The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture

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The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture

On his 2000 studio album, "American III," Johnny Cash sang in a resigned voice, "I got a crib full of corn, and a turnin' plow/ But the ground's to wet for the hopper now/ Got a cultivator and a double tree/ A leather line for the hull and gee/ Let the thunder roll and the lighting flash/ I'm doing alright for Country Trash."* Raised on a cotton farm in Dyess, Arkansas, Cash articulated a racialized class divide not simply among whites and African Americans, but among whites, themselves. Cash belonged to a growing class of impoverished white farmers increasingly referred to by his contemporaries as "white trash," and recast by historian Neil Foley as "The White Scourge." In his book of the same title, Foley analyzes the impact of class and race consciousness on white tenants and sharecroppers in central Texas as they competed for farm labor with both African Americans and Mexicans from 1820 to 1940. Foley asserts, "The emergence of a rural class of 'white trash' made whites conscious of themselves as a racial group and fearful that if they fell to the bottom, they would lose the racial privileges that came with being accepted for what they were not-black, Mexican, or foreign born."(7)** "The white scourge", the masses of impoverished whites held in limbo between privilege and denial, Foley asserts, is what informs race relations today. The heart of Foley's argument rests on an analysis of the intersection of race and economics or class. Indeed the two are joined at the hip, race being created and sustained out of competition for labor.

On June 23, 1845, the Republic of Texas was annexed to the U.S. as a slave state. Foley notes "the annexation of Texas as a slave state…became the great white hope of northern expansionists anxious to emancipate the nation from blacks, who, it was hoped, would find a home among the kindred population of 'colored races' in Mexico."(20) But rather than uniting as kindred races, discord between poor whites, African Americans and Mexicans resulted from competition for farmland as either tenant farmers or sharecroppers.

Foley argues that prior to the Civil War, there was a sharp line delineating tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Tenant farmers were almost always white, owned their own tools and rented land for a third of the cotton and a fourth of the grain harvested.
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