Michael Phillips. White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. 267 pp. ISBN 0-292-7127-X. Reviewed by Guy Lancaster, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

“This work ultimately is a case study on the evolution of white identity in American politics,” writes Michael Phillips of his book, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 (179).  The result proves to be a great application of modern “whiteness studies” (as it has emerged from social and literary theory) to the history of a particular city. Phillips's intriguing study of Dallas from its founding to the turn of the twenty-first century invites others, by dint of its fine example, to attempt their own studies tracking the interaction of race and religion in other parts of the country. The author writes the history of Dallas in much the same way that Howard Zinn writes the history of the United States, aiming for the untold story—in this case, the means by which elite powers have conceptualized and implemented their dominance through the artificial construct of white identity.

“. . . Phillips does not hesitate to call things as he sees them, noting that, even in the first few decades of Dallas's existence, “'wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a small, slaveholding elite.'”  


Of course, the assertion that certain elite powers have long dominated political affairs can still result in rolled eyeballs or accusations of communist sympathies from some, but Phillips does not hesitate to call things as he sees them, noting that, even in the first few decades of Dallas's existence, “wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a small, slaveholding elite” (21). In the beginning, the city's leaders were working to convince lower-class whites that the only divisions of importance were those between black and white. This race-based division would be the primary means of controlling lower-class whites through much of Dallas's history, and as the elites had control of the formal mechanisms of memory, they have been able to project backward the image of a city free of racial disturbances, a city of people content with their place in the scheme of things. Phillips makes a convincing argument for whiteness being the means by which power was formulated in Dallas, with the tantalizing prospect of conditional white identity held out to certain non-black minority groups in return for conformity on larger issues, just as whiteness could be conditionally denied to lower-class Anglo-Saxons who bucked the trend and thus revealed themselves to be “white trash,” creatures apart from the elite Anglo Saxon race. “Divide and conquer” never had a better example than Dallas, and Phillips notes that these practices continue today as African Americans are forced from neighborhoods condemned to make way for new high-value urban housing.  Furthermore, black and Hispanic residents continue fighting each other for bare bits of privilege.

With regard to the subject of religion, which will be of most interest to readers of this journal, Phillips tackles the subjects of Jewishness and Catholicism as they have related to the privileged position of whiteness. As Eliza R. L. McGraw has noted, “southern Jewishness reinforces the idea that the South is not a monolith,” and the monolith which the Dallas Jewish community undermined was that of white identity, thus resulting in the powers that be essentially “bestowing” whiteness upon those Jews who accommodated elite demands.(1)  Many Jewish groups therefore adopted more Protestant forms of worship and distanced themselves from the black civil rights movement even though they continued to be excluded from country clubs and other elite groups, given the formulation of civil rights as a zero-sum game. A similar dynamic was at work in the city's various immigrant communities, as well as its Hispanic population, whose Catholic religion had long been marked as foreign in origin; acquiring tentative whiteness for many required not just turning their backs upon the Catholic Church but also fighting African-American aspiration for greater freedoms and opportunities.

However, it is Phillips's analysis of the racial and class framework of the theology of native Dallas citizen Cyrus Scofield that feels most relevant to the twenty-first century, given the popularization of his brand of dispensationalism. Not only did his eschatological views allow Jews a pivotal role in God's plan, thus allowing them to achieve some conditional whiteness outside of Protestantism.  Scofield's End Times scenario also posited the rise of the Antichrist by the very democratic measures that Dallas elites, who had long distrusted democracy, termed mob rule or “the political mobilization of dissenters, working-class whites, and blacks” (51). Indeed, Phillips rather successfully links the concept of whiteness, which is formulated as a Manichaean opposite to blackness, with Scofieldian eschatology: “Whiteness, like pre-millennialism, was a theology based on visions of Armageddon. It was not just the desire for the wages of whiteness… that motivated oppressed Jews, Mexican Americans, and white laborers to disdain their black neighbors. If marginalized whites united on any issue, it was to prevent the rule of black undermen, an outcome depicted in the popular culture as a collapse into savagery” (178).

If there is one problem with the book, it is that Phillips sometimes reaches for similarities of situation across Texas or the nation and loses sight of his subject, Dallas. Part of the author's aim is to show that Dallas can be seen as representative of national trends.  For example, he makes a convincing argument that the in-migration of non-Southern folk into the city, which essentially “nationalized” Dallas, only seemed to hasten the extirpation of the black community.  These trends, Phillips argues, indicate that Dallas's racial problems were more than simply Southern. However, his writing on occasion tends toward a “Dallas, too” construction. For example, after noting that Houston school officials fired those teachers who backed the New Deal or Democratic candidates and delayed the teaching of world history and geography until tenth grade to avoid mentioning Karl Marx and the Russian Revolution, he adds, “Such actions took place all over the state, including Dallas” (139). While possibly true, his venture outside of Dallas for examples of what was happening in the city might leave the reader to wonder whether or not his city-specific case is really that strong.

This criticism aside, Phillips has created a tremendously readable and relevant book. Given the increasing influence that Texas has exerted upon national politics, especially with the rise of George W. Bush to the presidency, as well as the replication of the Dallas model of urban race relations across the country, White Metropolis can help to illumine current trends in conservative political thought and fundamentalist religion as they relate to the construct of whiteness. Though whiteness studies certainly has its detractors, Michael Phillips shows the wonderful doors that can be opened with new and emerging theoretical frameworks, and if his study of Dallas is any indication of what is coming down the pike, then the next few years are certain to be exciting times for many academic fields: history, sociology, political science, religious studies, and more.

 Guy Lancaster, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

1.Elizabeth R.L. McGraw, Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 2.


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