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What’s Wrong With Texas?

I moved to Texas when I was twelve. My mom got a job offer in Houston, and off we went, packing up our townhouse in Los Alamitos, California (think: track homes, manicured lawns, the Los Alamitos Racetrack, shag carpeting, strip malls, and a whole bunch of white people) and driving the three days across the desert, most of that through Texas itself.

The personal adjustment was brutal. Even at twelve, I felt as though I’d entered a backwater. Say what you will, but California is a remarkable place, a mecca of creative brilliance, natural beauty, and a sports lover’s topography — the ocean in one direction, snow-capped mountains in the other. I grew up at the Huntington Library, Descanso Gardens, Occidental College’s summer musical theater offerings, the Pasadena Rose Parade, the Civic Ballet, the Pasadena Public Library, and the Norton Simon Museum. These things had woven themselves into the fabric of who I was, and now I found myself living next to a bayou straight out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the cicadas screamed so loudly, all you wanted to do was cover your ears and run.

Twelve is a rough age, especially for a change of that magnitude, but the differences between California and Texas were stark. Money suddenly became an issue, as in if you didn’t have whatever arbitrary amount was considered enough, you were no one. You needed to look a certain way, which I didn’t. Football was a religion, even in middle school, which came as a real shock. At my old school, we had French Club and volleyball. Nobody played football or even cared about it. In Texas, the only thing watched more closely than a football game were the cheerleader tryouts. In Texas, if you were a cheerleader or a football player, you were pretty much at the top of the food chain.

In a moment that to this day feels hauntingly surreal, I realized at age twelve, women in Texas had no worth other than their looks and desirability. We existed only inside the male gaze — correction, the white male gaze. Sure, there were more options than there used to be for women who wanted to jump on the career track, but most girls were going to college for the M.R.S. degrees. They were just less likely to admit it.

White men ruled the roost.

They still do. That’s what’s wrong with Texas. White men are hugely overrepresented in the Texas Legislature. 61% of lawmakers in the state House and Senate are white, even though white Texans make up just 41% of the state’s population. Lack of diversity in the Republican Party is to blame, of course. All but five out of the 100 Republicans in “the Lege” are non-Hispanic white people. They are, in fact, the same white good-ole-boy-Jesus-and-football pork swords I grew up with.

And they’ve got a lock on politics. The Chicago Machine Politics of the 19th and early 20th centuries are nothing compared to the oil-monied Republicans of today. Based on Gross Domestic Product alone, Texas roared into 2021 as the 9th largest economy in the world. It’s a pro-business, screw the environment, I hate libruls, Libertarian wet dream of a state run by scared white men trying desperately to hold on to dwindling power.

The late, great journo and Texas political pundit Molly Ivins once said, “All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people. As long as you don’t think about what that peculiar body should be doing and what it actually is doing to the quality of life in Texas, then it’s all marvelous fun.”

You wouldn’t know Texas was such a prosperous state when you take a look at the numbers. The minimum wage is an abysmal $7.25, which is damn near what you pay to drive twenty miles to work on the tollway. Texas is 29th out of 50 states in terms of median income. It’s a “right-to-work” state, ironic since that means they can fire you at will. Former Governor Rick Perry made a shambles out of healthcare when he refused to expand Medicaid so Texas residents might benefit from the Affordable Care Act. The United Healthcare Foundation ranks Texas as the 16th unhealthiest state due to shockingly high instances of obesity, binge drinking, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and low vaccinations.

Texas actually has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. 96% of Texas counties have no clinic that provides abortions. Governor Greg Abbott has made it his life’s mission to shutter the rest. There’s virtually no gun control, but a concerted effort is underway to sharply curtail voting rights. Texas also ranks 43rd in terms of quality education, in large part because it’s so dismally underfinanced. It’s 49th in the country in per pupil spending — $7,957 per student as opposed to $11,667 on national average, according to this report.

What that tells you is that the Rick Perrys, Ted Cruzes, Greg Abbotts and Dan Patricks of this world (he’s the charmer who suggested seniors are happy to sacrifice their lives in order to reopen the economy in pandemic-riven Texas) are perfectly okay with the idea that they’ve got theirs, so screw you. For them, it’s still a white man’s paradise, facts and the electorate be damned. After all, according to them, Texas is the greatest state in the union, and the Alamo happened exactly as it’s described in every Texas history textbook.

How much longer the WTM (White Texas Male) Hegemony can hang on remains to be seen. Ted Cruz’s Cancun fiasco didn’t help his chances for reelection. Nor has Greg Abbott’s Snowpocalypse, or his double-down on eradicating a woman’s right to choose.

But this isn’t just politics we’re talking about here, it’s Texas politics. As long as Texas has money, it remains a threat to American democracy. Perhaps if the GOP can get out of its own way, disentangle itself from its most dangerous coalition, and start adhering to its basic principles of decency, small “c” conservatism, and obedience to the law, Texas can right its disastrous course. But I don’t see it ending well for them. Texas is too racially diversified. Eventually, ambitious, hands-on Democratic candidates like Beto O’Rourke and others will end the reign of the WTM, at least until the Republicans can reassemble themselves into something approximating a party of human decency.

Mostly, Texas is high on its own supply … of folklore. Cowboys, ranchers, and manifest destiny tell the same story of one white man against the system, whether that system is a starving horde of “Mexican rapists,” a tax-hungry federal government, agricultural inspectors, science (but with a dripping syringe of Covid vaccine in its filthy paw), women’s libbers, “that #MeToo horseshit,” gay weddings, foreigners, or Democrats.

It’s the Lone Star state, as in one. As in that’s exactly how Texans see themselves. It’s: bootstraps, up by, every hour of the day. Failure to keep up means you get left behind.

We got ourselves a nice little boys’ club here, commie, and you ain’t in it.

Texas isn’t a location. It’s a mindset that has existed since a plucky band of white men wrested it away from the Mexicans. Personally, I think Texas needs some new stories, maybe ones about immigrants who have come to start a new life free of poverty and oppression.

Sure, the writing’s on the wall. What happens next remains to be seen. Texas will either adapt to the times, resist, get flooded out, swept off the face of the map by a hurricane, or possibly topple of its own weight.

“I love Texas, but it is a nasty old rawhide mother in the way it bears down on the people who have the fewest defenses,” Ivins wrote in September 2002.

Who could say it better than that?

What are your thoughts on the great state of Texas? I’d love to hear what they are.

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