Protecting the "White Citizen Worker": Race, Labor, and Citizenship in South-Central Arizona, 1929-1945

By Meeks, Eric V. | Journal of the Southwest, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Protecting the "White Citizen Worker": Race, Labor, and Citizenship in South-Central Arizona, 1929-1945


Meeks, Eric V., Journal of the Southwest


In June 1930, the Arizona State Federation of Labor (ASFL) called for new restrictions on Mexican immigration in order to protect the status of "white citizen workers of Arizona and other Southwestern states." (1) Arizona's trade unions had repeatedly pressed for anti-immigration legislation over the previous two decades, and in so doing they often conflated national identity with race, using the terms white, American, and citizen interchangeably. The Great Depression amplified existing fears that Mexican workers were competing for jobs and degrading the economic, cultural, and racial status of the region's Anglo-American working class. Pressure from Arizona unions and politicians, and from other Southwestern states, soon compelled the U.S. Department of Labor to restrict immigration and initiate a nationwide "repatriation" campaign during which some half million Mexican immigrants, and thousands of Mexican Americans, were deported. (2)

Ironically, once Arizona agriculture began to rebound in 1933, the Anglos who had replaced deported Mexican workers faced questions about their own fitness for full citizenship. The ASFL theory that deportation would uphold or uplift the status of "white citizen workers" proved erroneous. As Anglo migrants from the Great Plains began working under the same substandard conditions as their Mexican and Indian antecedents, the boundaries of whiteness blurred. Incoming migrants were labeled with such derogatory terms as "Okie" and "white trash" and were shuttled into neighborhoods populated largely by nonwhites. Nevertheless, most of the newcomers refused to see ethnic Mexicans and Indians--or the growing number of black workers--as their equals. Many, if not most, viewed their own unfortunate circumstances as temporary, and they held on to their faith that they could work their way up the agricultural ladder, if not into new occupations altogether. (3)

For many, their expectations for upward mobility would prove well founded. Historian Marsha Weisiger has shown that, by the end of the Great Depression, the majority of the "Okies" found their way into better-paying, often unionized jobs, and, in many cases, into the middle class. Weisiger attributes this success to "gumption, hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck," arguing that race had little to do with their experiences. (4) This essay, by contrast, contends that we cannot understand the concurrent success of the Anglo migrants and persistent subjugation of Mexican and Indian farmworkers without focusing squarely on race. While the Anglo workers certainly faced extremely difficult circumstances, ultimately, the boundaries of whiteness were not irrevocably damaged. Their successes in working their way out of poverty, when examined against the failure of most regional ethnic and Indian workers to do the same, can only be explained by understanding the central role that race played in defining the regional class structure in Arizona cotton country.

This essay contributes in two ways to current scholarship about race, labor, and citizenship in the twentieth-century Southwest and, more broadly, to recent debates over how the concept of whiteness has evolved over time in the history of the United States. First, while many scholars have focused on how various groups of European immigrants "became white" in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the story of Okies in Arizona reveals how a population that had long been deemed white temporarily saw its privileged racial status threatened. (5) Second, however, I caution that this point should not be taken too far. Historian Neil Foley has argued that in Texas poor Anglos lost some of their whiteness in the 1930s, and that whiteness remained fractured even after the Great Depression due to the loss of status of yeomen farmers who had fallen off the agricultural ladder, becoming "semi-white" farmworkers. (6) This article draws some of the same conclusions, but with two important distinctions: In Arizona, there had never been a class of yeoman farmers comparable to what had existed in the south-central Plains states, and thus there was no comparable ladder from which to fall. …

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