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.