Texas can credit its new census gains, and two new Congressional seats, to communities of color—on two counts. Not only do we represent a majority of the state’s population growth, but we also did the hard work of collecting the census data. Now we need to ensure that those new seats are allocated in a transparent and fair redistricting process that accurately represents the demographic shifts that are transforming the Texas landscape. What happens here will have a far-reaching impact, not just in the state, but across the nation.
But one thing we know for sure is that we can’t rely on our state government to oversee an equitable process. While states like California earmarked $186 million to ensure an accurate census count, Texas GOP lawmakers actually defunded it. That dereliction of duty pushed the financial and administrative burden of outreach onto local municipalities, churches, and community organizations, who knew what was at stake and stepped up to get the job done. That meant straining resources and risking health at the height of the pandemic to make sure that our neighbors were counted and that Texas gets the representation it needs.
Jolt Initiative, a civic engagement group that I led, was proud to be part of that effort. We spent over a quarter million dollars and trained volunteers to help us knock on doors, make calls, and send emails to educate Texans about why they should participate in the census. In East Houston, while canvassing last January, I met Antonio, mi tocayo, the Spanish word for a person who shares the same name. He had lived in the same house his entire life and Antonio told me that no one in his 60+ years had ever knocked on his door to talk about the census or voting. He’s one of countless elder Texans I met who had never been told their participation in the census mattered.
I knew our outreach was paying off when preliminary census data showed that households in urban areas of Texas had filled out the census at higher rates than those in more rural, Republican-controlled areas. Only then did Republican lawmakers finally announce a$15 million ad campaign to encourage people to participate in the census. I never saw any of the state’s ads in East Houston, yet another example of prejudicial and partisan allocation of public resources. Jolt, like other non-profit groups, created and shared our own ads to make up for that neglect. While we gained two new seats, we know we could have had one more. The lack of investment from the state, coupled with the attempt to add an anti-immigrant citizenship question by the Trump administration, contributed to a potential undercount of Texas’ diverse population.
But no matter how much the majority in the Texas legislature resists, change is inevitable. As of 2019, Latinos accounted for more than half of the state’s population growth; and the early census data from this year shows much of the total population growth is centered around major metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin—all traditional Democratic strongholds. However, you really begin to see what the future holds for Texas and the U.S. when you look at our youth population: almost 69% of Texans under the age of 15 are people of color. Jolt Initiative’s 2018 We Are Texas study found that the top priorities for Latino youth in Texas are healthcare for all, immigration reform, and racial equity.
The Republicans who currently control state government have shown, time and time again, that they will use ruthless measures to stay in power, even if it means denying the essential tenets of democracy. Texas has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation and a history of gerrymandering communities of color out of their rightful representation. Ten years ago, when the 2010 Census count led to four new seats in Congress, a federal court found the state had drawn district lines to disenfranchise voters of color, but the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Texas did not have to redraw district lines.
We can’t let that happen again. According to an analysis by The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan institute focusing on democratic law and policy, Texas is one of four states in the nation tagged with the highest risk of gerrymandering or unfair redistricting. The state has Republican control of the redistricting process, and that happens almost entirely behind closed doors.
Texas can’t afford another 10 years of blatant injustice, and voters of color can’t afford to lose another 10 years of their rightful share of political power. This time around, we need a different process—and a different outcome. First and foremost, this requires the establishment of a non-partisan independent commission to guide a transparent and inclusive redistricting process. States like California and Missouri and 15 others have already adopted non-partisan redistricting to prevent gerrymandering, with widespread public support. However, here in Texas, we will need a strong grassroots campaign to get us there, along with robust education and infrastructure to make it work. And, if history is a guide, we will also need a litigation strategy to fight for a fair process in the courts and then secure implementation.
It’s not an easy lift, but it’s an urgent one. Creating a truly democratic process and securing a more equitable outcome will require not just the hard work of justice and community advocates here in Texas but the attention and support of allies across the country. We can’t do it alone, but Black and Brown voters in Texas can change this nation’s trajectory. We may think of ourselves as the Lone Star State, but when we think about a more equitable future, we’re part of the American galaxy. No matter where in the nation you live, if you care about healthcare access, climate justice, immigration reform, equal pay, and a fair democracy, this is your fight too.
Antonio Arellano is the Senior Strategist of Jolt, a progressive civic engagement organization focused on building the political power and influence of young Latinos in Texas. Twitter:. @AntonioArellano.