BOOKS: In Your Face

Provocative new book White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001 hits all the hot buttons. Add it to your summer reading list.

ALL ABOARD: This image comes from a 20th-century novelty postcard. But African-Americans moved to Dallas more often than they left, accounting for 20 percent of the population in the late 1920s. Photo courtesy of Dallas Historical Society

In his provocative new book White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001, UT Austin instructor and former Star-Telegram reporter Michael Phillips weighs in on the city’s very current debate about all three Big Subjects with pertinent if sobering analysis of the past. Phillips wrote White Metropolis as his doctoral thesis, but after it won several academic awards, UT Press brought it to bookstores. In it, Phillips argues that the city’s white leadership consistently has used race-baiting, violence, and even religion to bend and shape Dallas to its own economic benefit.

This will be gasket-blowing stuff for some; cause for high-fives for others. In any case, given the paucity of serious scholarly analysis of the city, this book should join the slim canon as a must-read for informed citizens.

We caught up with Phillips—who grew up in Garland, graduated from UT Arlington, and now lives in Bastrop—and asked him to explain his ideas.

D Magazine: The main theory in your book is the claim that an ideology or concept called “whiteness” explains how the Anglo-Saxon patriarchy of the city maintained control over African-Americans and Hispanics and even Jews, Italians, Greeks, Irish. How does this work?

Michael Phillips: Race has no meaning scientifically. All human life began in the Horn of East Africa, and humans are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical. The first Europeans had African ancestry and dark skin, until between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, when a single “letter” of a genetic code of 3.1 billion letters mutated and produced lighter skin.

In spite of this marginal difference, elites began to assign people to random categories like “black,” “white,” “brown,” “red,” and “yellow” in the 1500s, with the notion that whites were superior to all other categories. But these subgroups are impossible to define with any consistency.

The definition of whiteness has varied over time and by location. In 19th-century America, the Irish, Jews, and Italians were widely considered nonwhite. These legal and social definitions had little to do with the reality of racial categories and more to do with wealth and status. Being white meant higher wages, better jobs, access to superior schools, neighborhoods, and health care and, ultimately, a longer life.

You talk about some myths that have shaped the consciousness of the city over the decades. One of them is the Origin Myth. What do you mean?

Dallasites are taught that Dallas was a city with no reason for being—no port, navigable river, natural beauty that would draw immigrants there. The city was created solely as an act of will by the business leadership who turned a scrubby wilderness into a financial and cultural capital of the Southwest. Historically, this is nonsense. Dallas’ early settlers observed that the fertility of the soil and the nearness of Dallas to already-established Anglo settlements in East Texas made the area an ideal spot for a settlement. The myth survives, however, and teaches Dallasites two ideas. One, that it took racially superior whites to make something of the area. Two, that for the city to continue to succeed, residents must continue to place political power in the hands of traditional business elites. To do otherwise would be to abandon a formula that has always succeeded in the past.

The book contains a detailed look at the history of the city, including some events that tend to be forgotten, such as the fire of 1860, the widespread violence against slaves and freedmen before and after the Civil War, the bombings of the 1950s, and the Ford strike. Was the violence around the Civil War era the most pronounced in the city’s history?

Dallas became particularly violent from the period just before the Civil War through Reconstruction in the late 1860s, though violence has been commonplace throughout the city’s past. Much of the city’s downtown burned in a fire in the summer of 1860, the year before the Civil War. When fires broke out, a panic ensued over whether slaves had started these fires as part of a general rebellion against their white masters. Three slaves were blamed for the Dallas fire and hanged in front of the 97 slaves living in Dallas itself. More than 1,000 slaves were whipped in Dallas County as punishment for the fire and for their alleged abortive rebellion.

Such racial violence, unfortunately, didn’t disappear in the 20th century. In 1910, a Dallas mob stormed a courthouse in the city and seized Allen Brooks, an African-American man accused of raping a small white child. The mob tied a rope around his neck, dropped him from the courthouse window, jumped on him until his body turned to pulp, tied him to a car, and dragged him to a telephone pole where his body was left dangling as the crowd tore off clothing and body parts. Someone took a photograph of Brooks’ lynching and sold it as a postcard.

Racial violence remained, with organized bombings of homes bought by blacks in formerly all-white neighborhoods in 1940 to 1941 and 1950 to 1951, and even later with a series of questionable police shootings of African-Americans, including an elderly man and woman, in the 1980s.

Why do you think a comprehensive history of the evolution of racial attitudes in Dallas has been so long coming? Do other large Southern cities, such as Atlanta or Houston, have the same problems?

Yes. If cities weren’t front-line battlegrounds during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, they tend to be overlooked. Atlanta is written about more than Dallas and Houston, but the scholarship on that city is still severely underdeveloped.

In more recent times, how did the response of Dallas leaders to civil rights issues affect the rest of the nation? Was the city in any way a preferred model because of the emphasis on what you call manufactured consent?

Dallas actually won praise from John Kennedy for the peaceful way it supposedly integrated the public schools. Of course, the white response to Dallas school desegregation was muted, in part, because integration in the district was a sham. The Dallas school district pursued a so-called stair-step plan, which integrated one grade each year. If the courts had not invalidated this plan, even limited integration would have taken 12 years. As it was, a decade after desegregation supposedly began, most blacks still attended mostly black schools and most whites went to almost entirely white schools. By the time genuine integration was attempted in the 1970s, white parents, along with white-owned businesses, fled to the suburbs, which resegregated Dallas schools and drained an important tax base.

What role did religion or religious figures, such as the Rev. Cyrus Scofield, play in supporting either segregation or racial division in the city?

Cyrus Scofield, who headed the First Congregational Church in Dallas [now Scofield Memorial Church], was one of the most important people in the history of American religion. Scofield’s writings fueled the American fascination with “end times prophecy” that you see in the Left Behind books. As part of his teachings, Scofield portrayed Jews as still representing the chosen people, who would play a key role in unfulfilled prophecy regarding Christ’s second coming. He helped turn an unfortunately common Protestant anti-Semitism into a warmer regard for Jews as heroes of the Bible. W.A. Criswell, of First Baptist Church, was, of course, an enthusiastic supporter of Jim Crow and didn’t have a road-to-Damascus moment concerning race relations until Jim Crow was already dead.

Do you think your book will prompt a new interest in scholarship about Dallas and its central role in U.S. history?

I hope so, and there are other scholars, such as Stephanie Cole, Patricia Hill, and Harvey Graff, who have done interesting work on Dallas and continue to do so. Serious scholarship on Dallas is overdue, and I think the city has been overlooked because elites have wanted it that way. The powerful and the wealthy don’t look so good when their actions are closely examined. Intense scrutiny would dissolve much of the hold the Origin Myth still has over Dallas.

How would you say Dallas sits today, in terms of the alliances or conflicts among blacks, browns, and whites, and how has that changed over the years? Are we condemned to repeating history, or is there any progress?

Dallasites aren’t told that the city’s past has been defined by violence, conflict, and oppression, so they see the ugly squabbles today between blacks, browns, and whites and think this is without precedent. Actually, I think intense debates over the role of racism in Dallas politics, the corruption at City Hall, over what should be the city’s priorities, and over issues like immigration and environmental racism are healthy and the first step toward creating a more genuinely democratic city.

Photo Courtesy of Dallas Historical Society


White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001, University of Texas Press, 2006. $19.95, paperback.

Comments