Sunday, July 03, 2011

"The Great White Plague": Whiteness, Culture, and the Unmaking of the Dallas Working Class, Part II

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 book's fifth anniversary, I am serializing that work. Here, I discuss how Anglo elites in Dallas in the early twentieth century came to see not only African Americans and Mexican Americans as threatening racial outsiders, but the white underclass as well.

As law professor Ian F. Haney López argues, segregation made concrete the racial and, by extension, the class differences asserted by elite ideology. In other words, through their control of urban planning, elites limited city services in black, brown and poor white neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods became crowded because segregation law limited housing options for people of color and because low wages limited housing available to impoverished whites. The near-monopoly of the wealthy on political power also guaranteed that unhealthy developments like dumps and liquor stores would always be located within impoverished, disenfranchised communities. The resulting crowding, poor maintenance and filth provided proof in the elite mind of the inferiority of the poor and colored masses. This was true across the United States and Dallas certainly was no exception.

The process of class segregation accelerated in the 1920s, the white working class concentrating in the southern end of East Dallas while a middle class community formed near Baylor Hospital. By 1925, 60 percent of elites lived in Highland Park or North Dallas and 25 percent along toney Swiss Avenue in East Dallas. Only 14 percent still lived in South Dallas, with the remaining one percent holding out in the strongly blue-collar Oak Cliff community. Elites sought these hiding places as the city increasingly represented a cesspool of racial pollution, with its off-white, working class Euro-American residents increasingly racialized.

Neighborhood names like Deep Ellum reflect the ongoing cultural blending of early twentieth century Dallas. Then a vibrant center of jazz and blues, Deep Ellum can be found on Elm Street east of the old Houston & Texas Central railroad track, a mile from the Texas School Book Depository Building, in downtown Dallas. "Deep" referred to its distance from the center of town. "Ellum" represents a "phonetic spelling for a colloquial pronunciation of Elm [Street] by African Americans or Eastern European Jews, or both," according to authors Alan Govenar and Jay Brakesfield. Dense with pawnshops, clothing outlets, whorehouses, and bars in the 1920s, Deep Ellum was a national music center drawing such blues legends as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly.

Deep Ellum became "the gathering place of blacks from all over the country, for Mexicans fleeing oppression in Mexico, for Jews who established businesses and poor whites looking for 'action,"" recalled Robert Prince, a local historian from the nearby State-Thomas district. The result was cultural miscegenation. " . . . The black music played in Deep Ellum was . . . a force in the development of Western swing . . ." Govenar and Brakesfield wrote. "Deep Ellum, then, was a crossroads, a nexus, where peoples and cultures could interact and influence each other in relative freedom."

Deep Ellum attracted both non-whites and probationary whites. "Deep Ellum was a Babel," reporter Lee Ballard wrote of the old district. "Itzhack Abramson [a Yiddish-speaking shopkeeper] learned enough English to carry on business . . . Greek brothers ran a café. Mexican men stood on street corners at sundown with their charcoal-fire buckets of hot tamales. A banjo-playing Indian called Two Pennies went from door to door making music. And, as a backdrop to everything, there was the near-Gullah dialect of that generation’s black population. Standard English was rarely heard."

Elites saw such multi-cultural neighborhoods as signs of cultural deterioration and the declining power of "true" whites in an increasingly "colored" city. Among their number was Dallas attorney Lewis Meriwether Dabney, a Virginia transplant and son of a University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor. Dabney opened his Dallas law practice in 1888, soon befriending some of the most powerful men in the city. Dabney urged other Dallas leaders to restrict immigration and eliminate the right to vote to all but the most "qualified" white men.

Dabney's comments came in the context of mass German and Jewish immigration into Dallas in the late nineteenth century, the arrival of Mexican Americans in large number between 1910-1930 and the development of a growing Sicilian community in the first three decades of the twentieth century. He blamed the growth of those communities on Anglo-Saxons who created such a comfortable civilization that now even the racial dregs of the world thrived. "As society has advanced from the primitive to the semi-civilized . . . its functioning has been biologically adverse to the best strains and favorable to the worst," Dabney said in an address to Dallas' influential Critic Club in December 1922.

Dabney feared the rise not just of the "African Hottentot" in places like Deep Ellum, but also white racial deterioration. American cities had filled with inferior whites, such as "mongrelized Asiatics, Greeks, Levantines, Southern Italians, and sweepings of the Balkans, of Poland and of Russia," Dabney complained.

In letters written during World War I, Dabney mourned that "stalwart, clean-cut" Anglo-Saxon men faced death in Europe to "preserve liberty and happiness for the swarms of maggots of the human kind I see wriggling in the vile heaps we call our cities." Dabney told one friend that he did not, for the most part, regret the South losing the Civil War except that "as the negroes put it, 'the bottom rail got on top.'" The real tragedy of the Confederacy's defeat more than half a century earlier was "the emerging of these 'half-strainers' from the bottom to the top. These the war liberated much more than it did the Africans. This is the day of the poor white in the South . . .”

Like African Americans and Mexican Americans, the white working class was seen as carrying racially impure blood and was thus incapable of civilization. Along with blacks and Mexican Americans, white workers were treated as disease carriers in a physical and metaphorical political sense. Zoning laws and housing patterns separated all three groups from white elites who sought to quarantine race mixing and political radicalism. To fully understand how far elites had come to circumscribe Anglo working class whiteness, it is necessary to compare the racialization of African Americans and Mexican Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries with that of their Anglo working class peers.

Elites literally dehumanized African Americans since the days of slavery, customarily suggesting that blacks represented either an inferior brand of humanity, or even a separate species. In the Texas Almanac for 1857 published by the Galveston News (parent company of the Dallas Morning News), a statistical table casually lumped together Texas "Negroes, Horses and Cattle in 1850 & 1855." Author Charles Carroll in his 1900 book "The Negro a Beast" argued that African Americans were soulless apes. America’s first cinema epic, the immensely popular 1915 D.W. Griffith film "The Birth of a Nation", portrayed African Americans as near-simians bent on the rape of white women. Griffith’s film spurred the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and reinforced anti- black sentiment North and South.

Whites more subtly dehumanized blacks by suggesting they were incapable of creating civilization, defined by Dallas Anglos as the creation of a technological, capitalist society conforming to Euro-American norms. A 1927 textbook approved by the Dallas school board explained to white high school world history students why blacks, browns and Native Americans remained invisible in the historical pageant. "No account is given of the black races of Africa and Australia, of the brown races of southeastern Asia and the Pacific islands, or of the red races of America; because the elements of culture among these people have rarely influenced modern civilization." Blacks were "dark of skin . . . [and] even darker of mind, for the light of civilization had not yet reached them."

Dallas textbooks casually grouped native Africans with other violent, mindless forces of nature. Africa, one textbook claimed, was a land of "cannibals and strange wild beasts of the forests." Dallas Anglos had an obligation — the "White Man's Burden" — to take non-whites under their wing and allow them the privilege of life under white civilization, another textbook declared. "The European white man has taught, and if need be, has compelled his yellow and black and brown brothers to adopt the ways of the European," a high school textbook of the 1930s declared. " . . . Truly it is a burden, and a heavy one, to lead hundreds of millions of strangers into the paths of European civilization and progress." Clearly, non-whites could only be wards, not leaders or creators of civilization, which remained the exclusive gift of Anglos.

White Dallas elites also associated African Americans with contamination, with a white doctor at a Dallas health conference in 1915 accusing black servants of infecting their employers with dangerous diseases like tuberculosis. This threat rationalized the promulgation of Jim Crow housing laws in Dallas the next year, even though blacks continued to be welcomed into wealthy white homes as servants. Some reformers, however, insisted that blacks must live in cleaner ghettoes. In 1927, Justin F. Kimball, a former Dallas school superintendent and professor of education at Southern Methodist University, urged the city to provide better housing for blacks because these workers could transmit "the seeds of diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and other dreadful diseases" to their white employers.

White Dallas also long associated Mexicans with barbarism and contagion. A Daily Dallas Herald reporter in the 1870s squirmed with disgust as he described a government train that arrived from Fort Griffin driven by "Mexicans, tawny, scowling, lurid of eye and racy with dirt." Not only were Mexicans disease carriers, but early Dallas historians like John Henry Brown and Philip Lindsley emphasized that Mexicans were a "mixed-race people" whose white, Spanish heritage had been corrupted through centuries of miscegenation with Indians and blacks.

Many Anglo Texans held to the so-called one-drop theory that defined any individual with any degree of black heritage should also be defined as black. This, combined with an Indian heritage widely seen as degrading and inferior, generally meant that Texas Anglos defined Mexicans as non—white. Travelling in Texas in the mid-19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted noted that Anglos saw their Mexican neighbors, at best, as "improved and Christianized Indians." Many Anglos, Olmsted observed, saw Mexicans as indistinguishable from blacks. "There are thousands in respectable positions [in Mexico] whose color and physiognomy would subject them, in Texas, to be sold by the sheriff as negro-estrays who cannot be allowed at large without detriment to the commonwealth," he wrote. Furthermore, the Tejano's darker skin revolted whites, according to historian Arnoldo De León, because, "[t]o whites, dark colors connoted filth and therefore Mexicans were a dirty, putrid people, existing in squalor."

Lingering bitterness over Mexican atrocities in the Texas Revolution intensified Anglo questions about Mexican racial character. Dallas school children were taught that Mexicans slaughtered Anglo soldiers at the Battle of the Alamo after they had surrendered and that a similar atrocity happened in Goliad, where 400 Anglo prisoners of war were shot, their bodies stripped and burned. Anglo atrocities against Mexicans, meanwhile, vanished from the public memory.

From the fall of 1926 until June 1927, the Dallas Morning News printed a cartoon series, "Texas History Movies," which depicted events in Texas from colonial times until the end of Reconstruction. History teachers used the comic strip in their Texas history classes across the state. Dallas schools approved the distribution of Texas History Movies in booklet form to elementary students in November 1932. According to "Texas History Movies," one Anglo soldier was worth several of his Mexican peers. One strip depicts an Alamo defender rejoicing when 32 soldiers arrive from Gonzales to reinforce the Anglo troops. "We've got 188 men now," the soldier declares. "That's enough for 4,000 Mexicans."

Even Mexico's undeniable victory in that battle morphs into defeat. Mexican victory at the Alamo, according to myth, resulted from Latin ruthlessness, while the ultimate Anglo victory in the Texas Revolution, the Battle of San Jacinto, is credited partly to Mexican ineptitude. Thus, Mexicans lose whatever the actual battle results. Children reading "Texas History Movies" learned that Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s army suffered 500 casualties while all 181 Alamo "defenders" perished. "Several versions of the Texas creation myth state with pride the number of Mexicans killed versus the number of Texans killed," anthropologist Holly Beachley Brear wrote. "This juxtaposing of the war dead creates a scoring technique which allows the Texans to 'win' both at the Alamo and at San Jacinto."

Anglos saw Mexicans as outside whiteness and their culture only worthy of extirpation. A federal district court determined in the 1897 "In re Rodriguez" case that a "full-blooded Mexican" could legally obtain American citizenship but admitted that according to the "strict" scientific standards of anthropology he could not be considered white. The Texas legislature in 1918 passed an English-only law that banned any school personal from using Spanish on school grounds and which made it a criminal offense to teach in any language other than English. Viewed as the amalgamated by-product of inferior races and depicted as cowardly, dishonest, and violent, Mexicans encountered a cold welcome in Dallas even as the railroads and other industries recruited them as a source of cheap labor.

The first permanent Mexican population in Dallas County arrived around 1900, the majority of these immigrants picking cotton or serving as railroad laborers. The first sizeable Mexican and Mexican American population migrated to Dallas in the 1920s. Immigrants escaped the violence and economic chaos of the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920 or sought greater opportunities than existed in poverty-stricken South Texas. By 1930, approximately 6,000 native Mexicans and Mexican Americans settled in Dallas. Mexican Americans comprised 2.3 percent of the city's population, most concentrated in the overcrowded "Little Mexico" barrio along McKinney Avenue. About 75 percent of these new arrivals worked as laborers, mostly with between fourth and sixth grade educations.

Lighter complexioned, wealthier Mexicans, so-called gente de razon, had an easier time winning acceptance as white. In Dallas this was a small group, only a portion of the 1.6 percent of the city's Mexican population in the "professional" class. Most Mexicans in Dallas and elsewhere in Texas occupied a social position at times indistinguishable from blacks. Their status as some of the lowest-paid workers in the county, their Catholic religion, and the fact that most of the county's Mexican population primarily spoke Spanish, made it easier for Anglo elites to view Mexicans as unassimilated aliens.

"Most of the Mexicans who live in Dallas are not American citizens, do not speak English, do not expect to remain in Dallas or the United States long, are unaccustomed to our conditions of life and housing," wrote one-time Dallas school superintendent Justin Kimball in the 1920s. "They will accept conditions of housing to which no other people in our city or state will submit . . . Every such congested, overcrowded, unhealthful center [like Little Mexico] is like a canker or eating sore on our fair city. The rest of our city can no more live and grow and prosper with such a condition, than our body can be well when it has an angry, bleeding inflamed sore on some part of it."

Unless Mexican "slums" were cleared, Kimball warned, "The rest of the [city] . . . will be injured in health and strength . . ." Poor Mexicans would continue to be associated with disease and uncleanness in the following decades. In 1938, the press noted that the Little Mexico barrio ranked first among all Dallas neighborhoods in deaths from tuberculosis and pellagra.

Anglos tried desperately to erect an antiseptic wall between the races. "Pancho" Medrano, a future Dallas labor leader, was born in Little Mexico in 1920. Medrano recalled seeing metal rails built around Pike Park to keep Mexican Americans and African Americans out. "[N]o restaurant would let us in," Medrano said in a 1990 interview. "I can remember during the hot summers having to go with my mother and brothers to a café. None of us had shoes, and we had to stay outside while they brought us some food and drinks. Then, we just sat out on the concrete, which burned our feet and bottoms, and ate our meals there."

Anglos avoided even indirect contact with "unclean" Mexicans. Through the effort of Mexican consul Adolfo Dominguez, Mexican American children in 1938 won the right to swim at the Pike Park pool, but only from 7-9 a.m. "At 15 minutes before nine, they would tell us to get out of the pool," Medrano remembered. "They would empty out the water from the pool and make us clean the pool before putting in new water for the white kids who would use the pool the rest of the day. They would also make us pick up trash in the park and check us real closely for body sores and lice."

Like blacks and Mexican Americans, white workers found they were associated with filth and disease, an indication that lower income Anglos lost racial status in this period. An unsigned appeal to the city's literary club in 1909 and to The United Charities Organization in 1910 addressed the issue of tuberculosis and other epidemics in Dallas' poor neighborhoods. The poor — white, black and brown — lived in an environment suggesting "poverty, dirt, and more or less degradation . . . Poverty, untidiness and filth abound, the bath tub a mile away."

The appeal called for improved housing standards and holding rents to no more than 20 percent of poor workers' salaries. The authors described this as simple self-interest. Poverty and disease carried explosive political implications. "Out of this environment, it can easily be seen, naturally arise the spirit of unrest, of discontentment, of immorality and criminality, and the frightful expense produced by these results must finally be paid by some one else." The report called the tuberculosis raging in such slums "the Great White Plague" but this could have referred to the residents as much to the disease devastating them.

Just as whites had earlier grouped slaves with livestock, men like Dabney dehumanized white immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as "maggots." In early twentieth century America, eugenics served to support the racial demotion of the white working class. The eugenics movement, which sought to improve the human race by preventing the "breeding" of the genetically inferior and promoting reproduction among the superior, argued that Southern and Eastern Europeans represented distinctly different racial groups than Northern Europeans.

By measuring skulls, elites believed that they not only "scientifically" proven that whites had larger brains than blacks, but that Northern Europeans had larger brain cases than Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Russians and Jews. Elites then incorrectly assumed brain size correlated to intelligence rather than to body size. Using the same dubious, inconsistent measuring techniques, elites also determined successful people had larger brain cases than the poor and working class. Eugenicists deeply influenced American public policy, inspiring laws allowing state officials to legally sterilize alleged mental defectives in California and the Deep South (laws later imitated by Nazi Germany) and culminating in the 1924 Origin Act aimed at ending immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Dallas elites hoped they could improve the city's stock by encouraging the biologically promising to breed and the genetically dysfunctional not to reproduce. In 1914, a "Better Baby Contest" proved one of the most popular events at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. A committee of doctors measured the skulls and other traits of the 500 entrants, with $15 dollars given to the parents of the "best" child, any class, and $5 for the best twins and best triplets. The children in such contests, as historians have noted, were awarded in a similar way that prize "cattle, chickens and pigs" received blue ribbons elsewhere on the fairgrounds.

To the shock of one Dallas newspaper writer, the 1914 contest contradicted expectations of male supremacy. The winner, a girl named Grace Gulden, was picked by a committee described as "coldly scientific and putting sentiment behind them." The "embryo suffragette — no disparagement — had just a teeny, weeny bit the better of the boys," a Dallas Daily Times Herald story reported, speculating the girl might one day be "presidentress of the United States."

While a "perfect" girl barely edged out two equally flawless boys, purportedly objective science reconfirmed Dallas' racial and class ideology for a large, fascinated audience. Winners were white, flaxen-haired and often, like the Cranfill twins, the scions of elite families. Hoping to evangelize the Dallas crowds to the gospel of better breeding, A. Caswell Ellis of the University of Texas flattered the crowd, declaring "Texas babies are better babies than the babies of any other state," before he "lightly touched on eugenics."

The chief lesson of eugenics was that the dysgenic white threatened the biologic republic as much as the enfranchised black. This fear reverberated throughout America in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Like John H. Reagan before him, leading American eugenicists like Madison Grant feared the voting power of poor whites as much as he did extending the franchise to other races. The advance of democracy, Grant argued, led to "the transfer of power from the higher to the lower races, from the intellectual to the plebian class . . .," with the universal franchise resulting in the political triumph of the mediocre. In America, he warned, "we have nearly succeeded in destroying the privilege of birth; that is, the intellectual and moral advantage a man of good stock brings into the world with him."

Such tendencies forecasted doom for the United States, Grant predicted because "[t]rue aristocracy or a true republic is government by the wisest and the best, always a small minority in any population." The United States replaced "true aristocracy" with mobocracy, leaving civilization in the hands of the incompetent. In the first years of the twentieth century, an Alabama doctor warned of the threat posed by so-called white trash and proposed at a state medical convention a final solution to prevent a racial apocalypse. Genetically inferior poor whites, he said, "ought not to be allowed to get married, and men who persist in [degenerate behavior] ought to be confined in reformatory institutions, or have their testicles removed, so that it would be impossible for them to propagate."

Dallas men like Justin Kimball also worried about the influence of a lower-class electorate who might be unfit for full citizenship. "Ignorant or corruptible citizens can always be counted on to vote, although they usually vote wrong," he wrote.

Dallas intellectual Lewis Dabney echoed Grant's sentiments about the dangers of mass politics. "The trouble about a democracy is that things are settled by voting and ninety-five percent of the voters, not having the sense of an ant or squirrel in the summer, but having the vote, will ravage the stores of those who have laid up a few nuts when they could," he wrote. "Like any other maddened baboon they will tear the whole fabric of civilization to pieces," he complained, thoroughly mixing his zoological metaphor. Dabney regretted the rising power of the poor white and prophesied the collapse of American civilization if those inferiors attained too much influence. Democracy, he warned, "by its very nature rejects the best and seeks the worst and is stumbling down into the mire."

Dabney, in a December 1922 speech to the Critic Club, desired for the United States an elitist republic directed by the "superior man . . . the torch bearer of the race . . ." with the active support of the "mediocre man," Dabney's term for those of average ability. Mediocre man, Dabney said, "accepts the work of genius, and performs the interminable and complex tasks necessary to construction and preservation of what the superior man devises." Mediocre man would agree to the dominance of superior man, Dabney predicted, because of the physical comforts created by ingenious elites.

Unfortunately, Dabney claimed, the advance of culture and civilization allowed inferiors to prosper. The "African Hottentot," the "American Indian" and the "Mongrel inhabitants of South and Central America" either were biologically incapable of civilization or could achieve it at only the lowest level, he said. But "superior man" and "mediocre man" had a foe to fear within the white community as well. Both should unite to prevent the rise of the "under man, the congenital savage, incapable of civilization, hating it, and desirous of reverting to the primitive, under the unchangeable biological law of his being."

Dabney made it clear who he thought these undermen were. Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Jews, haunted Dabney's imagination. Dabney worried that inferior whites had been tainted with a Socialist ideology "poisoning the rising generation with doctrines all right for Russian Jews but not to be tolerated by any free Anglo-Saxon soul." Dabney told his Dallas audience in 1922 that the rise of the undermen could be prevented by encouraging "superior men and women" to increase their families; promoting birth control among the lower classes and sterilizing "criminals, lunatics, idiots, defectives and degenerates," and ending "promiscuous immigration."

By the 1920s, elites launched their first concerted effort to transform the minds of "mediocre men" and "undermen." Elites sought to manufacture consent to aristocratic rule. Working class children were taught that reformers generated social chaos. Rule by the wealthy inevitably yielded progress if the process was not halted by foolish dissent. The children of the white lower classes were encouraged to surrender hopes for political power. Subtly, they were compensated for their disenfranchisement with the psychological comforts of white supremacy.

Textbooks praised the undemocratic nature of the American Revolution and the United States Constitution. American "mobs" lobbying for group rights could threaten the delicate fabric of society, textbooks said, so checks on popular will were put in place. Dallas' American history texts carefully contrasted representative republics with "radical" democracies. " . . . [A] pure democracy demands that the people and their representatives must place the good of the whole above their individual interests . . ." according to "The Record of America," published in 1935 and adopted by the Dallas school board four years later.
Unhappily, however, it is hard for most human beings to put the good of the whole against their personal gain . . . [O]ne of the most marked tendencies of our later democracy has been to form groups to bring pressure on Congress to gain something for themselves without considering the rest of the people.

The wisdom of the Constitution, according to the authors of the "Record of America" lay in its protection of elite rule against the shortsighted demands of the unpropertied. The Founding Fathers, the Dallas text said, "had little faith in the ability of people as a whole to maintain self-control and wisdom in government. They had no confidence in the man without property . . . a man who had failed to [accumulate property] . . . would be regarded as shiftless, lazy, or incompetent, and not deserving a voice in the government of others." With this view, the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution "to retain power in the hands of those who were least radical, and to set obstacles in the way of radical mob action." Thus the disenfranchising of Lewis Dabney's undermen represented American values in their purist form.

Twentieth century elites found in the Reconstruction Era a useful past justifying aristocratic rule in the 1920s and 1930s. In Dallas school textbooks, Reconstruction became a metaphor for the dangers of democracy run amuck and the threat political reform posed to social stability. The "negro rule" of Reconstruction had been a nightmare of corruption, greed and race-mixing, students were taught. Textbooks implied this was the peril of social change launched by reformers. Granting political power to poor whites could result in similar anarchy. In Dallas textbooks, abolitionists were just precursors of later troublemakers, like the Populists or socialists, who divided the white community and risked the advent of "negro supremacy." The alleged failures of Reconstruction revealed the dangers of rule by undermen.

Politics posed a threat to progress, working class children were taught. The division of true whites into different political camps might lead to the supremacy of immigrants, laborites, Catholics and Jews just as the conflict between North and South had allowed Negro supremacy. Here was the ultimate danger of democracy. As historian Ivan Hannaford argues in Race: The History of an Idea in the West, racist discourse is ultimately apolitical. In ancient times, one was defined as an insider or an outsider by one's relationship to the state, whether or not one was a citizen of a political realm. As racial ideology developed in the West, insider status came to be less linked to one's civil status than to one's color. Biology trumped politics. Genuine leaders, as Dabney argued, are bred, not elected. They arose naturally and their triumph could only be frustrated by an ill-informed democratic mob.

Non-elites were encouraged to surrender foolish notions of achieving political influence. In this, Dallas' racial ideology of the 1920s and 1930s reinforced the apolitical theology of Cyrus Scofield, which suggested that faith in democratic processes marked one as a sinner. As compensation for political disempowerment, however, Dallas workers could receive the wages of whiteness. Even as their political voices were muted, subordinate whites were encouraged to uphold their racial superiority to blacks and darker-skinned, poorer Mexicans. Unlike the political/racial formulation offered by John H. Reagan in the 1860s, in the newest incarnation of whiteness even the best-educated, most accomplished black individual occupied an inferior status to a white of the meanest circumstances.

Even suspect immigrants could hope for a degree of whiteness if they disappeared into the undifferentiated, vaguely Caucasian mass. On October 27, 1925, the Dallas school board approved a textbook for "foreigners," the "Reader and Guide for New Americans." Foreign-born children and adults attending special Dallas English courses were told to leave their native languages and cultures behind. Upon acquisition of Anglo Saxon culture even immigrants would assume a place in the racial hierarchy above blacks and mixed-race Mexicans.

The United States, as one poem in the "Reader and Guide" insisted, is specifically a European-American society. Immigrants could become "American," the code word for "white," if they surrendered any specific ethnic identity. The poem "Just American" depicts an encounter between a citizen and a recent immigrant aspiring to full white status. The narrator asks the immigrant "whence he came/What was once his nation's name . . . And what of you? Are you Pole or Russian Jew . . ." The immigrant replies "What I was is naught to me/In this land of Liberty;/In my soul as man to man/I am just American."

Dallas schools invited newly-minted Euro-Americans to join the white man's club. Part of the price of admission was anti-black racism. "The Reader and Guide for New Americans" used racist stories about a stereotypical black character named Rastus to teach English. The process of Americanization in Dallas thus involved trading a specific culture for an identity based on both the absence of blackness and contempt for people of color. To have a class or ethnic identity meant to belong to an identifiable constituency, a group that could achieve self-consciousness and forge unity over and against powerful white elites. Whiteness primarily functioned to diffuse such mobilization.

Whiteness reaped a harvest of alienation, with lower class Anglos, Mexicans, Jews and blacks each fighting a lonely battle for limited political influence and status. The white working class traded political enfranchisement for the flattery of white supremacy. Even if white elites faced serious challenges in the past by anti-secessionists, Reconstruction-era Republicans, Populists and socialists, the successful diffusion of whiteness in Dallas’ popular culture made resistance by non-elites a far more difficult proposition after the 1920s.

Many Mexican Americans wanted to pursue the path trod by European immigrants, shunning linguistic and cultural tradition as a means of escaping the onus of an assumed Indian and black heritage. As writer Walter T. Watson observed in the late 1930s, younger Mexicans in Dallas felt pressure to reject the traditional ways of their parents. "Hurried through the English language when they do attend school, regimented in American patriotisms and historical episodes, told to forget Spanish, forbidden on occasion to speak their own language on the playground, these and other second-generation scholastics lose respect for their old-country-oriented parents; the parents in turn, find difficulty in digesting the ridicule and attacks which their children wittingly and unwittingly levy against the Mexican customs and traditions they revere," Watson wrote.

"I don't like being a Mexican," one child told Watson. "I want to be an American." Dallas children of Mexicans even shunned their religious heritage on racial grounds. "I don't like the Catholic Church. . . all the Mexicans go there," another child said.

From the 1920s on, the pursuit of whiteness would result in little actual power for the white working class, Jews or Mexicans, but only frustrated the coalition-building power of the city's disinherited and guaranteed continued misery for much of the city's black population. From the 1920s to the 1960s each of these groups pursued solitary strategies of accommodation and confrontation with city elites, each approach ending in symbolic racial promotion but often little tangible gain. With poverty and violent oppression the cost of a non-white identity, whiteness became too great a temptation even for those with little hopes of fully attaining it.



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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