The winter storm that made clear the fragility of Texas’ electric grid also left millions without heat, light, and then water. But the effects of the storm were not evenly distributed.
A Texas-sized winter storm crippled the Lone Star State during the third week in February – Black History Month. It was a catastrophe that also reflected the pervasive history of structural racism in Texas. Black and Latinx families, many already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, experienced power outages, burst pipes, freezing temperatures and water shutdowns that illustrate the hidden cost of racism.
Weeks after the storm, almost 400,000 people remain without clean water – many of them apartment dwellers whose landlords have been slow to respond to the crisis. Black and brown communities are also vulnerable to living in close proximity to environmentally dangerous neighborhoods.
What’s happening in Texas is one facet of a national crisis of race and democracy, one that has been amplified by public policies that have greatly enhanced the power of the wealthy at the expense of the few. The conservative free market ideology that led to the deregulation of Texas utilities has been catastrophic on racially segregated and economically poor communities.
Texas’ failure is also reflective of our larger racial and political divides. Black communities in Houston, some of whom have still not recovered from Hurricane Harvey, have stood in long lines seeking food, water and other resources, weeks after the storm. Black and brown people have been especially vulnerable to freezing temperatures, since they tend to live in older homes and apartments which were hit hardest by the power outages.
The split screen nature of American democracy means that politicians will often lie to impose an alternate reality in service to their own power. This could be seen at the height of the crisis, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attacking the Green New Deal in a rhetorical sleight of hand intended to deflect from his own failed leadership. The failure of the political leadership and moral imagination of the Texas governor is boundless – from prematurely announcing the end of statewide mass mandates to the incompetent approach to the historic winter storm, the Lone Star State has become a national embarrassment. When states like Texas turn public utilities into financial markets that can exploit the nation’s collective resources for private interests, we all lose, especially Black and brown folks.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s now infamous escape to Cancun amid the state’s crisis, while Beto O’Rourke in New York, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez raised millions to help those in need, offers a striking juxtaposition of the twin realities of this moment.
Cruz’s rhetoric helped embolden the white supremacist assault on the nation’s Capitol, even as he failed the minimum test of leadership at home by abandoning his constituents in a time of crisis.
National discussion surrounding ending systemic racism in government, politics and corporate America begins by confronting racism’s structural impact on vulnerable communities. In Texas, that means that Black, brown and other communities of color, alongside the white poor, continue to bear the brunt of environmental and political storms that cast the spotlight on American democracy’s tragic underbelly.
Now, more than ever, Texas needs infrastructure and climate change policies that address structural racism and inequality by centering racial and economic justice.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.