Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In celebration of that work's fifth anniversary, I am serializing "White Metropolis." This passage describes how the struggle over the meaning of white identity in Dallas shaped that city's culture, religious beliefs, and its often oppressive and bloody racial politics.

As noted last time, in Dallas, Texas, 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.

Because most whiteness scholars focus on regions outside the South, they neglect an important way in which whiteness evolved differently in the former Confederacy. North of the Mason-Dixon line, the clear racial division imagined between white and black grew murkier with successive waves of immigrants in the 18th and 19th century. This book argues that in Southern cities such as Dallas, Houston and Atlanta that emerged as independent and international economic centers in the late 1800s, regional identity initially complicated whiteness more than immigration. Only after 1900 did the racial identity of other whites, such as Jews and Italians, become a major concern to the Anglo majority in New South cities.

In formulating whiteness over the last 160 years, Dallas elites called the shots, but they did not dictate. Mostly Anglo and Protestant, the city's early elite consisted of slaveholders, large landowners and merchants. The power of the merchant class expanded when a rail line reached the city in the early 1870s. As historian Patricia Evridge Hill points out, by the late 1800s the city's politics were dominated by unstable coalitions of small business owners, bankers, industrial leaders and newspaper publishers. These ruling blocs vied with growing trade unions, Populists and Socialists for control of city hall.

By the mid-1930s, elites formed their shadowy Dallas Citizens Council, a clique of real estate magnates, downtown department store owners, bankers, manufacturers, insurance company executives and owners of utilities and media outlets, which for three decades determined who held political office in the city. By the 1960s this coalition also included a small percentage of the professional class — a modest number of lawyers, educators, and government officials. Religious and union leaders and people of color remained conspicuously absent from this powerful clique.

"All [key leaders in Dallas] are white males," sociologist Carol Estes Thometz noted in 1963. "The majority are top business executives . . . Dallas leadership comes primarily from the business and financial sectors of the community." Wealth and power alone did not grant one elite status, however, as suggested by the exclusion in the 1950s and 1960s of oilman H.L. Hunt or right-wing Congressman Bruce Alger from Dallas' inner circle. Membership in the city's elite also required tempered conservative values that balanced rhetoric calling for limited federal government with the desire to attract federal support for urban development projects benefiting the wealthy. To be elite one must in addition command a constituency that could successfully push elite political and economic projects and yet be humble enough to accept the collective leadership style provided by the Citizens' Council.

In spite of its durability, however, because of its small size the city's leadership class could not simply impose its will: it had to manufacture the consent of the lower classes. Dallas' white elites achieved power through a rough-and-tumble process of cultural hegemony. Dallas' leaders formed a complex and shifting system of alliances to maintain a grip on power. These ruling blocs fragmented then reformulated in the face of repeated crises: the loss of the Civil War, Reconstruction, increased regional and ethnic diversity in the late nineteenth century, the splintering of the national Democratic Party after World War II, and the social pressures of the Cold War.

Dallas's leadership class stood on shifting sands. The efforts of white elites to form a permanent ruling structure were complicated not only by changing historical conditions, but also by divisions along regional and religious lines. Residents of Northern and Southern origin fiercely battled over secession, slavery, Reconstruction policies and Jim Crow laws. Members of the Jewish and Catholic faiths were suspected of having alien racial origins and struggled to win a place among the city's decision-makers, with some non-Protestants, such as the Sanger family, winning a tenuous place in the city's inner circle. The city's most prosperous capitalists often depended on middle and working class support to achieve their political and economic agenda.

The battle of wealthy whites in Dallas to form permanent cross-class alliances with white workers and the middle class and the compromises forced upon elites by these groups form the heart of this book. Elites created these unsteady ruling cliques through an elaborate, contradictory, and not always successful cultural war of position, the front lines of which included the news media, the pulpit, music, theater, literature, the schools and even architecture. Elites battled to convince a skeptical population that the interests of the wealthy were synonymous with the needs of the entire city.

Even before the Civil War Dallas attracted a substantial number of immigrants from free states such as Illinois. Conflicts erupted between Dallas residents of Southern and Northern origin over race, the meaning of citizenship and the status of the Union, with Southerners racializing their Northern neighbors as "black Republicans." From the 1850s to the 1870s, newspapers like the Dallas Herald accused Northerners, particularly Republicans, of supporting abolitionism and plotting to spread miscegenation to destroy the South. Northerners were deemed race traitors, blurring the natural boundary between white and black, and, it was implied, frequently engaging in interracial sex themselves. As true whites, loyal Southerners defended the color line even to the point of death, the Herald suggested.

Wealthy Dallasites of Northern origin briefly ruled Dallas after the Civil War and modified the status quo regarding black civil rights, but soon lynch mobs ensured conformity to the pre-existing racial order in North Central Texas. Upon the Northern surrender of African American civil rights at the end of Reconstruction elites no longer saw bloodshed as a necessary means of enforcing political control. Like other urban Southerners, Dallas elites worried that pandemic violence might frighten away the Northern capital needed for their city to arise as a regional economic empire.

From Atlanta to Dallas, Southern urban leaders reconfigured local memories of the Civil War from a conflict between racial orders to a tragic but noble clash of Anglo-Saxons who achieved brotherhood through combat heroism. "Black Republicans" thus dissolved into the white mass along with Jews and others formerly perceived as outsiders. Whiteness proved unstable, however. Anglos displaced by a new, rising economic order blamed their displacement on Jews and other new immigrants to the South, scapegoats who suddenly found their whiteness challenged.

Other historians have examined the so-called “Cult of the Lost Cause” as a means by which the powerful in the North and South constructed regional reconciliation on the backs of African Americans. This book will examine the Lost Cause mythology as it shaped the ideology of whiteness. Studying Dallas provides a window into how regional identity influenced the urban construction of whiteness across the South. The Origin Myth implies Dallas' uniqueness. Yet, the Dallas story is less important because of its differences than because of its resemblance to the racial drama unfolding in cities like Houston and Atlanta, which also rose as key transportation hubs with lucrative links to the global economy. These cities won over Northern investors by consciously diluted their Southern identities, transforming into economic colossuses supposedly too busy to hate and too forward-looking to have a past worth remembering.

Houston, for instance, cut itself loose entirely from its Southern roots, and even the planet, proclaiming itself by the 1970s the "international city" or "Space City, U.S.A." In a region where colleges and high schools named their sports teams Rebels or Colonels in homage to antebellum nostalgia, these New South cities labeled their professional franchises the Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers, Oilers, Rockets, Astros, Braves, Hawks, and Falcons, names that evoked the West, the modern economy or nature — anything but the slave past. De-Southernization, however, met considerable resistance. Periodic strikes and violent tragedies like the 1915 Leo Frank lynching reveal the deep resistance to the Northern economic colonization of the South and the century-long effort to dilute Southern identity.

In the end, the struggle over regional identity in cities like Dallas represented a class struggle. Southern urban elites finally united behind an economic agenda, but left unresolved the battle between rich and poor. A more specifically Southern identity faded in these cities, especially with the end of de jure segregation, but this conflict merely gave way to often violent class war, a process which fragmented white identity just as immigration had complicated whiteness in the North.

A specter haunted the imagination of white elites throughout Dallas history: a revolt of poor and working class whites allied with African Americans and other marginalized groups. Elites warned of the dangers created by a radical democracy that gave the masses a substantial voice. The rise of labor unions in the urban South, which elites often claimed sprang from a Jewish conspiracy, added special urgency to the dread of class rebellion. The rise of lower-class undermen threatened social chaos, elites warned, and this fear of revolt provided a special theological significance to whiteness in Dallas.

Largely lacking in previous studies of whiteness by scholars such as Roediger, Matthew Frye Jacobson and Theodore W. Allen has been the role that pre-millennial dispensationalism, so important among conservative Protestants in the South, played in shaping white identity for both Jews and Gentiles. Even as they welcomed Northern Jewish capital, Southern elites disdained the rise of a radical Jewish working class. White Southern workers in the early twentieth century often depicted the division between capitalists and workers as a divide between Christians and Jews. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which resurrected in the 1920s, exploited this sentiment, racializing Jews, Italians, and others who began to migrate to the urban South in the early 1900s as non-whites. Elites accused these groups of spawning radicalism while workers often saw them as competition for low-wage jobs.

Anti-Semitic Klansmen, however, had to contend with dispensationalists who interpreted the Bible as a prophetic text announcing the imminent Second Coming of Christ and gave Jews a special role in ensuring the establishment of a godly millennium of peace on earth. In spite of the persistence of anti-Semitism among Dallas elites, dispensationalism allowed Jews to be post-Calvary theological heroes. The leading Dallas dispensationalist, Cyrus Scofield, even suggested that Jews could win a place in heaven without conversion to Christianity. Dispensationalism thus allowed Jews, just as they became an economically significant population in post-Civil War Dallas, a chance to achieve conditional whiteness not only in the city but also, as this theology came to dominate much of fundamentalist Protestantism, across America.

This book argues that dispensationalism shaped whiteness beyond altering Gentile perceptions of Jews. Dispensationalism defined Christians and Jews as over and against all other religions, just as racists depicted the white race as over and against a world of color. Whiteness, like dispensationalism, is also a form of eschatology, a Manichean struggle between spiritual and racial light and darkness.

Some of the twentieth century’s leading white supremacist writers, such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard in some ways paralleled Scofield’s predictions of a future war between Christians and a literal anti-Christ. Eugenicist books such as "The Passing of the Great Race," "The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man" and "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy" (which evokes images of a Noachian-style racial deluge) suggest a secular analog to Scofield’s literal interpretation of Revelation. These white supremacists also depicted history as heading towards an Armageddon in which white civilization squared off against colored savagery. To understand whiteness, one must appreciate the immediacy and drama dispensationalism lends to this ideology.

Dispensationalism also admirably served the political needs of the Dallas leadership as it shed theological doubt on political reform. Lower income whites were encouraged to believe that political resistance was not just futile but sinful. Through elite control of the schools, the media, the pulpit and political institutions, the twin notions of whiteness and dispensationalism entered the common sense of Dallas' workers and their poor neighbors.

In response to the pressures of whiteness, African Americans developed an alternative culture that valued blackness and insisted that Dallas live up to its ostensible republican values. Africanized Christianity prepared the black community for a long-term struggle against Jim Crow. Because they did not question the economic system at the root of whiteness, however, such civil rights leaders found themselves ill prepared when the dismantling of Jim Crow laws failed to end racism and blacks continued to suffer economic disenfranchisement.

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." I celebration of that book's fifth anniversary, I am serializing that work. In this passage, I provide an overview of how the politics of white identity shaped Dallas culture and its often bloody and oppressive race relations.

The Dallas civil rights campaign rolled up a string of legal successes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but Dallas proved resistant to change. White union members continued to see African Americans as a cheap labor source exploited by management to drive down wages. The pressures of whiteness placed distance between African Americans and their peers in the Jewish and Mexican American communities.

At the same time, philosophical splits among Gentile whites further paralyzed the city. If fractures between blacks, white workers, Jews and Latinos prevented the formation of an effective coalition for change, the collapse of consensus in the Anglo middle and upper classes after World War II blocked elites from rolling back already hard-won reforms. A wave of immigrants from other regions of the country to Dallas from the 1940s, coupled with Cold War angst, produced further political fragmentation in Dallas. No group became powerful enough to achieve ideological dominance. Deep divisions frustrated elite attempts to preserve Jim Crow but also kept civil rights activists from significantly changing the city's economic structure.

Dallas' racism remained largely invisible to the outside world because of its sophistication and subtlety. The city had no cartoon villains as clearly repressive as Birmingham’s Sheriff Bull Connor and Dallas avoided the troubles that characterized so many American cities in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the divisive power of whiteness meant that African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jews and labor would have to carry on fractured struggles for social justice which left Dallas as something less than a city and more a disjointed collection of parts. Alienated from each other and divided within, factions seeking greater status, let alone the more chimerical goal of racial democracy, found their dreams drifting into an ever-receding future.


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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