Monday, July 11, 2011

White Like Me: Mexican Americans, Jews, and the Elusive Politics of Whiteness, Part I

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." In celebration of the fifth anniversary of that publication, I am serializing "White Metropolis" at this blog site. Here, I discuss how the politics of racial identity in mid-20th century Dallas provoked a series of bombings in one neighborhood and provoked anxiety among the city's Jews

Even as Dallas evolved into a modern city, the Department of Public Health still saw the human population as parceled into cleanly divisible racial segments, using identification cards in the 1940s to loudly announce that Jews did not belong to the white race. Rabbi David Lefkowitz of Dallas' Temple Emanu-El fought to abolish the department's "Hebrew" racial classification. To Lefkowitz, a reform rabbi, Jews represented a religious group, not a racial category.

In 1942, Lefkowitz protested when the health department included Hebrew as a race along with Anglo-Saxon, South European, Mexican, Negro and Asiatic on its documents. "The use of the word 'Hebrew,' under any circumstances, except as the designation of the original language of the Bible, is incorrect," Lefkowitz wrote. "The designation 'Jewish' is a proper one for religion . . . You are not, of course, seeking to determine the religion of those to whom you distribute the identification cards, otherwise you would put down Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodists, etc. In this group, the word Jewish could well be included, but not in the former."

The unfolding drama of the Nazi Holocaust provided a deadly example to American Jews of the dangers of living in Gentile majority countries where their neighbors viewed them as not just religious but racial outsiders. If anti-Semitism in early 20th century America rose in part from religious intolerance, the Leo Frank murder and American immigration policy strongly demonstrated that even in relatively safe America, Jews could be viewed by ruling Anglo Saxons as racial poison. In the 1920s, the United States government imposed immigration quotas aimed at limiting the number of Jews and other racial "undesirables" who could enter in a given year, abandoning later would-be Jewish immigrants to the mercies of the Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s.

Lefkowitz and others happily received the news in 1944 that United States immigration authorities no longer considered Jews as racially different from Northern Europeans, a move that might allow more Jews to enter the United States. As they celebrated their newfound whiteness, however, many Jews still saw blacks, Asians and other groups as belonging to separate racial categories. " . . . [I]n our country statistics of Jews must not be collected from the point of view that we are a race or ethnic group, in the manner of the American races, Negroes, Chinese, Indians, etc.," H.S. Linfield, director of the Jewish Statistical Bureau, informed Aline Rutland, secretary for Temple Emanu-El, in a March 7, 1944 letter. " . . . [Until recently] the government continued to regard incoming alien Jews as constituting a separate race. The new order has put an end to this practice."

The black civil rights movement and convulsive demographic changes from the 1940s through the 1960s made the issue of racial identity crucial to Jews and other marginal whites. This chapter argues that the black freedom struggle in those three decades and the development of a new class of what historian George Norris Green called "little rich" merchants, ignited the most intense period of anti-Semitism in Dallas since the heyday of the Klan. These factors placed additional pressure on Dallas Jews to demonstrate their whiteness, thus troubling the relationship between Jews and African Americans.

A similar pressure shaped the racial and political attitudes of Mexican Americans. For that community, life in the 1950s and 1960s became a race to escape the bottom of the social ladder. Many Mexican Americans, locked in an uncertain civil rights struggle of their own, felt they had nothing to gain by helping the African American community. These Mexican Americans, instead, battled for a white identity, but this goal proved elusive. Both Jews and Latinos remained marginalized even as they strained relations with African Americans, ultimately limiting the gains made by black activists.

After early 20th century Apocalyptic preacher Cyrus Scofield, who taught that Jews held the key to the future of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus, Dallas had come a long way towards accepting Jews as part of the racial ruling class, but many still struggled with the meaning of Jewish identity. As in Scofield's time, philo-Semitism existed side-by-side with anti-Semitism.
Jews like Lefkowitz had changed the Dallas health department's racial classification schemes but he had not changed the Gentile perception of the community. Even after the discovery of the Holocaust at the end of World War II, some Gentiles saw Jews as non-white and found Biblical justification for their exclusion.

The Dallas Independent School District created an Old Testament course in 1952. In the course materials, Judaism was depicted as a half-baked religion, awaiting Christ's arrival for its completion. "While there are sixty-six books in this one volume [the Bible], they are unified in the person of Christ whose coming was prophesied in the first book of Old Testament," declared a bulletin outlining the course. "As you study the lives of these Hebrew people, you will be conscious of expectancy which existed throughout the Old Testament period and which had its fulfillment in Jesus Christ."

Jews possessed only half-a-loaf regarding divine truth, according to the course, and they weren't even part of the white race. According to the notes for the lesson titled "The Origin of the Races, the Tower of Babel, and the Confusion of Tongues," all mankind descended from the three sons of Noah following a flood that wiped out the rest of humanity. Japheth, according to the lecture, was the father of the Europeans. The Old Testament course then reinforced the Southern white Protestant rationale for African American subordination by claiming all "colored races" were descended from Ham, whose family line was forever cursed by God after the flood, according to Genesis, to be a "servant of servants."

According to the DISD, "[t]he children of Shem, inhabiting the land of Arabia, and southeastern Asia, [included] . . . the Hebrews, Arabians, Assyrians and Persians, all of whom speak the Semitic languages." Jews thus yellowed as Asians in the eyes of the DISD. This classification followed soon after an American war with Japan in which GIs at times fought with a genocidal fury unmatched by their peers in Europe. The depiction of Jews as Asians came amid widespread concerns over the "loss" of mainland China to the communists in 1949 and during the 1950-53 Korean War, whose outcome was uncertain at the time the DISD launched the course. This racial assignment not only symbolically darkened Jews but also threatened to render them part of a dangerous yellow horde in Gentile eyes.

Alarmed by recent political convulsions within the city, some Gentiles demanded that Jews come down clearly on one side of the black/white divide. In the 1940s, Juanita Craft won appointment as the Dallas NAACP’s membership chair. In 1944, she became the first black woman in Dallas County history to vote, and, in 1946, the NAACP named her a field organizer. Due to Craft's tireless proselytizing, the Dallas NAACP branch claimed 7,000 members by 1946 even as it became the epicenter of the state's civil rights movement. In 1941, blacks served on juries in Dallas County for the first time since the 1890s. In 1943, the NAACP won a lawsuit on behalf of Thelma Paige and the Negro Teachers Alliance of Dallas, achieving gradual equalization of teacher salaries. A. Maceo Smith's efforts to end the white primary system finally paid off with the NAACP prevailing in the 1944 Smith v. Allwright decision.

Divisions within the African American community over political priorities, however, sometimes complicated the civil rights struggle. Some African Americans felt ambivalent about a future of integration. A 1947 statewide poll of African Americans showed that a clear majority favored the creation of a separate black university over the integration of the University of Texas. "Some Negroes had, or at least believed that they had, a vested interest in retaining segregation," observed Michael Gillette, an historian of Texas' NAACP. "These were often professionals, such as teachers, who feared that they would lose their jobs to whites if desegregation occurred. Thus . . . there existed, 'many, many Negroes who are deathly afraid of the elimination of segregation.'"

Other African Americans internalized the lessons of black inferiority pounded home daily by segregation and the mainstream culture. Even the Dallas Express, a vigorous supporter of political activism and pride in black culture, at times conveyed negative messages about blackness. Advertisements for hair straighteners and skin bleach abounded in the pages of the Express, which carried the message that kinky hair and dark skin were unattractive social liabilities. "Enjoy the Light Side of Life with new, improved 'Skin Success' Bleach Cream," one ad beckons. "Now you can enjoy the popularity and admiration that goes with a lighter, fairer complexion."

Black assertion, however, alarmed some marginal whites, such as Jews and darker-skinned or working class and middle class Mexican Americans. Fate granted some men like Pete Garcia both a Spanish surname and a light skin. In 1950s Dallas society, the middle class Garcia rated as a higher grade of human than did his black neighbors, tantalizingly close to the Caucasian status he so desired. Aware that his Mexican ethnicity marked him as an outsider, Garcia sought ethnic promotion. In 1950-51, Garcia was part of a small army that dynamited a South Dallas neighborhood for about 18 months to preserve the boundary between black and white. The 1950s bombings echoed the 1940 terrorism against socially mobile blacks. Dallas culture taught Garcia to see the world in terms of a zero-sum game. African American gains could only mean loss for Mexican Americans while oppression of his black neighbors provided a quick route to whiteness.

The city's World War II population boom aggravated an already disastrous black housing situation. From 1940 to 1950, Dallas' population grew by about a third, from 294,734 to 434,462. Dallas' black population grew by 30,000 in that time but private builders constructed only 1,000 new dwellings open to African Americans. White residents protested construction of a proposed 2,000-home tract south of Dallas' city limits set aside for blacks. The city council promptly refused to supply water to the development, killing the project. A 1950 "Report on Negro Housing Market Data" found 21,568 black households occupying 14,850 housing units. This meant that one of three black families shared crowded housing with other families and even those substandard structures skyrocketed in price.

By 1948, a nine-square mile community of 25,000 blacks, Mexican Americans and poor whites lived on a low flood plain in West Dallas. Created by the earlier construction of levees along the Trinity River, West Dallas consisted of "flimsy shacks, abandoned gravel pits, garbage dumps, open toilets and shallow wells." Less than 10 percent of those dwellings had indoor toilets and only 15 percent had running water. Tenants drank from wells located near where human waste was disposed. West Dallas accounted for 50 percent of the city's typhus cases, 60 percent of the tuberculosis and 30 percent of the polio.
Desperation forced relatively prosperous blacks to again venture into the Exline Park neighborhood, scene of the 1940-1941 bombings. Twelve bombings in the next year-and-a-half targeted homes sold to blacks in formerly all-white neighborhoods in a two-square mile area of South Dallas.

Not expecting white protection, African Americans armed themselves. Juanita Craft noted in a letter to Walter White, the executive director of the NAACP, that bombing stopped on Crozier Street when "the widow Sharpe" ran from her home firing a gun at a speeding getaway car after one explosion. Fearful that violence threatened the city's post-war economic boom, elites could not ignore these bombings as they had the 1940 attacks. A special grand jury that included several prominent Dallasites, such as wholesale liquor distributor Julius Schepps and Dallas Morning News managing editor Felix McKnight, investigated the bombings. In an unusual move for 1951 Dallas, the grand jury also numbered three African Americans as members, including NAACP chapter president Bezeleel R. Riley and W.J. Durham, an attorney on the Sweatt v. Painter case which desegregated the University of Texas law school.

Dallas police arrested a series of suspects beginning in September 1951. The accused shared a decidedly working class background and included pants pressers, machinists and garage mechanics. Two suspects, Claude Thomas Wright and his half-brother, Arthur Eugene Young, told police they had been hired to carry out five bombings by labor leader Charles O. Goff, chairman of the Exline Park Improvement Association. When police arrested Goff, former district attorney and ex-Klansman Maury Hughes bailed him out. Other evidence pointed to Baptist preacher John G. Moore, but no charges were ever filed due to "insufficient corroborating evidence." Yet, only one of the suspects was ever put on trial — Pete Garcia, a member of Moore's South Dallas Adjustment League. Garcia was one of two Hispanics indicted in the bombings.

His participation revealed the racial ambiguity of being a Dallas Latino. Even as Mexican American children attended de facto segregated schools and their parents earned inferior wages compared to Anglos, Garcia claimed Caucasian status, painting "For Whites Only" signs and placing them in the yards of families agreeing to not sell their South Dallas homes to black families. Garcia threatened other families at knifepoint to maintain the ban. Dallas newspapers, which had a policy of identifying black and Mexican American crime suspects by race, acknowledged Garcia's whiteness by frequently not mentioning his ethnicity. A chief witness at Garcia's trial testified that she had seen Garcia enter a vacant house moments before an explosion. She recanted her testimony, however. A jury deliberated for 12 hours before acquitting Garcia.

Garcia's compulsion to be seen as white made crude economic sense in 1940s-1960s Dallas. To be classified as "non-white" at that time was to be assigned to low-wage jobs and to have few opportunities for economic advancement. By 1960, according to the last United States Census taken before desegregation officially began in the city, the median annual income in Dallas County was $6,845. For the non-white population it was $1,513. Nearly 81 percent of the non-white population labored in low-wage occupations such as domestic or farm labor. The burden of racism leaned harder on non-white women, who averaged an annual income of $960 as opposed to $2,317 for non-white men. Men like Garcia were locked into a system of racial and gender oppression in which whiteness and masculinity were essential for escaping poverty.

Few Mexican Americans in Texas were prosperous enough to enjoy an easy ticket to whiteness. Mexican Americans in Texas routinely faced exclusion from juries and white schools. The Texas oil and railroad industries paid Mexican Americans, like African Americans, lower wages for the same work as Anglos, and forced them to use separate drinking fountains, toilets and bathing facilities. Both Anglo Texan school officials and students regarded Mexican American children as racial inferiors. In the early 1930s, a Dimmit County school official noted that Anglos perceived Mexican students as "almost as trashy as the Negroes" while a Nueces County official said, "The white child looks on the Mexicans as on the Negro before the [Civil War]. To be cuffed about and used as an inferior people."

As noted earlier, a Texas court ruled that Mexican Americans were legally white, but the court insisted that Mexicans did not fit scientific definitions of whiteness. Nevertheless, Mexicans in Texas lived with de facto school segregation. This promised to change in 1940 when the state superintendent of education decreed that "under the laws . . . children of Latin American extraction [are] classified as white and therefore have a right to attend the Anglo-American Schools in the community in which they live."

Regardless of this decision, white schools remained closed to Mexican Americans, and Latino civil rights groups had to rely on the courts to end segregation. A United States District Court in Austin ruled in a 1948 decision, Delgado v. Bastrop, that segregating Mexican American school children violated the Constitution, but allowed district to established segregated "first grades" for the purposes of English language instruction. Exploiting that loophole, Texas school officials expanded that first grade provision to cover at least four grades. The 1957 Hernández v. Driscoll Consolidated School District decision overturned such an interpretation of Delgado, in effect outlawing the de facto segregation of Mexican American school children in Texas. The practice survived, however, due to residential segregation, and school policies that separated brown and white children on the supposed bases of English language proficiency and academic ability.

In mid-century Dallas, Mexican Americans attended one of four segregated elementary schools: W.B. Travis, Cumberland Hills, Benito Juarez and City Park. Crozier Tech was the only high school open to them. Few teachers spoke Spanish and students were discouraged from speaking in their native language. Few Anglos noticed since Mexican Americans constituted only the city's second largest "minority group," with numbers far smaller than the African American community. In 1960, the city's Mexican American population numbered about 30,000. By 1970, the Latino population had grown to only about 40,000, or about 8 percent of the total. Blacks made up 24.9 percent of the total population the same year.

Their small numbers and their relative invisibility compared to African Americans affected the Mexican American community in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, a lower profile combined with Anglo racism meant that Dallas leaders showed little interest in the needs of the community. On the other hand, Mexican Americans appeared as less of a threat than African Americans and consequently middle class Mexican Americans, at least, enjoyed a better opportunity to win acceptance as part of the white community. Some Mexican Americans believed their community should keep quiet and not follow the black political example. As one Mexican American in the 1970s put it, "The gringos are getting meaner all the time. They're scared of the Blacks . . . I think those Chicanos are crazy to go marching around, waving those signs. They're just making people mad at Mexicans. And the madder they get, the worse it's going to be for us." In other words, Latinos would be better off invisible than hated.

This worry about Anglo backlash acted as a dead weight on 1950s and 1960s Mexican American politics. A large, heterogeneous population in the state as a whole, Mexican Americans in Texas more than doubled in population from 1930 to 1960, from 695,000 to 1.4 million. Individual Mexican Americans identified themselves in complex and often contradictory ways. The identity members chose often shaped their relationship to the African American community.

An analogous ideology to whiteness runs deeply through Mexican history. During the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, from 1876 to 1910, Mexican elites promulgated a faith in European supremacy over Indians. Diaz pursued an immigration policy that sought to whiten Mexico by encouraging Northern Europeans to settle in the nation. In post-Revolutionary Mexico at the beginning of the 1920s, in spite of a contrary official ideology hailing the nation's Indian past, those who successfully claimed identity as belonging to la raza blanca occupied the highest social status, followed by mixed-race mestizos, with indios dwelling at the social bottom. Mexican immigrants, already immersed in whiteness ideology, thus often absorbed similar racist sentiments North of the border regarding blacks that they had once projected towards indigenous people.

Like Pete Garcia, many of Texas' Mexican American leaders sought to have the Anglo community accept Latin Americans as a white ethnic group rather than as a separate race, even as they stressed their separation from the black civil rights campaign. A generational shift in part accounts for this attitude. As historian Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr. notes in a study of the school integration movement in Houston's Mexican American community, the community's immigrant generation, those born in Mexico who arrived in Texas in the early twentieth century, still saw themselves as Mexicans. They still desired to return to their homeland when economic and political conditions made that possible.

This "Mexicanist" generation held ambivalent views at best concerning what they hoped was their temporary American home, an attitude hardened by frequent encounters with Anglo racism and discrimination. Not invested emotionally in American society, Mexicanists avoided long-term struggle for social justice and preferred to work for pragmatic, immediate reforms within the system. They wanted Mexican American schools to receive equal funding and equipment as Anglo schools, for instance, but they did not seek assimilation into the American mainstream. If they identified themselves racially, many considered themselves Indians. Few would have declared a white identity.

The Mexicanist generation's children lived in a different world. Born in America, they planned to stay in the United States and therefore had a long-term interest in how they were racially defined by Anglos. Clearly, status could be measured proportionally by distance from blackness. Many agreed with a Mexican American South Texas cotton picker, who commented in the early 1930s that, "It does not look right to see Mexicans and Negroes together. Their color is different. They are black and we are white."

The Mexican-American generation wanted opportunity and acceptance by their neighbors and often were willing to assimilate Anglo attitudes towards African Americans to achieve this. Meanwhile, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the rapid decline of Southern and Eastern European immigration after 1924, led to abandonment of the idea of different white "races" by most of the American academic and political community. Where once stood races, there now existed ethnicities, and many Mexican American leaders saw an opportunity in this semantic shift. They did not want to abandon their cultural heritage; they just wanted to be accepted as white ethnics like Polish- or Italo-Americans.


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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