Monday, July 25, 2016

The Scourge of Whiteness

Foley, Neil. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

Holding degrees in American Culture, English and American Literature, and English, Neil Foley specializes in the evolving components of race and social identity located in what he calls the Borderlands: Mexico and the American West. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture bridges the gap between the narratives of two Borderlands histories, that of African-Americans and southern history, and that of Mexican-Americans and southwestern history. Looking at Texas, and specifically the area from Dallas in the north, Corpus Christi in the south, San Antonio in the west, and Houston in the east, Foley analyzes how Mexicans, blacks, and poor whites maneuvered and coped with the racial space in this Borderlands province of cotton culture during the first half of the twentieth century. 

To Foley, this area of central Texas provides an exceptional example of Borderlands interactions because of the nature of cotton culture there as compared to plantation farming in other parts of the South. Cotton farming in central Texas relied on mostly white share tenants, and mostly black or Mexican sharecroppers. Migrant Mexican labor was also used to harvest crops. These three standards produced complex configurations as Mexicans began competing with blacks for more work and both of those races competed with whites for tenancy.

Although a southern state, Foley considers Texas “the west” of “the south.” Exposed to relationships between blacks and whites, The White Scourge begins with identifying how Mexicans created a division in the black/white dichotomy of southern race relations. The foundation of the tripartite race relation began with the Texas Revolution and War with Mexico. Whites held their positions of power and supremacy, blacks maintained their dominion with none of the same constitutional protections given to whites, and Mexicans existed in a brown area known as nonwhite. Owing to the implementation of barbed wire fences and railroads, the rise of the cotton culture in central Texas created a unique convergence of the three races.

The difference of the racial classes created a problem with poor whites. Foley calls the poorest whites “the white scourge.” These white sharecroppers competed with blacks and Mexicans economically and were marked as substandard whites whose reproductive fertility threatened Nordic whiteness. Black sharecroppers were viewed generally the same as when they were enslaved: racially inferior and firmly situated in their natural economic condition. Mexicans, in their non-whiteness, were thought to make ideal seasonal laborers because of their supposed docility and nomadic nature. Foley reasons that Mexicans walking the color line in Texas society probably preferred sharecropping and tenant farming to the economic conditions in Mexico. 

After 1910 brown became the new color menace in Texas. Driven deeper into Texas by railroad work, white farmers increasingly relied on Mexican labor. Labor needs prevented immigration restrictions because the dependence on Mexican labor outweighed white worries of Mexican radicalization and mongrelization in the southwest. 

Foley next examines the complex land-tenure arrangements that shaped race, class, and gender identities of owners, renters, sharecroppers, and wage hands. The scourge of whiteness were to remain firmly entrenched at the bottom of the racial and economic hierarchy. Farm ownership and land tenure, which proved to be essentially out of reach for the majority of poor whites, defined the boundaries of yeoman-hood and served as the blueprint for a prosperous white family. However, Foley points to other significant problems for poor whites: “extortionate credit merchants, bankers, landlords, boll-weevil infestations, soil depletion, low cotton prices, flood, and droughts.” These issues ensured that poor whites would remain tenants, barely superior to blacks and Mexicans. 

The narrative of Texas cotton culture would not be complete without mentioning the Socialist Party in Texas and Tom Hickey. Foley discusses the efforts of the Socialist party to organize Anglo and Mexican tenant farmers. Landless tenants and Texas Socialists demanded occupancy and use of tillable land held by absentee landlords. In order to force the sale of land not being tilled but owned by the absentee landlords, Socialists proposed a land tax that would in effect force the landowners to sell their tillable land. The underlying theme of the Socialists, however, was white supremacy and a positive endorsement of the color line. For his part, Hickey tried to incorporate Lost Cause and Old South ideology into Socialist thought.

The White Scourge provides a recounting of scientific management of farm workers in the twentieth century. Large-scale cotton ranches became the intersection between race and agricultural technology. Foley highlights the 200,000-acre Taft Ranch as an example of scientific management. Operated as a corporation by farm managers, in addition to oversight and management of the agricultural decisions, Taft Ranch managers controlled many aspects of workers’ lives; housing, stores, children’s schools, churches, and electoral votes. Workers were often organized according to scientific principles that would increase profits and proficiency. Scientific management revolutionized the employment and management of the multiracial agricultural workforce in central Texas. Another excellent book on corporate communities similar to Taft Ranch is Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community by Monica Perales. Instead of a corporate-owned farm community, Smeltertown tells the story of a corporate-owned smelter town near El Paso, Texas, where citizens also struggled with company-owned churches and stores and a lack of upward mobility. 

The scourge of whiteness simply could not compete with corporate ranches and scientific management. Foley says, “The growth of corporate cotton ranches in Texas had rendered obsolete the notion of rising up from farm laborer to farm owner.”

As these scientific changes took place, white families became tenants and sharecroppers. Women on farms experienced manually challenging and difficult lives. Many, as a result of their position in the social hierarchy, worked in the field alongside men more and more, even though the domestic duties usually accorded to women never lessened. Men began working with new technological farm implements, while women continued to use the most rudimentary tools associated with domestic work. Foley also examines the changes on the horizon for women as the automobile became more affordable for lower-class citizens. For women, their social geography could be briefly changed because the automobile was now able to carry them away from their farms and duties. Often relying on legal testimony of disgruntled tenants and sharecroppers, Foley paints a shockingly laborious existence of the daily lives of sharecroppers and tenants. 

Foley points to New Deal acreage-reduction programs as the reason behind the displacement of tenant families throughout the South. As well, the advancements in farm equipment technology drove others out of the South. Unlike what many consider to be the reason behind the flight of “Dust Bowlers” for California, Foley does not put as much blame on dust and soil depletion. Instead, Foley contends that mechanization had already begun the process, with drought, windstorms, and grasshoppers compounding the problem. Together, New Deal plans and mechanization created a surplus of tenants and croppers. There were too many jobless and too few jobs in the South. 

The first half of the twentieth century saw the immigration of Mexicans into the black-and-white cotton economy of central Texas. The established cotton culture was upended along racial and class lines. Slowly, white skin color did not carry the same economic power as it had following the Civil War and Reconstruction. With a triumvirate of races, the farm order of the South and Southwest would never be the same. The White Scourge is essential reading for anyone attempting to understand the racial and economic history of central Texas.

As the great-granddaughter of Texas sharecroppers, The White Scourge was at its most interesting when documenting the lives of poor white, black, and Mexican women. Foley’s parallel of men’s farming equipment upgrades compared to the lack of advancement of women’s comparative tools of the trade was appalling. “While men traded in their hoes for expensive steel plows, farm women continued to haul water from the wells in pails.” Particularly touching was the correspondence from Mrs. M. M. Clayton to President Herbert Hoover of her despair of having little to show after thirty-nine years of marriage and farming. 

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