Home » Analysis » History and Memory: Racism in Texas

History and Memory: Racism in Texas

Those of us who have worked at the Elections Division of the Texas Secretary of State before and after the 2008 presidential election are bemused by national arguments regarding structural racism and voting, because hardly a week passes at that office without a direct and visceral reminder of the deeply engrained racial prejudices that mar the cultural character of Texas.

That this is so was a surprise to me, because in my naive way, I had thought that if nothing else, the Civil Rights Movement had at least had the effect of making overt racism socially unacceptable. I suppose overtly expressed personal racism does still carry some social stigma, at least for most people. But some people clearly feel that they have been given license by mainstream media demagogues to give full flower to their personal racial biases.

My impressions are anecdotal, and I am not attempting to offer a rigorously scholarly analysis of the origins or extent of Texas racism. Think of this post instead as a series of brief sketches of what I (as a naive white male) learned about Texas from my election-related job:

1. Texas is a Southern State

As a kid growing up, I was told by more than one teacher that slavery was not a vital component of the antebellum economy of Texas, and that the plantation model of agricultural development common in many of the other Southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana was not particularly prevalent here. Ranching and cattle production didn’t make use of a massive indentured labor force, and so to the extent that Texas aligned itself with the powerhouse slave states, it was because of more general cultural identifications, and a political reaction to Mexico (where slavery was at least technically illegal).

Ah, but this was not so.

Slave ownership and the use of slave labor was extensive in Texas, on a scale roughly equal to that found in Louisiana and North Carolina, based on 1860 census records provided by the University of Virginia (at http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/). In absolute numbers, Texas had fewer slaves in 1860 (around 180,000) than Louisiana (332,000) or North Carolina (331,000), but in proportion to the state population, the ratio of slaves to non-slaves was about the same in all three states (around 29% for Louisiana, and around 28% for Texas and North Carolina). Plantation agriculture was a significant revenue producer in Texas, and the wealthiest members of Texas society were slave-holding plantation owners. Randolph B. Campbell, “SLAVERY,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/yps01), accessed September 02, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association. Moreover, slavery was rapidly expanding in Texas, and likely would have dominated the agricultural economy of North Central Texas as soon as adequate rail service had developed, but for the intervening emancipation following the Civil War. Id.

2. Racism Dies Hard in Texas

One might echo Chief Justice Roberts’ rather sophistical take on history and argue, “Well, but you’re talking about ancient history. I mean, who cares what happened 150 years ago? For that matter, who cares what happened 35-40 years ago (i.e., when Congress did extensive fact-finding in the course of renewing the protections of the Voting Rights Act)? I mean, it just isn’t cricket to penalize states for prior bad acts by forcing them to let us look over their shoulders when they fiddle about with election-related laws.”

This sort of anti-intellectual take on history is profoundly irritating, especially coming from a court whose members are presumably acculturated to the basic tenets of the common law (namely, that authority is authority, even if it was expressed a thousand years ago), but we’ll leave the field to Justice Ginsberg, who no doubt will eventually be vindicated in this stupid debate.

Taking Chief Justice Roberts’ criticism to heart, I’ll confine myself to various suffrage-related bad acts that occurred within the last 10 years in Texas. I hope that the Chief Justice’s memory can stretch back that far, because we are talking about events that occurred in the dim recesses of recorded history, if you happen to be a fruit fly.

First, this bit of antiquity from www,civilrights.org:

In 2003, Harris County election officials failed to comply with Section 203 by not providing Vietnamese ballots on its electronic voting machines. The county attempted to fix this first noncompliance problem by creating paper ballot templates in Vietnamese, but these were not made available to voters at polling sites. Thus, no bilingual assistance was made available to the Vietnamese voters in Harris County for the 2003 election.

Pressure by the Asian American Legal Center of Texas, a local community-based organization, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and the Department of Justice resulted in an agreement whereby the County agreed to ensure compliance with Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, including a full-time employee to coordinate the Vietnamese election program for all elections within the County; establishment of an advisory group to assist and participate in the Vietnamese language program; and requirement in most cases of a bilingual poll worker where a polling place has more than 50 Vietnamese-surnamed registered voters at the time of an election.

In the wake of these changes, the November 2004 election saw the first and only Vietnamese candidate, Hubert Vo, win a legislative seat in Harris County. (http://www.civilrights.org/voting-rights/vra/real-stories.html#harris)

On a broader scale, why not ask some elderly person about the 2003 racial gerrymandering in Texas? Emily Bazelon recalled the following:

The voters of District 23 sent a Democrat to Congress every term until the 1992 election. At that point, following the 1990 census, which gave Texas three additional seats, District 23 was redrawn to include a Republican-leaning part of San Antonio. Republican Henry Bonilla won the 1992 election. And in 2003, the district was redrawn again to keep him there, by moving 100,000 Latinos out.

Bonilla was still in office in 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that District 23 violated the Voting Rights Act. The act bars states and cities from discriminating against minority voters with crude tools like poll taxes and literacy tests (and in our time, some voter ID requirements); it also aims to ensure that when district lines are redrawn, they can’t be gerrymandered in a way that dilutes the electoral power of minorities. District 23 was supposed to be a Hispanic opportunity district—one in which Latinos could potentially elect their preferred candidate despite the racially polarized voting patterns of Anglos in the area. From ’92 on, Latinos were voting against Bonilla in greater numbers each time, nearly ousting him in 2002. But the 2003 map, the Supreme Court said, in essence “took away the Latinos’ opportunity because Latinos were about to exercise it.”

(from Emily Bazelon’s February 11, 2013 article in Slate).

3. How Institutional Racism Happens – A Tale of Two Hurricanes

Hurricane Katrina exposed a number of uncomfortable fault lines in American culture with respect to poverty, social class, and racism. Aside from killing people and destroying politically active African-American middle-class neighborhoods in the Gentilly area of New Orleans (among others), the hurricane scattered two-thirds of the residents of New Orleans to other places, resulting in a huge demographic diaspora.

Many of those displaced New Orleans voters more-or-less permanently resettled further down the Gulf Coast, in Houston and elsewhere. There was considerable anxiety among certain groups of conservative white voters that these transplant voters (the majority of whom were black) would “steal” elections by fraudulently registering to vote in Texas.

Ultimately, the relocation of New Orleans voters didn’t significantly affect any state or local Texas elections, but even as late as the 2012 elections, anxious voters were calling our office, worried that black voters formerly from Louisiana would somehow “throw” the electoral votes for Texas to Obama. (Such an outcome would have been demographically impossible, and tended to be a concern only for unsophisticated voters with an incomplete understanding of the electoral process).

In 2008, Hurricane Ike caused widespread devastation along the Texas coast, particularly to buildings and homes in and around the island City of Galveston. Reconstruction went fairly quickly, except in one area. Due to storm damage, the city lost all 569 available units of affordable housing formerly administered by the Galveston Housing Authority.

There was strident opposition to the reconstruction of any affordable housing AT ALL within the city, essentially on the grounds that people on welfare shouldn’t live in Galveston. Notwithstanding the pressing demand for affordable housing in Galveston, or the fact that the population served by affordable housing is not a fortiori “on welfare,” as of five years after the storm, GHA has constructed and administers a total of only 52 units of Section 8-compliant affordable housing in Galveston.

A phone conversation I had with a Galveston County official made the real reason for residents’ hostility to affordable housing abundantly clear.

The official called to express skepticism and shock that displaced residents of Section 8 housing could still legally claim residence inside the City of Galveston. After all, their houses had been knocked down; so why were they still claiming that they lived in the city? I explained that regardless of the length of time they were absent from their home, their displacement by disaster didn’t make them any less “real” residents of the city, and that they could continue to vote absentee by requesting ballots by mail.

The official was not convinced, and tried to point out that these voters (who happen to be African-American) are the “wrong element.” She hastened to assure me that it wasn’t because they’re black, but because they were poor, marginal people; a source of crime, drug use, and economic decline. Surely they would be happier if they registered to vote at whatever spot they were now living.

Sad to say, at least some residents of Galveston saw the hurricane as an opportunity to do a little pruning of the voter registration list in order to remove undesirables, who only coincidentally happened to be predominantly black and poor.

I could go on. And on. Look up the travails of black college students in Waller County, and the extremes to which that county has gone to keep blacks from voting. Look up the incendiary racial politics of Pasadena, Texas, or of Baytown, or of the justly infamous Vidor. The potentially dispiriting circumstances are such that at least some of the battles that had been fought and won in 1975 must now be re-fought and re-won.


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