions survived within the slave community and strongly influenced the black identity in the United States and the political approach of the civil rights movement. Stuckey suggests that African folktales such as the B’rer Rabbit story cycle and West African religious practices such as the “ring shout,” in which African Americans gathered in circles for religious purposes and in democratic fashion participated in a call and response form of worship, forged a community out of slaves kidnapped from diverse West African cultures. Black stories, rhymes and songs, with themes of intelligence winning over brute force, of loyalty prevailing against greed, of mutual responsibility and the value of community, provided mental defenses against white racism for the African Americans. These cultural practices, Stuckey argues, constituted political resistance to white oppression.

Unfortunately, Texas historians have yet to make full use of Stuckey’s insights. Slave narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, material uncovered by The Texas Folklore Society and folktales collected by John Mason Brewer serve as a rich record of African Americans’ “reactions to the incidents and pressures in [their] environment.” Cary D. Wintz, Howard Beeth, and James M. SoRelle discovered that lower-income African American in Texas in particular remained connected emotionally to the slave culture thorough such turn-of-the-19th century fall festivals like the De-Ro-Loc (“colored” spelled backwards) festivities in Houston. Furthermore, Black Nationalists in the late 1960s sought to find a “useable past” and attempted to recreate their lost African culture in a Texas setting. Yet little work has been done to analyze the uniquely Texas themes of the folklorist Brewer’s story collections or to tie African-origin folklore to later expression of black nationalism in the Texas civil rights movement.

Most monographs on the African American Civil Rights movement begin in or primarily focus on the 20th century. A closer analysis of resistance in Afro-Texan culture would push back the origins of the black civil rights movement in this state deep into the 19th century. Afro-Texans, the evidence suggests, constructed an identity linked to the global African diaspora. The Afro-Texan viewpoint interpreted the struggle of blacks against American segregation as part of a global struggle against white racism, a complex task that perhaps inspired the black Texan emphasis on multi-lateral coalition building.

If 19th century black nationalism in Texas has been under-explored, the contributions of Afro-Texans to the 20th century civil rights movement have been largely unexplored. William Henry Kellar, in his book "Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston" (1999), observes that Houston was the largest school district desegregated by the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision but no works focused on the movement there until publication of Kellar’s book 45 years later. Taylor Branch does not mention Dallas once in his 1,064-page study of the Civil Rights Movement, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63." The civil rights campaign in San Antonio has received even less attention. The reason for this oversight, according to Kellar is “the general perception that Texas is primarily a Western state, a land of cattle, cowboys, oil wells, and wide open spaces. Lost amid the western lore is the state’s Southern heritage . . . A second factor is that few historians have viewed Texas as a hotbed of civil rights activity.”

If post-modernism values the particular over the universal, then the Texas civil rights story needs to be more fully told. Authors like Dallas reporter Jim Schutze and historian Robert Weisbrot portrayed Afro-Texans as more accommodationist than their peers in the Deep South and have suggested that that Texas blacks were largely quiescent during the rights revolution in the mid-twentieth century. The lack of galvanizing incidents like the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964 or “Bloody Sunday” march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama March 7, 1965 does not mean that equally compelling and enlightening episodes did not occur in Texas. Kellar’s work, however, suggests that Houston provides an intriguing case study for civil rights historians and he argues that black activists were far more assertive and on the cutting edge than earlier writers suggested.

Houston’s African American community faced a unique environment in tri-racial Houston, which included a growing Mexican American population and an ethnically diverse white population for most of the twentieth century. The city was more industrial and more economically diverse than most of the South, with the presence of the oil industry supplanting cotton as a chief export. Houston’s lack of zoning laws and haphazard development dispersed the black population and slowed the development of African American neighborhoods. The uniqueness and complexity of this environment led Houston’s black community to favor courtroom assaults on Jim Crow over direct action, although both approaches were part of the Houston civil rights movement’s arsenal. While the scholarly neglect of Houston suggests that little of note regarding desegregation happened there, to the contrary the civil rights movement arose early in there. A chapter of the NAACP formed in Houston in 1918, just nine years after the founding of the national organization, with women such as Lulu B. White and Christa V. Adair serving as leaders through state-government sponsored repression of the organization in the 1920s and the 1950s. Even as Houston’s schools and its downtown businesses remained segregated an African American woman, Hattie White, won a seat on the Houston school board in 1958, becoming only the second black elected official in Texas since Reconstruction. Students staged sit-in strikes at Houston’s segregated lunch counters, restaurants and department stores in March 1960, a little more than a month after the first sit-in nationwide was staged in North Carolina. The incident that came closest to a riot during the Civil Rights era happened in Houston during a 1967 gun battle between overly aggressive police and Texas Southern University students. Such an active civil rights campaign clearly deserves more historical attention.

Kellar convincingly argues that at the state’s biggest integration battleground, blacks combined quiet methods with radical aims. Kellar, and Amilcarr Shabazz, in the previously mentioned "Advancing Democracy." suggest that Texas’ highly organized NAACP chapters won repeated victories through lawsuits rather than more visible street battles. Shabazz notes that by the end of the 1950s, half of the state supported universities and colleges in Texas were “moderately desegregated” as opposed to South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama where higher education remained completed segregated.

What’s not clear is whether this difference is due to Texas’ ambiguous geographical position on the margins of the South and the West, the troubled sometimes alliance African Americans enjoyed with Mexican Americans, the high number of whites who immigrated to Texas from Northern states after World War II, or the more industrialized economy of Texas and the increased demands for skilled labor following the Great Depression or a combination of the above. Hopefully in the coming years more local studies like Kellar’s and Robyn Duff Ladino’s "Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High" (1996) will bring greater focus on Lone Star black politics in the mid-20th Century. Researchers will undoubtedly find that black resistance has deeper historical roots than previously assumed.


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.

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 6)

Afro-Texan scholarship still has to contend with a powerful “plantation myth,” which is paired in Texas with a willful amnesia concerning the peculiar institution. Visitors to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin might think that slavery formed a minor chapter in the state’s past. Absent from the family friendly tourist trap is recognition of the horrible human suffering engendered by slavery. Minimizing the importance of slavery to Texas’ economic and political development, of course, serves a political agenda as it whitewashes the guilt of the state’s conservative hegemons. Brutal honesty about the tragedies attending the peculiar institution might also cloud white racial identity, which the dominant culture has always associated with “advanced civilization” as opposed to black, brown and red “savagery.”

That is why Elizabeth R. Rabe’s heartbreaking essay, “Slave Children in Texas: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis,” originally published in the "East Texas Historical Journal" in 2004, provided an important corrective. Mike Campbell’s monograph on Texas slavery didn’t gloss the cruelty of Texas slaveowners, but Rabe’s work is the first to focus on the impact of physical and mental abuse on the youngest African American slaves. Rabe’s work not only provided ammunition against the stubbornly durable plantation myth, but it also directly confronted the modern right-wing attacks on the black family as she outlined how a communal approach to raising children evolved among African Americans out of necessity because slave owners often separated children from their parents via the auction block. A book-length study of the Afro-Texan family similar to Herbert G. Guttman’s "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925" (1977) would be a major contribution to Texas race and gender scholarship, but Rabe’s essay provides a good start. Race scholars in particular should investigate the family as a site where new generations learned racial definitions and the code of behavior expected of blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Asians.

Similar to findings by researchers of the Chicano movement, Afro-Texan historians in the last two decades have noted the conflicts between race and class identity in the black community. SoRelle has argued that across the Lone Star State, black teachers and entrepreneurs divided between advocates of desegregation, those who saw in segregation an opportunity to promote self-reliance and economic independence, those who saw a collapse of Jim Crow as a threat to black-owned businesses, and those who saw the issue from a combination of these perspectives. Black businesses, however, faced hardships in obtaining badly needed credit and black consumers at times undermined African American businesses because they believed that these enterprises lacked the quality and variety of similar businesses owned by whites. According to SoRelle, some African Americans also absorbed white racism and feared that black doctors and other professionals were less qualified than whites in those fields. SoRelle’s work complicates the vastly understudied field of civil rights history in Texas and subsequent works will undoubtedly owe much to his nuanced approach. However, as is the case with scholarship on Mexican American identity in Texas, the definition of “blackness” could be interrogated more closely to see if ethnic divides, as well as generational conflict, afflicted the Afro-Texan community. A spectrum of color exists within the so-called black community, which in recent years added new immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. Have the imperatives of whiteness continued to forge the diverse African American community into a unitary “blackness?” Scholars have yet to explore how different “black” groups relate to each other. Such research would unpack the concept of blackness, which has been seen to date as essentially monolithic.

Not only have perhaps differing racial self-identities within the black community been ignored, but also so have non-mainstream political movements among Afro-Texans. Outside of W. Marvin Dulaney’s brilliant essay, “What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement in Dallas, Texas?” (1993), there has also been little exploration of black radicalism in Texas and the impact, or lack thereof, of groups such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Black Panthers and their successors the New Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, or the small Black Israelite cult. Kellar paid some attention to black nationalists in Houston, but much of the black political spectrum right and left has been ignored.


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.

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 7)

Any episteme that emphasizes personal subjectivity must ultimate consider the interaction of these inner mental worlds in the larger society. In addition to whiteness, and the generational approach taken by Garcia and other scholars of Tejano history, a third academic approach stemming from postmodernism, the analysis of collective memory, profoundly shaped race and gender scholarship in Texas since the 1990s. In the 19th century, collective memory primarily derived from word-of-mouth and folklore. As Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner noted in their 2007 essay “A Study of History, Memory and Collective Memory in Texas,” the folk recollection of the past has been shaped by “the history lessons taught in schools; visits to museums, monuments, historical sites, or public celebrations; and the viewing of historically-themed art, television, and movies – to name a few.” White men, however, remained central to that collective memory for much of the twentieth century.

The academic reassessment of Texas’ Anglo-centric myths from the 1970s to the 1990s led many historians attempted to fill gaps left in the collective memory by exploring the separate histories of black and brown Texans and of women. Biographies of important Mexican Americans, African Americans and women in the arts, politics, the labor movement, and the civil rights struggle, dominated the study of race and gender in Texas for much of the past 20 years. In particular, Ruthe Weingarten and Hollace Weiner staked a claim to the modern biography-driven historical narrative. Their emphasis on biography meant that these authors spent less time on racial and gender ideology and the social construction of identity. Nevertheless their works, generally aimed at a popular audience, made an important contribution to the new Texas historiography rejecting the myth that white men alone served as historical actors in Texas.

While Weiner and Weingarten sought to fill gaps in state’s historical consciousness, other historians identified collective memory as an historical force in its own right. According to William D. Carrigan’s "The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas" (2004), collective memory played a key role in shaping the bloody race relations in the heart of the state. In part, lynching and other acts of mass public violence, according to Carrigan, derived from local folklore grounded in Central Texas’ past as a frontier, where white colonizers engaged in warfare against Native Americans and outlaws. In the public memory, brave pioneers exploited the lack of political infrastructure to impose a crude order, and their supposed successes legitimized the tradition of violence. The experience of slavery, with its brutal discipline and its armed slave patrols also bolstered later-day vigilantism. Finally, memories of past resistance to constituted authorities on the part of African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and poor whites – combined with myths concerning these groups’ alleged propensity toward violence – incited the fear that lay at the heart of group retaliation.

Changing demographics combined with more immediate local memories ultimately racialized lynching, according to Carrigan. While whites accused of being abolitionists, Republicans, or criminals formerly suffered violent death at the hands of mobs, by the end of the 19th century the Central Texas victims increasingly became black men. Carrigan writes that increased Mexican immigration to Central Texas reduced the importance of black labor in the region. Also, the implementation of de jure segregation alienated blacks from whites, loosening whatever emotional bonds might have existed between the two groups. In addition, Carrigan says, local whites remembered the 1900-1901 murder case against Will King, an African American from Waco accused of killing a white police officer. King’s white lawyers mounted an unusually spirited defense and the court twice overturned King’s conviction before he died at the gallows October 25, 1901. Whites perceived the King case as an example of excessive leniency towards African American criminals. This local collective memory, Carrigan argues, sparked later vigilantism, culminating in the gruesome 1916 murder of the teenaged Jesse Washington who had been accused of the murder of a white woman.


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.