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After the nation watched a Minneapolis police officer murder George Floyd two summers ago, Gov. Greg Abbott promised Floyd's Houston relatives that his death would not be in vain — and signaled an openness to pursuing police reforms.
But even as millions of Americans protested excessive force, systemic racism and law enforcement’s treatment of people of color, Abbott quickly pivoted to defending police funding while remaining relatively quiet on overhauling public safety practices. Earlier this month, Abbott appointed an Austin police officer indicted for excessive force during the 2020 protests to the state agency that regulates law enforcement — which brought swift criticism for the message it sent to Black Texans.
Not that Chas Moore, an Austin activist who helped organize some of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, was surprised by the actions of the governor, who is white. After all, Texas is the birthplace of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people. And it is frequently a political harbinger in a country with a long history of racism, discrimination and oppression.
“There’s always been an attack on our very existence,” Moore said. “We’re not new to this, we’re true to this … it’s sad to say that we’re true to daily struggles of just existing as Black people.”
Floyd’s death and the massive demonstrations that followed it were part of a seemingly endless onslaught of upheaval, crises and emergencies that have trickled into every aspect of daily life — from the economy and health care to public safety and education — for the past two years. For Black people, deaths, illness, job loss and economic insecurity wrought by the coronavirus pandemic have compounded those traumas.
And in Texas, those seismic forces have been accompanied by a Republican-controlled state government that has limited how America’s history of racism is taught in public schools, restricted voting options heavily used by people of color and protected the GOP’s grip on power with new political maps that diminish the power of voters of color — who accounted for 95% of the state’s population boom between the last two censuses.
“What we’re dealing with now in Texas is not new,” said Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, a history professor at Texas Southern University. “It’s still about impacting the strength of the Black vote.”
Texas is home to more Black Americans than any other state — more than 3.8 million, about 13% of the state’s population. The state was founded by white men who were determined to expand slavery westward — the conflict that sparked the Civil War. Today, white men are overrepresented in the Legislature. At the start of the 2021 regular legislative session, there were 17 Black lawmakers in the 150-member Texas House — 16 Democrats and one Republican. Only two Black senators, both Democrats, serve in the 31-member Texas Senate. A few Black Texans have held statewide office, but none have made it to the senior-most executive and legislative positions.
Black Texans’ experiences of the past two years — and how they’re looking ahead to the November midterm elections and next year’s legislative session — are as varied as the individuals themselves. Some Black Republicans, for instance, don’t think that everything should be viewed through a lens of race. Robin Armstrong, who recently made an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for a Texas Senate district that includes Galveston, said that people use the “offense of racism” to control Black Texans.
“If we see everything through that, then we’re always going to have an excuse to fail,” Armstrong said.
But nearly a dozen Black Texans who talked to The Texas Tribune see racism in state leaders’ actions. Some have wondered if remaining in the state makes sense for them. Others are determined to stay and advocate for a more equal and just government.
“If we all run, who’s going to be here to change some of the policies, change some of the laws and change some of the minds of people that are in control and power so that we are able to make it a better place?” said Naomi Green, a transgender woman who volunteers with multiple LGBTQ advocacy organizations in North Texas. “Who’s gonna be here to do that?”
Some turn to human connections made in their own daily lives as a way to focus on the joys in the world, rather than completely fixate on the hardships. Some Black Texans draw strength from their ancestors’ resilience, while others point out that the constant fighting for survival is utterly exhausting.
“We’ve been through Jim Crow, we’ve been through the ‘war on drugs,’ we’ve been through the ’90s crime bill,” Moore said. “We’ve been through redlining with banks, we’ve been through work discrimination. It’s just kind of what it is. We’ve always, in that same breath, been organizing and fighting for humanity and fighting for our rightful place in society as Americans.”
Perseverance and pain
The history of Black people in Texas is a story of resilience.
Enslaved people in Texas were proclaimed free on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The Juneteenth commemoration has been a Texas state holiday since 1980 and was recognized as a federal holiday in 2021.
In a state where the scars of Jim Crow segregation still linger, Black students today find themselves turning up at weekend brunch parties, Greek Life events and Black History Month observances on campuses that refused to entertain their applications a few decades ago. Many excel at institutions established by Black pioneers. Thousands have voted for Black legislators in a state where thousands used to gather for Black lynchings.
Faith Anderson grew up in East Austin in the 1990s. Local culture was everything to Anderson. They attended several Black-owned charter schools that accommodated students’ various learning styles. There was East Side Story, an afterschool program started by neighborhood legend Larry Jackson. Kids would go to youth dances. Sliding to Highland Mall on Saturdays was still the move.
Today, the 29-year-old is a director, actor, pilates coach and trauma-informed yoga teacher. They have leaned heavily into arts and community building as a way to preserve their own mental health — and bring joy to others.
“I do think we are the people who are reflecting and giving fun and a breath of air to this painful society,” they said.
But for some Black Texans, resilience takes a toll — and some wonder what their lived experiences would be like if they didn’t always have to put so much emotional labor into persistently fighting for equality.
One 32-year-old Black Texan, whose name is X, has worked in service of Black communities for most of their adult life. They helped during recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the cataclysmic Louisiana hurricane that killed more than 1,800 mostly Black people and displaced millions of others. Nearly 20 years later, they are still busy overseeing House of Rebirth, a Dallas organization advocating for Black trans women. They feel a constant tension between fighting for people’s rights and equality — and a sense that it’s inherently unequal to have to do so.
“At the end of the day, if I could have just been born free … I can’t imagine that I would be doing this,” X said.
Which Anderson gets. That’s a major reason why they stepped back from grassroots activism and now focuses largely on artistic endeavors meant to replenish people’s souls.
“I do think some of us are better suited in different places,” Anderson said.
A budding leader
Kennedy McGregor is entering her junior year at the University of North Texas in Denton as president of the school’s Progressive Black Student Organization. She has spent some of the summer trying to figure out the organization’s identity — finding a sweet spot between grassroots activism and serving as a safe space for Black students. The 20-year-old from Round Rock is also trying to keep her head in current events as much as possible to stay informed.
The leadership opportunity feels surreal considering she started college during the fall 2020 semester — when classes operated in a hybrid format because of the coronavirus and when much of the country stood off balance from Floyd’s murder. Months before McGregor arrived on campus, Darius Tarver, a 23-year-old Black student, was shot and killed by Denton police. Tarver’s family has filed a lawsuit seeking damages, asserting that police used excessive force.
“First, it kind of made me want to withdraw from things a little bit more because everything that was happening in 2020, with Black Lives Matter and then even nowadays where there’s grocery store shootings, church shootings, school shootings,” McGregor said, “it just made me want to withdraw because I’m like, am I even gonna be safe out here? Like, is there even a point of me doing all this and changing all this?”
But when McGregor joined the organization during her freshman year, she immediately identified with members’ raw and real vibe. Students were not consumed with trying to act overly flashy or classy. They prioritized getting to know one another through stimulating conversations, group meetings and social events.
That sense of grounding and belonging was exactly what she unsuccessfully sought in her predominantly white high school in an Austin suburb. For years, she tried to fit in and gain her white friends’ acceptance. Then came a devastating realization: They didn’t all respect her.
In the 11th grade, as she sat with some of her schoolmates in the local high school library, a white male friend unexpectedly walked up with a handful of students to harass her. Together the white students started shouting the N-word at the dark-skinned Black girl. Over and over and over. Even though there was no physical attack, she still felt like she’d been verbally jumped.
“It just scared the mess out of me,” she said. “It was just a real trigger for a while just to even hear their names or see them at school. So it was something I really struggled with.”
McGregor’s high school experience in part moved her to join the primarily Black student organization at UNT. The recent string of events has contributed to her longing to work in the service of more people who look like her.
Approaching the fall semester, at another moment when many Black Texans don’t feel that the state and country are working in their best interests, McGregor bears a heightened sense of responsibility to show up on campus ready to help those searching for guidance.
“I’m just trying to prepare myself and be as educated on what’s going on as I can,” McGregor said, “so that way I’m not biasing people, but I’m giving them information through someone who is familiar to them and … isn’t trying to trick them.”
Targeted on two fronts
Black trans women are fighting a battle on two fronts — one related to their race and the other having to do with their gender identity.
Since Green, the Garland woman who volunteers for several advocacy groups, began working in Texas, the state GOP has sought to limit access to LGBTQ-themed books in schools and vowed to restrict or ban classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity. Lawmakers have already passed a law that requires student-athletes to play on sports teams that correspond to their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity. And state leaders have pushed to open child abuse investigations of parents who allow their children access to gender-affirming care.
Republicans also passed a law limiting classroom discussions about race and slavery’s role in the shaping of the country. Many Republican officials and parents criticized diversity and equity initiatives — and social studies lessons about slavery and racism — as attempts to make white students feel guilt or discomfort, something some school officials called a “manufactured crisis.”
A Black principal in North Texas — not far from where Green resides — resigned from his position after white officials and parents accused him of “encouraging the disruption and destruction of our district” after he shared the pain he felt over the deaths of three Black Americans: Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
“It’s a constant attack,” Green said. “You’re waiting on the next thing to happen. You’re waiting on the next law, you’re waiting on the next executive order. You’re waiting on the next proposed legislation, you know, you’re waiting on all of these things to happen because it’s been happening. I have not let my guard down.”
Green’s gender transition started in 2006. Looking back, she said her transition wasn’t as difficult as many people’s because she had already graduated from high school and college, started her career and had loving family members who accepted her.
“The thing about it is, for most transgender women of color, specifically, that’s not the case,” she said. “They lack most of those things. And so it’s much more difficult. And I didn’t realize that until I got into this work.”
Black trans women make up two-thirds of the victims of deadly violence in LGBTQ communities across the U.S. since 2013, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Advocates say that Texas officials’ rhetoric and legislation targeting marginalized communities only makes people of color and LGBTQ people more vulnerable.
Green’s motivation is powered by her work helping disempowered and stigmatized people.
“That is what keeps me going — receiving calls and texts and emails and kind gestures from people letting me know that I helped them in some way or that they need my help or that I am making a difference and having an impact,” she said.
Not that it always yields a positive result. Green recently got a call from a colleague asking her to help a trans woman sleeping outside of an office building. The woman had previously tried living in a shelter but left for unknown reasons. But when the colleague asked Green what she could do to help, she realized there were virtually no options available because of Dallas’ scarcity of resources for trans people.
“It’s deflating,” Green said about not being able to help the woman. “It’s sympathy, it’s empathy, you know, it’s feeling helpless in those particular moments. But at the same time, it’s what drives me because it’s something that I know needs to change.”
“Everything you were put on this Earth to be”
At 20 years old, Ryan Douglas finds herself frustrated with the ongoing political and social upheaval that so often impacts Black people much more negatively than their white counterparts. When she was younger, the Carrollton native had already decided there wasn’t really a future for her in Texas.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, a procedure Black women use at the highest rates. It was a decision many saw as a devastating revocation of settled law — and another attack on women’s rights. And Texas has a “trigger law” in place to now ban virtually all abortions this month.
That sealed the deal for the North Carolina A&T State University junior. She doesn’t want to live in Texas long term after she graduates partly because she’s lost faith that women of color will gain equitable political ground.
“I just don’t see it changing anytime soon,” she said. “It’s been this way for so long.”
But Ashton Woods, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, plans to stay in place. He most recently organized a demonstration outside of the Republican Party of Texas’ state convention. He understands that heading into the November midterm elections, there are fewer voting options than in 2020. His message to the thousands of people who showed up to protest was simple: Hold elected officials accountable and hold your neighbors accountable.
“I love the whole idea of being able to vote at midnight; I did love the idea of being able to drive-thru. I liked all of that,” Woods said.
For him, a piece of the antidote is still casting ballots, despite attempts that make it less convenient.
“We’ve always adapted,” he said. “So we’re just gonna have to do what we gotta do to get people to the polls.”
First: Ashton Woods, co-founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston, continues to mobilize voters and has even run for office. Last: Milton Harris, executive director of 100 Black Men of San Antonio, runs a training center that mentors Black youth in self-empowerment. Credit: Annie Mulligan and Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune
Milton Harris, the 54-year-old executive director of 100 Black Men of San Antonio, a youth training and support organization, views officials’ actions as attempts to knock Black Texans off their destined paths. The Air Force veteran said that as long as the “white caucasian male” power structure lasts, Black people will face strife. His organization uses job training, teaching and mentorship to show young people how to overcome those hindrances.
“Things are gonna be adversarial because it’s all about power and control,” Harris said. “But that should not and cannot prevent you from being everything you were put on this Earth to be and potentially, at some point, bringing about change.”
Moore, of the Austin Justice Coalition, also said Black Texans need to focus on holding officials accountable. To incite meaningful change, he said, they will need to mobilize more outside of mass demonstrations. He says, “something is going to have to give.”
He also plans to stay in Texas — even though he does sometimes entertain the idea of living somewhere else.
“Yes, I fantasize about being at a Black-ass brunch in Harlem, but I can’t do that and rest peacefully knowing that there are Black people that can’t up and leave if they wanted to, and they don’t want to leave because they have culture and heritage and history here,” Moore said. “I have to fight to make sure that Black people have the freedom and self will to call any place home, you know? So why not fight? This land is my land just as much as anybody else’s.”
Disclosure: Human Rights Campaign, Texas Southern University - Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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