BOOKS & THE CULTURE Race, Class, and White Trash Cotton and White Supremacy in Central Texas BY JAMES SLEDD THE WHITE SCOURGE: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. By Neil Foley. University of California Press. 326 pages. $29.95. 1 n 1833, Stephen F. Austin spoke out for slavery. “Texas,’,’ he wrote, “must be a slave country.” In 1836, says Neil Foley, “Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis gave their lives at the Alamo for the freedom of white men to own slaves.” The first constitution of the Republic of Texas soon guaranteed “the protection of slavery,” among a citizenry that denied constitutional protections to Indians, free blacks, and “racially inferior” Mexicans. “Only white heads of family were entitled to purchase land,” and the whiteness of Mexicans was officially dubious. Because it tells such naughtily remembered stories, The White Scourge won’t be favorite reading among the lone-starry-eyed Daughters of the Republic. Even serious readers may be put off by the panoply of scholarship \(over sixty pages of notes, over academy demands of an upwardly-bound young scholar, whose mixed Irish and New Mexican ancestry, moreover, may be thought to show. But The White Scourge generously rewards the effort that it demands. The fancy borrowed title may remind readers that Neil Foley, now an associate professor at U.T.-Austin, came to social history from English literature at the University of Michigan, where in 1990 he completed the dissertation from which the present more ambitious study has grown. The source of his title was the novel, The White Scourge, by Edward Everett Davis, published by Naylor in San Antonio in 1940. It dealt with “poor white cotton farmers in Texas” and with “the menace of Mexican immigration.” Poor whites, Foley’ s dust jacket and text from The White Scourge Dorothea Lange report, were considered “the scourge of whiteness,” as if the scourged had become a scourge; but the title as Foley uses it doesn’t refer only to “the immiseration of thousands of white tenants” and to the consequent supposed degradation of the supreme white race. More abstractly, it refers to “the problem of the color line” to the system itself of white supremacy. Though Davis called cotton “the scourge of southern society” because its cultivation provided subsistence for swarms of “white trash,” Foley uses Davis’ title to suggest “that the scourge of the South and the nation was not cotton or poor whites but whiteness itself.” By whiteness, Foley doesn’t mean just pale skin, which was a necessary but insufficient condition. Whiteness was socioeconomic privilege on the basis of imputed superior merit. A pale-skinned tenant farmer degraded to a landless farm laborer was incomparably less “white” than “Henrietta Chamberlain King of Corpus Christi,” reputed owner of 1,400,000 acres, whose back gate was said to be fifty miles from her front porch. In his introduction, Foley provides helpful preliminary accounts of his succeeding chapters, which themselves are linked by careful transitions. Chapter 1 explains “how the Texas Revolution and the War with Mexico laid the foundation for racializing “THIS COUNTRY’S HARD COUNTRY. THEY WON’T HELP BURY YOU HERE. IF YOU DIE, YOU’RE DEAD, THAT’S ALL.” of Childress, Texas Mexicans as nonwhites.” Increasingly numerous Mexican sharecroppers later took the places of white tenant farmers in central Texas, themselves numerous, and so constituted a “‘white man’s problem.’ Chapter 2 argues similarly that Mexican immigrants to “the western South,” after 1910, turned the old “dyad of white and black” into a triad, by creating a “‘second color menace.’ Chapter 3 considers the “complex land-tenure arrangements among Mexicans, blacks, and poor whites,” among “owners, renters, croppers, and wage hands.” It was the upward and downward movements of separate and unequal social and ethnic groups that caused “white sharecroppers … to be regarded as the scourge of the white race in Texas.” To modern readers pestered by liberalbaiting and the perpetual prevarications of the dominant, Chapter 4 brings a pleasantly surprising account of attempts by the SocialAnglo and Mexican tenant farmers between 1911 and 1917,” when making the world safe for democracy made democracy unsafe at home. But the politics of race and class defeated efforts at “interracial unity” among the downtrodden; and the itinerant Irish rabble-rouser, the admirable Tom Hickey, at last abandoned the good cause, and became secretary of a Chamber of Commerce and a “booster for the oil industry.” 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 19, 1998
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