Monday, June 20, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly: Memory, Race, and Region in Dallas, Texas, Part II

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001. In honor of the book's fifth anniversary, I am serializing "White Metropolis" in a series of blog posts. Here, I describe how the concept of "whiteness" allowed a small elite to maintain an almost iron grip on political control in Dallas, Texas.

In Dallas, being defined as white became the price of admission to the circles of power. Marginalized groups such as Jews and Mexican Americans won only partial acceptance as white, occupying an uncomfortable middle ground in the city's racial hierarchy between wealthy Anglos at the top and African Americans at the bottom. Latino and African American leaders wrestled for the second rung on the city’s ladder of power. Population projections prophesied diminished African American influence. The city split into three major racial camps in the 1990s, with 48 percent of the city’s population classified as white, 28 percent as African American and 21 percent as Hispanic. Demographers projected that in the first three decades of the twenty-first century the Hispanic population could grow more than four times as fast as the African American population. Yet, many Hispanic leaders claimed the demands of African American firebrands like Price overshadowed the needs of Dallas’ Latino community.

In December 1997, Dallas hosted the first of a series of community forums on American race relations called for by President Bill Clinton. Municipal Judge Vonceil Hill drew up the guest list, which excluded members of the white, Hispanic, and Asian American communities. Even before the forum, Hispanic activists aimed their ire at blacks, complaining that African Americans monopolized the local dialogue on race. "There has been only one racial agenda in this town — a black agenda," said Adelfa Callejo, a lawyer and longtime activist. "But that’s about to change."

Mainstream Mexican American politicians, such as Jesse Diaz, viewed black gains in administrative appointments at the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) as coming at the expense of Mexican Americans, claiming that "[t]he oppressed have become the oppressor." Meanwhile, many African Americans saw Hispanics as riding on the coattails of previous hard-fought civil rights battles won by blacks.

"This is about people fighting for the polluted pie — for a piece of it," school trustee Yvonne Ewell said. "The district didn’t provide what black people needed when we were the majority. I doubt it is going to do it now for Hispanics." The dialogue between the two communities often degenerated into name-calling. "I call them vultures," Dallas NAACP President Lee Alcorn said of the city’s Hispanic leaders in a Washington Post interview.

Having buried the past with a mythology of progress and consensus, Dallas’ leadership viewed the contentious present as comparatively dreadful. Even boosters felt despair over the confrontational politics of the 1990s. The mythological past provided no model of a city in which quarrelsome, even furious debate, could clarify issues or improve policy. The Dallas of Old triumphed, the myth said, because there were no disagreements and few factions. Boosters believed that the strife marking the end of the civil rights movement denoted the first stride into chaos as they lost confidence in the future and wistfully praised the undemocratic past.

By the 1990s, Dallasites literally waited for their city to explode. Sordid conflicts between blacks and Latinos at Dallas school board meetings and an ugly February 1993 riot during a downtown rally "celebrating" the Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl victory made many long for the fictional good old days when the Dallas Citizens Council called the shots. The Origin Myth formerly promoted pride and optimism about the city and its limitless future. Now it became an unbearable burden, a rebuke to the messy present.

Longtime Dallas Times Herald reporter Darwin Payne best summed up the sad yearning of boosters in the late 1990s. In his history of twentieth century Dallas, "Big D," he characterizes the city as "coming apart in the 90s," as if a city that had rested on a foundation of white supremacy and segregation somehow experienced unity in the good old days. "Few [public leaders] . . . valued [Dallas] as something whose whole was greater than its separate parts," Payne wrote of the 1990s. To Payne, the bitter divisions in that decade represented an aberration of the Dallas experience. Influenced, unconsciously or not, by the Origin Myth's privileging of consensus, Payne associated division with decline. As Payne's own books suggest, however, conflict has been the rule rather than the exception in the Dallas past.

The Dallas power structure, in fact, always depended on divisiveness. Skin color split the city and winning acceptance as part of the white ruling caste always represented the surest means of social advancement. Such a system depended on the notion that the black and white "races" represent distinct entities with innate qualities. Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that race has no real scientific meaning. There is more genetic variation — deviations in skin pigment, hair texture, inherited disorders, etc. — within the arbitrary racial boxes used to divide humanity than between each category. Since miscegenation has proved as certain in human history as death, war and taxes, and since the purity of each group is a fiction, the definitions of these supposedly distinct categories change each time a child is born.

As sociologist Howard Winant points out, " . . . in the United States, hybridity is universal: most blacks have ‘white blood,’ and many millions of whites have ‘black blood.’ . . . colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective 'race mixers.'" Regardless of how arbitrarily these classifications are defined, however, placement in a racial category held real-life consequences.

"Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival," wrote Cheryl I. Harris in a 1993 essay in the Harvard Law Review. "Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one’s life rather than being the object of others’ domination."

To be classified as "non-white" in cities like Dallas, on the other hand, was to be assigned low-wage jobs and to have few opportunities for economic advancement. At the opening of the last decade of segregation in the 1960s, non-whites in Dallas County annually earned about one-fourth the yearly wages of whites while non-white males suffered twice the unemployment rate of their peers and were far more likely to be imprisoned. Economic disparities along racial lines survived the dismantling of Jim Crow in the mid-twentieth century.

Material motives abounded for seeking inclusion within whiteness. If such racial lines had proved unmovable living conditions might have proven so desperate as to spark violent resistance by people of color. The definition of racial identities such as white, black, and brown, however, vary over time and by location. Millions of Mexican Americans, for instance, magically ceased to be white in 1930 by virtue of the U.S. Census Bureau which in its population statistics separated those of Hispanic descent from the white population and placed them in a separate "Mexican" category.

Such legal definitions had little to do with the reality of racial categories and more to do with preventing the transfer of wealth from a white master class to a population of color through inheritance by mixed-race children. In Dallas, the flexibility of such categories lent the idea of race special power. The lure of whiteness often left potential collaborators, the city’s brown and black populations, at loggerheads.

Drawing inspiration from earlier scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, historian David R. Roediger utilized whiteness to explain the persistent racism of politically oppressed white workers in America. Why, Roediger and other whiteness scholars ask, do such workers respond to the racially divisive appeals of politicians from George Wallace to Ronald Reagan when their interests are more logically served by forging common cause with blacks, Latinos and other economically oppressed groups in challenging the privileges of wealthy whites?

The answer, Roediger and allied historians say, is that racial thought in nineteenth century America defined many immigrant groups, such as the Irish, as non-whites. These immigrants, because of differences in language, religion and culture, did not jibe with the concept of whiteness held by well-entrenched Anglo-Saxon elites.

Many elites, such as in the scientific community, concocted ever more complex racial schemas which categorized Southern and Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians as not black, but not quite white. Some argued that rather than three or four "great" races, there were sixty or more, each with their own inherent traits. As non-whites, the Irish and other immigrants have experienced their own taste of discrimination, though one 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.

Non-black workers remain invested in whiteness because of the impermanence of racial status. If a group never faced racial demotion, the urge to embrace white supremacy would diminish over time. Neil Foley, in "The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture," demonstrated that poor white sharecroppers in nineteenth and twentieth century Texas faced the loss of their racial position. Wealthy cotton growers, eager to promote Mexican and black sharecroppers as cheaper pools of labor and concerned over signs of incipient radicalism among white farm workers, promoted the notion that "white trash" descended from inferior stock. Such implied threats of racial demotion give whiteness its power as a ruling ideology.

This book defines whiteness as the creation of white identity. As such, whiteness represents a subjective abstraction receiving a wide variety of interpretations from historical actors. Much of 19th and 20th century political and social dialogue centered on the meaning of white identity, on who was white and who wasn't and on the ways in which whites differed from other people. This dialogue extended far beyond issues of color or phenotype, and incorporated consideration of whether white and non-white groups had innately different racial personalities, priorities and polities.

The fact that individuals defined whiteness in wildly different ways does not mitigate the usefulness of whiteness as an analytical tool, as some historians have recently argued. The debates over the meaning of white identity, as scholars like Matthew Frye Jacobson and Alexander Saxton have suggested, center on the overarching theme of who deserves citizenship in a "white republic" and how that republic would reflect white racial traits.

In Dallas, whiteness represented a merger of physical characteristics and political beliefs. Based on the premise that Northern and Western Europeans alone were the creators of civilization, this ideology contended that only these peoples and their descendents could manage a free republic. Blackness, in the minds of many Dallasites, equaled savagery, license and irresponsibility.

Most Dallasites fell between the extremes of whiteness and blackness. For those so marginalized, such as Mexican Americans and Jews, social acceptability depended on moving closer to the white ideal. Being white required not just a European ancestry and a relatively pale skin. Race was also attitude. As will be argued in the following chapters, whiteness rested on a steadfast belief in racial differences, support for capitalism, faith in rule by the wealthy, certitude that competition and inequality arose from nature, and rejection of an activist government that redistributed political or economic power. Whiteness was most clearly defined by what it was not: it was not black, communal, or socialist.


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.

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