Wilson Center Experts

Neil Foley

Fellow
United States Studies

Expertise:
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Associate Professor of History, University of Texas
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Jim Crow Good Neighbors: Black and Latino Civil Rights Politics in World War II-Era Texas and the Southwest, 1940-1964"
Term:
Sep 01, 2007
-
Dec 01, 2007

My interest in the history of race relations in the U.S. stems in part from having grown up in the Washington DC area as a "white" person of Mexican and Irish ancestry. In southern New Mexico, where my mother grew up, most people were either "Anglos" or "Mexicans," unlike in the South where folks were either black or white. Race meant different things in different parts of the country. I became interested in the historical construction of "white," "black," "Asian," and "Latino," particularly in the last half of the twentieth century when Latinos gradually came to displace African Americans as the nation's largest minority group. After completing a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Michigan, I began teaching 20th-century U.S. history and Mexican American studies at the University of Texas. My first book, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas (Berkeley, 1997), examined how the black-white racial binary of the U.S. South was transformed in the first half of the twentieth century when cotton culture fused with Anglo-Mexican ranching culture in Texas. In this region of Texas where the cultures of the South, the West, and Mexico overlapped, the emergence of a rural class of "poor whites" made whites conscious of themselves as a racial group and fearful that if they fell to the bottom, they would lose the privileges that came with being accepted for what they were not--black, Mexican, or foreign born. Eugenicists, like Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, had lost confidence in the social Darwinist notion of "survival of the fittest"; what worried them most was survival of the unfit. The scourge of the South was not cotton or poor whites, I argued, but the idea of whiteness itself--not simply as the pinnacle of ethno-racial 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. By situating these narratives within broader economic and political transformations in the first half of the twentieth century, The White Scourge bridged the chasm between two distinct historiographies: African Americans and the South, and Mexican Americans and the Southwest.Six years ago I had the opportunity, through a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, to teach American Studies classes in Berlin on race, citizenship, and national identity in comparative perspective. I developed courses, graduate and undergraduate, to explore citizenship rights in three racially diverse nations--France, Germany, and the U.S.--and how national policies towards immigrants shed light on contending notions of national identity. In graduate seminars, for example, we compared the U.S.-Mexico Bracero Guest Worker Program (1942-1964) and Mexican immigration to the U.S. with Germany's Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program for Turkish citizens in Germany (whose offspring were finally granted birth-right citizenship in 2000), and the growing population of underemployed and estranged youth of African and Arab descent in France (who rioted in the banlieue of Paris last year). During the course of the year I was invited to give public lectures on these topics at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University of Berlin; Iberische und Lateinamerikanische Geschichte at the University of Cologne; the James-F-Byrnes Institut/Deutsches-Amerikanisches Zentrum in Stuttgart; the History Department at Freiburg Universität; and the W.E.B. DuBois Lecture at Humboldt Universität, Berlin. This experience reinforced for me the importance of placing U.S. history in global context and producing scholarship that incorporates transnational and comparative perspectives, which is one of the objectives of my current book project.
 

Education

B.A., University of Virginia; M.A., Georgetown University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan
 

Subjects

Civil Liberties/Civil Rights
 

Experience

  • Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, 2007-08
  • American Philosophical Society Fellow, 2006-07
  • Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas, 2002-06
  • Fulbright Senior Professor in American Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, 2000-01
  • Series Co-Editor: American History and Culture, New York University Press
  • Associate Professor, Department of History and American Studies, University of Texas, Austin, 1997-present
  • Associate Director, Center for Mexican American Studies, UT Austin, 1996-97
  • Ford Foundation/National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, 1992-93
  • Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Texas, Austin, 1991-96

    Expertise

    Twentieth Century U.S. history, Race Relations, Latinos in the U.S., Mexican Immigration, Civil Rights, Labor, Post-World War II social and political history

Project Summary

This study examines the various strategies--legal, labor, and political--of Mexicans and blacks in Texas and the Southwest within the context of World War II, the Cold War, national civil rights struggles, Mexican consular advocacy in the Southwest, the U.S. Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America, and Mexican immigration/Bracero guest worker program (1942-1964). A important part of this study involves the role of Mexico and the Mexican government in invoking President Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy"--hemispheric stability through cooperation and trade with Latin American nations rather than military intervention--during and after World War II to persuade state and federal officials in the U.S. to end formal segregation of Mexican immigrant workers and Mexican Americans. While Cold War realpolitik required that the federal government not ignore the extent to which Jim Crow damaged the image of the U.S. abroad, Mexican Americans in the Southwest exploited the wartime necessity of "good neighbor" diplomacy with Latin America, as well as the "American dilemma" of fighting against Nazi racism abroad while tolerating it at home.

Major Publications

  • "Over the Rainbow: Hernandez v. Texas, Brown v. Board of Education, and Black v. Brown." Chicano-Latino Law Review (UCLA) 25 (Spring 2005): 139-152. Reprinted in Michael A. Olivas, ed. "COLORED MEN and HOMBRES AQUI": Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2006.
  • "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line." In Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the US South and Southwest, edited by Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2004. Pg. 341-55. Reprinted in Donna R. Gabaccia and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds. American Dreaming, Global Realities: Rethinking U.S. Immigration History. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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