Title: The White Scourge: Mexicans, Poor Whites, and Blacks in Texas Cotton Culture
Author: Neil Foley
Categories: Whiteness, Manhood, Agriculture, Labor, Mechanization, Race, New Deal
Place: Central Texas
Time Period: 1836-1940
Neil Foley examines the role of whiteness in the agricultural society of whites, blacks, and Mexicans living and working in the cotton fields of central Texas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Foley describes a socioeconomic "agricultural ladder" of the region that white men expected to be able to climb: from farm laborer to sharecropper to tenant all the way to independent landowner. He demonstrates how race and class interplayed on this ladder, as whites and Mexicans variously lost and gained "whiteness" and corresponding opportunity along the ladder. Ultimately it is a narrative of collapse: the dream of opportunity inherent in the agricultural ladder declined in the early twentieth century until its collapse during the New Deal in the face of mechanized large-scale agriculture and the rise of wage farm labor.
One of Foley's key contributions is a study of the fluidity of whiteness and its relationship to class and gender. Mexicans, in particular, occupied a racial middle ground between white and black. They were disparaged and feared as a racial "menace" (especially during the eugenics era). At the same time, landowners often lauded Mexicans for their "manly whiteness" as ideal laborers and tenants, and used the language of whiteness to lobby Congress for fewer immigration restrictions during and after the Immigration Act of 1917. Poor whites experienced the flip side of this racial fluidity as they increasingly lost their claims to whiteness: they were criticized as being lazy and thriftless (non-white characteristics), and with the decline of tenancy and the rise of sharecropping and wage labor they were denied the class-based access to white, manly independence. Women, meanwhile, were increasingly criticized during the Progressive era for their role as producers or (even worse) wage laborers, as reformers ignored the central role of women's work to farm life and instead tried to refashion them as homemakers and consumers.
Foley also explores the rise of both scientifically-managed industrial agriculture and the fate of the labor movement in central Texas. He charts how mechanized agriculture threatened the very idea of an upwardly mobile "agricultural ladder" and replacing it with permanent, often Mexican wage labor. This move culminated in the New Deal, as landowners used the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 and its assault on surpluses and acreage-reduction program to evict tenant farmers and turn towards cheaper wage labor. The labor movement, meanwhile, was hamstrung in the region by its complexities of race and class. Tom Hickey, a socialist organizer during the 1910s, rested his organizing on a bedrock of white supremacy and used heavily racialized language to criticize white farmers who wouldn't unionize as lacking manly whiteness. Foley also points to the utter failure of the labor movement during the 1930s in the region. The movement tried to organize ALL farmers, which ignored the crucial class (and often accompanied by racial) division between tenant farmers and sharecroppers/laborers.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Centrality of whiteness to cotton culture and triad of race (Mexicans, blacks, whites)
- Agricultural ladder tied into yeoman ideal of small-farm ownership (laborer -> sharecropper -> tenant -> landowner)
- Fluidity of race - Mexicans gaining whiteness, poor whites losing it
- Yeoman manhood - agrarian mastery the ultimate badge of white gendered manhood in the region
- Decline of agricultural ladder between 1900-1940 (collapse in 1930s) - transformation from tenant farming -> wage labor and mechanization
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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