Not Rick Perry's Texas

As Rick Perry stumbles towards the New Hampshire primaries, the national media continues to engage in one of its favorite pastimes -- ridiculing the Lone Star State and its conservative extremes. (See "Perry Gains Endorsement from an Arizona Sheriff Tough on Immigration," New York Times, Nov. 29, 2011.) Reporters loved Rick Perry's plan to do away with federal agencies, whichever they were, and oozed outrage over the faded N-word painted on a rock at his childhood hunting camp. The laser beam on conservatism in Texas has also pinpointed the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, counted death row executions, and blasted political cronyism. The images that go along with these stories conjure all the usual Texas stereotypes -- Perry's head on top of a cactus, George W. as a grinning cowboy.

With far-right conservatives vying for more power in Texas and beyond, we need watchdog journalism to expose the reality behind the mythical "Texas miracle." But the headlines obscure another side of Texas that most Americans don't see. Because of its sheer size, Texas has the ability to change the direction of the country. Despite the current Tea Party stranglehold and lackluster Democrats, that change is more and more likely to trend progressive. Signs of the shift are visible just under the surface, from a quick glance at the state's changing demographics to its culture and politics.

Texas is at the leading edge of a profound demographic shift nationally. It's one of the fastest growing state in the nation, made up mostly of Hispanics, African Americans, young people and immigrants from all corners of the globe. In the last decade Texas became one of only four states where whites are no longer in the majority. Three of the country's ten largest cities are in Texas. Houston is the nation's fourth largest city, with the fastest growing middle-class African American population and a large and diverse immigrant community. The Rio Grande Valley is over 80 percent Latino, and one of the fastest growing regions in the country.

The changing face of Texas is impossible to ignore in urban centers, where residents are embracing new ways to live and work in harmony with their neighbors. At the artfully designed Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Houston's diverse Gulfton neighborhood, residents speak more than 16 languages, and hail from Latin America, Pakistan, Vietnam and many other countries. Families take education and citizenship classes, build assets and start small businesses with help from the consumer credit union, and grow food together in a community garden. The neighborhood is abuzz with families optimistic about their future -- not what most east coasters expect when they land in Houston.

The increasing diversity of Texas is especially evident in the state's vibrant and growing creative sector. The state is a hotbed of culture, from the profoundly local to the international. There are expected truckloads of barbeque, Tex-Mex, football, and home brew. But Texas also has the South by Southwest Festival, trailer park eateries serving kebabs to kolaches, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and a hip improv comedy scene. The state has live music galore, from blues to Tejano, Texas swing to Zydeco, indie rock to hip hop and bounce. And, national stereotypes to the contrary, there are thriving cultural scenes all over the state -- not just in Austin. With all this culture, the state is keeping and attracting more and more young people, most of them progressives.

The blend of communities in the state is spawning new forms of culture that bring many Texans together -- a consequence of immigration that belies the border vigilantism of national headlines. The Accordion Kings and Queens Festival is a case in point. The accordion spread like wildfire in Texas in the early 20th century, from German and Czech immigrants in the hill country to Mexicans near the border and African-Americans in east Texas. Polkas morphed into Conjunto and Zydeco, now vibrant musical traditions that continue to attract young, talented musicians. White, brown and black high school kids from all over Texas jam together as they prepare to compete annually to become Big Squeeze Accordion Champion. These kids are harbingers of a future that embraces our traditions and cultivates new ones.

Even politically, the conservative reflection on the state's surface obscures the shifting reality of the state. Seeing only Bush and Perry, most progressives write off Texas as a solidly red state. That ignores the state's history and oversimplifies the political landscape. Texas has always had a strong liberal vein to contradict the state's conservative moniker -- think of LBJ, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordon, Molly Ivins, William Wayne Justice, and Jim Hightower. In contrast to the entrenched conservatism of the state legislature, the major cities are now run by can-do progressive mayors, like Anise Parker in Houston and Julian Castro in San Antonio.

It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that -- even with conservatives in charge -- the Texas legislature chose not to pass a slate of anti-immigrant bills last session. There's a reason why Rick Perry and George W. Bush had sensible positions on immigration before the right wing shut them up. Republican leaders in Texas may just be a little more forward-thinking than their counterparts in other states like Arizona and Alabama. Other states have much to learn from the growing number of Hispanic leaders in Texas business and government, and the relative success of immigrant integration in Texas cities.

In fact, by many measures Texas is already a majority progressive state. So why do conservatives continue to dominate state and federal office? One reason is clear. Texas has the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation -- only 32 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2010 elections, and rates were even lower among Latinos and young people. A history of disenfranchisement and voter suppression has kept too many Texans away from the polls, and those in power want to keep it that way. If Texans work together to overcome these obstacles and claim their right to shape the state's future, we'll see far fewer Tea Party members in office and far more potential for policies that help lift everyone's boat.

It would be folly to sugarcoat the state's very real challenges, exacerbated by the recession. Texas has sobering statistics on education, poverty, health care, and crime that vividly illustrate the dangers of having no social safety net. Last year the Tea Party helped cinch an overwhelming Republican majority in the state legislature, which ushered in drastic cuts to government spending that will make life even harder for low-income Texans. Change won't come overnight. But Texas is at a tipping point, and the rest of the country should look beyond the national headlines and take notice.

Ann Beeson is the former Associate Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and former Executive Director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations. She has recently moved home to Austin, Texas after many years in New York.