85: Neil Foley’s The White Scourge

Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture uses whiteness studies as a model for investigating intraethnic divisions and the interactions between race, class, and gender in central Texas cotton culture between 1820 and the early 1940s, when the industry moved from small family farms run by white tenant families and white, Mexican, and black sharecroppers, to agribusiness dominated by nonwhite workers.  Foley pulls his title from a book that characterized poor white cotton farmers as the scourge of the south, but he argues that “the scourge of the South and the nation was not cotton or poor whites but whiteness itself – whiteness not simply as the pinnacle of ethnoracial status but as the complex social and economic matrix wherein racial power and privilege were shared, not always equally, by those who were able to construct identities as Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, Caucasians, or simply whites.”

The book complicates both black/white and South/West geographical and cultural binaries.  Central Texas was southern in its reliance on cotton farming and the sharecropping system, but Mexican sharecroppers and the arid lands to the west and south complicated Southern racial binaries and culture. White cotton farmers experimented with Mexican labor soon after the Texas Revolution; by 1910 white supremacists were calling Mexicans the “second color menace” and trying to prevent them from becoming culturally white.  At the same time, poor whites were being constructed as the “white scourge” because they occupied the same economic class as Mexican and black sharecroppers; their manliness and whiteness were threatened by their inability to become yeoman farmers.  The creation of industrial “factories in the field” in the 1920s, which combined technology and deskilled Mexican and black labor and thus further displaced white sharecroppers, further detached poor whites from the agrarian ideal of white yeoman farmer.  In the 1930s, landlords and owners of these factory farms took advantage of New Deal loopholes and evicted white sharecroppers from their lands, replacing them with cheaper non-white labor.  This last step in the process is dramatized in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where the “fall from agrarian whiteness and yeoman manhood” are linked to losing farmlands.

Foley thus shows how poor whites, Mexicans, and blacks complicated whiteness in central Texas.  With the shift from small family farms run by whites, blacks, and Mexicans to white-owned factory farms that exploited Mexican labor, poor whites became detached from their land and the economic independence that came with it.  Here, whiteness fractured along class lines and become more of a matrix than a monolith.

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