Government programs to conserve agrarian whiteness revealed the material and environmental construction of whiteness. Americans both inscribed racial difference in, and drew racial difference from, ideas about soil as well as human relationships to land, plants, soil, and food. In a nation and a region devoted to keeping African Americans in their “place,” New Dealers’ photographs and writings constructed that place all too clearly, yet also, out of public site, described and questioned these meanings of race and land.
Erosion threatened soil and human rootedness on land in 1930s America; it also threatened whiteness. As white families lost land and homes, they slid downward, like silt on a treeless hillside, from the socio-economic tier of landownership and yeoman independence into the gullies and wastelands of tenancy—a “place” historically, socially and agro-ecologically reserved for and defined by non-whites. In seeking to restore white families to security on agricultural land, Farm Security Administration rural rehabilitation programs conserved the material, cultural, and social meanings of race as defined by particular connections to the earth.