Sometime in 2004, the United States Census Bureau tells us that Texas became a majority-minority state. The somewhat paradoxical nature of the phrase “majority minority” aside, the numbers were pretty straightforward. Non-Hispanic white residents, who had dominated the state since its first mass migration in the 1830s, now made up just 49.8 percent of the Texas population. Hispanics made up 34.6 percent, African Americans 12.1 percent, and Asian Americans, American Indians, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders another 4.8 percent. Together, those groups totaled just over 50 percent. An exciting turning point for Texas!
Of course, this didn’t surprise anyone who had been paying attention. Fifteen years earlier, in 1989, the number of Anglo-Saxon newborns had dwarfed by the number of minority births. The future is here!
Likewise, few observers of the state’s demographics were surprised when, in 2022, the Census Bureau’s estimates revealed that Hispanics had become a narrow plurality in Texas. At 40.2 percent of the state’s population, they just surpassed the non-Hispanic white population of 39.4 percent. The state will never be the same!
This is all just a prelude to the big moment, which will probably happen sometime in the 2040s, when Hispanics will become the absolute majority. The revolution is here! Or rather, it will be here in a couple of decades.
It should be noted that the 2004 milestone was not a singular, measurable event. There was no cable news chiron counting down the seconds until the Anglo-Saxons were pushed into the minority. No Latino family sent a Christmas card with a photo of the baby whose arrival tipped the demographic balance. I couldn’t even find a quote from Rick Perry, John Cornyn, or Kay Bailey Hutchison, all of whom were in state offices at the time. We didn’t have a parade.
No, the significance of milestones like this, drawn from data models and numbers crunched by demographers, does not lie in a single day when everything, or anything, really changed. The meaning comes in the days and years and decades that follow.
Those who did comment were confident that change was near. In 2001, seeing demographic changes on the horizon, this magazine wrote“Builded by census data showing an explosion in the Hispanic population and polls showing Texas now second only to New York in black population, Democratic strategists say the key to regaining some statewide offices , all now held by Republicans, is to increase minority voter turnout.”
That same year, while reflecting on the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the state, the chair of the Democratic Party, Molly Beth Malcom told the New York Times, “The political ramifications are great for the Texas Democratic Party.” In 2004, the news that we were now a majority and minority state accelerated these prophecies. University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray said, “Long-term demographic trends suggest that the state will inevitably change in many ways and have a different political balance.”
And somehow these predictions have come true. Many more non-Anglo politicians than ever are running our major and not-so-major cities, our congressional delegation is more diverse than it was at the turn of the 21st century, and George P. Bush‘s tenure as land commissioner was the rare example of a statewide Latino elected official (although a very Anglo-Saxon and very famous last name had a lot to do with it). Think of modern politicians like colin allredLina Hidalgo and Gene Wu: The days when people viewed Barbara Jordan as an exception or an interloper are long gone, and for that we can all be thankful.
However, when you look back at our state political leaders and the priorities of the Texas Legislature, it’s hard to remember a time when our government was less responsive to the concerns of many minority residents. Try to forget for a moment whether you are a conservative or a liberal or something in between. As a simple matter of empirical observation, it is clear that the majority of minorities in the state vote Democratic and that a disproportionate number of people of color live in our urban areas. But despite the huge demographic shift, the Republicans still have control over Lege, where they are undermining the ability to govern our major cities, for example, take over Houston schools and threatening to make Austin a capitol district directed essentially by the Legislature. In other words, the Lege is taking away from many minorities the ability to make their own political decisions.
This is a relatively new development. During the 1990s and early part of this century, Texas Republicans were quite solicitous of Latinos. When he was governor, George W. Bush was proud of his outreach to Hispanic voters, many of whom didn’t seem to mind the broken Spanish he used on the campaign trail. His successor, Rick Perry, spoke out against some of Arizona’s toughest anti-immigrant measures, saying he believed “It wouldn’t be the right direction for Texas.”
Contrast this with Governor Greg Abbott’s eager attempt to show his base that he could bus more immigrants to the northern states, sometimes in the dead of winter, than Ron DeSantis. Or the gleeful willingness of numerous Republican politicians to build an expensive, environmentally ruinous, and ineffective border wall that is damaging an ancient wilderness and a vital, centuries-old border culture.
There’s something weird about this. In 2004, Texas was one of four majority-minority states, along with California, Hawaii, and New Mexico (plus Washington, DC). Since then, Maryland and Nevada have joined that club. In the next few years, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and New York will follow suit. Most of these states have experienced significant political changes along with their changing demographics. New Mexico has transformed from a leading state that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 to a Democratic stronghold. Georgia and Arizona, once bright red, have become battleground states in federal elections, recently ceding control of the US Senate to Democrats. Even the blue California, New Jersey, and New York are far less Republican-friendly than they were twenty years ago. (For complicated reasons: a massive influx of out-of-state Republican voters, a staunchly conservative and influential Cuban-American population, an extremely effective Republican operation, Florida is our fellow outlier on this list.)
And public policy in these states has followed suit in ways that address the concerns of minority residents. Nevada restored voting rights to ex-prisoners; Arizona passed a budget that dramatically increased spending on schools, infrastructure, and public housing; and, in eight of the eleven states with the largest minority populations, possession of marijuana has been legalized and criminal records for possession have been expunged, disproportionately affecting people of color.
So why hasn’t Texas made similar moves? There is no single reason. The rigging of state and federal legislative districts has made it harder for Democrats to win, as has the growing influence of wealthy conservative donors. A shift to the left by members of Generation Z has led many Republicans to move further to the right. And, of course, there is the complicated matter of some latinos moving to the right.
All of those explanations would seem to apply to the other majority:
minority states. And yet New Mexico, which has many conservative Hispanics centuries removed from the immigrant experience, offers free college tuition to high school graduates and has relatively strict gun control laws.
No, something else is at stake here, and I think our Texas-sized sense of state pride is at the center of it all. The Texas identity, as it has been passed down to generations of school-age children, is rooted in a pantheon of mythical freedom fighters, tough individuals, and devoted families. These legends were created by Anglo-Saxons in the 19th century and, with few exceptions, overlook the many people of color who were trampled along the way. The next chapter of Texas history, by contrast, will be dominated by the rise of Hispanic, Black and Asian Texans, making the story of Anglo rule a historic moment receding in the rearview mirror. And that scares the hell out of some people.
None of which is to say we should tear down the Alamo or get rid of Texas history classes in high school (although God knows I wished for that in my school years). Texans love their history in a way that has no equivalent in any other state; our connection to our past is one of our defining characteristics. A Texas devoid of Texas history would basically be Oklahoma with a coastline and better restaurants.
But if we are to move into our majority-minority present and future together, it might make sense to reframe that history as one that belongs to all of us and to get rid of the damaging notion that our ancestors were freer than we were. . In recent years, several scholars, such as Monica Munoz Martinezthey have recovered the stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans killed along the border by vigilantes, including many Texas Rangers. Annette Gordon Reed has brought new attention to the complicated legacy of Juneteenth. Hispanic historians and intellectuals have long challenged the myths constructed about the Anglo Alamo fighters, and in response, a very different version of those stories can now be heard. when you visit the Alamo.
Correcting historical errors in this way is essential work. But if we seek to create a usable past for all, perhaps I should draw attention to another underappreciated fact: For most of our history, it wasn’t just minorities who were crushed by those in power: the vast majority of Anglo-Saxons. they worked. themselves to the bone in desperate poverty as well. This was especially true when we were a cotton economy, but it held up very well after the arrival of Spindletop.
A version of Texas history that emphasizes how harsh this land and climate were on just about everyone, may be a less triumphant version of the Texas history we’re used to. But it is more likely to lead to the triumph of a vibrant civic democracy than the fervent efforts of the Legislature to protect what they see as the “real” Texas of our booming cities and the people who live in them. We might lose a few “Don’t tread on me” flags along the way. But we will also have the opportunity to fight to live up to our much proclaimed ideals.
Austin writer Richard Z. Santos is the author of the novel. Trust me.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The majority does not govern”. subscribe today.