Sometime in 2004, the United States Census Bureau tells us, Texas became a majority-minority state. Setting aside the somewhat paradoxical nature of the phrase “majority minority,” the numbers were fairly straightforward. Non-Hispanic white residents, who had dominated the state since their first mass migration in the 1830s, now made up a mere 49.8 percent of Texas’s population. Hispanics made up 34.6 percent, African Americans 12.1 percent, and Asian Americans, American Indians, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders another 4.8 percent. Together, those groups added up to a bit more than 50 percent. An exciting turning point for Texas!
Of course, this came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Fifteen years earlier, in 1989, the number of Anglo newborns had been eclipsed by the number of births to minorities. The future is here!
Likewise, few observers of the state’s demographics were shocked when, in 2022, Census Bureau estimates revealed that Hispanics had become a narrow plurality in Texas. At 40.2 percent of the state’s population, they just edged out the non-Hispanic white population of 39.4 percent. The state will never be the same!
All of this is just a prelude to the big moment, which likely will happen sometime in the 2040s, when Hispanics will become the outright majority. The revolution is here! Or, rather, it will be here in a couple of decades.
The 2004 milestone, it should be noted, wasn’t a singular, measurable event. There wasn’t a cable-news chyron counting down the seconds until Anglos were thrust into the minority. No Latino family sent out a Christmas card featuring a photo of the baby whose arrival tipped the demographic scales. I couldn’t even find a quote from Rick Perry, John Cornyn, or Kay Bailey Hutchison, all of whom were in statewide office at the time. We didn’t get a parade.
No, the significance of milestones such as this—drawn from data models and numbers crunched by demographers—doesn’t lie in a single day when everything, or anything, really, changed. The significance comes in the days and years and decades that follow.
Those who did comment were confident that change was at hand. In 2001, seeing the demographic shifts on the horizon, this magazine wrote, “Buoyed by census data showing an explosion in the Hispanic population and polls showing that Texas now ranks second only to New York in Black population, Democratic strategists say the key to winning back some statewide offices—all now held by Republicans—is increasing the turnout of minority voters.”
That same year, while reflecting on the state’s fast-growing Hispanic population, Democratic Party chairman Molly Beth Malcom told the New York Times, “The political ramifications are excellent for the Texas Democratic Party.” In 2004 the news that we were now a majority-minority state kicked these prophecies into overdrive. The University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray said, “The long-term demographic trends suggest the state will inevitably change in many ways, and it will have a different political balance.”
And in some ways these predictions have come true. Far more non-Anglo politicians than ever before are running our major and not-so-major cities, our congressional delegation is more diverse than it was at the turn of the twenty-first century, and George P. Bush’s tenure as land commissioner was the rare example of a Latino statewide elected official (though a very Anglo and very famous last name had a lot to do with that). Think of modern pols such as Colin Allred, Lina Hidalgo, and Gene Wu—the days when people regarded Barbara Jordan as an outlier or an interloper are long gone, and for that we can all be grateful.
Yet when you pull back and look at our statewide political leaders and the priorities of the Texas Legislature, it’s hard to remember a time when our government was less responsive to many minority residents’ concerns. Try to forget for a moment whether you’re conservative or liberal or something in between. As a simple matter of empirical observation, it’s clear that the majority of minorities in the state vote Democratic and that a disproportionate number of people of color live in our urban areas. But despite the huge demographic shift, Republicans continue to have a lock on the Lege, where they’re undermining our major cities’ ability to govern by, for instance, taking over Houston’s schools and threatening to turn Austin into a capitol district essentially run by the Legislature. Which is to say, the Lege is taking away many minorities’ ability to make their own political choices.
This is a relatively new development. Through the nineties and the first part of this century, Texas Republicans were fairly solicitous of Latinos. When he was governor, George W. Bush was proud of his outreach to Hispanic voters, many of whom didn’t seem to mind the broken Spanish he employed on the campaign trail. His successor, Rick Perry, came out against some of Arizona’s more stringent anti-immigrant measures, saying he believed “it would not be the right direction for Texas.”
Compare this with Governor Greg Abbott’s eager attempt to prove to his base that he could bus more immigrants to northern states, sometimes in the dead of winter, than Ron DeSantis could. Or numerous Republican politicians’ gleeful willingness to build a costly, environmentally ruinous, and ineffective border wall that is damaging an ancient wilderness and a vital and centuries-old border culture.
There’s something odd about this. Back in 2004, Texas was one of only four majority-minority states, along with California, Hawaii, and New Mexico (plus Washington, D.C.). Since then, Maryland and Nevada have joined that club. Over the next few years, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and New York will too. Most of these states have experienced significant political changes along with their demographic shifts. New Mexico has transformed from a bellwether state that voted for George W. Bush in 2004 to a Democratic stronghold. Formerly bright red Georgia and Arizona have become full-on battleground states in federal elections and recently tipped control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. Even bright blue California, New Jersey, and New York are much less friendly to Republicans than they were twenty years ago. (For complicated reasons—a massive influx of Republican voters from other states, a steadfastly conservative and influential Cuban American population, an extremely effective GOP operation—Florida is our fellow outlier in this list.)
And public policy in these states has followed suit in ways that address minority residents’ concerns. Nevada restored voting rights to former prisoners; Arizona passed a budget that dramatically increased spending on schools, infrastructure, and public housing; and, in eight of the eleven states with the highest population of minorities, marijuana possession has been legalized and prior criminal records for possession have been expunged, which disproportionately affects people of color.
So why hasn’t Texas made similar moves? There’s no single reason. Gerrymandering of state and federal legislative districts has made it more difficult for Democrats to win, as has the rising influence of wealthy conservative donors. A turn to the left by members of Gen Z has prompted many Republicans to move even further to the right. And, of course, there’s the complicated matter of some Latinos moving to the right.
All of those explanations would seem to apply to the other majority-
minority states. And yet New Mexico, which has many conservative Hispanics who are centuries removed from the immigrant experience, offers free college tuition to high school graduates and has relatively strong gun-control laws.
No, something else is at work here, and I think our Texas-size sense of state pride is at the heart of it all. Texas identity, as it has been passed down to generations of schoolchildren, is rooted in a pantheon of mythic freedom fighters, rugged individuals, and devout families. These legends were created by Anglos in the nineteenth century and, with few exceptions, gloss over the many people of color who were trampled along the way. The next chapter of Texas history, by contrast, will be dominated by the rise of Hispanic, Black, and Asian Texans, rendering the history of Anglo dominance a historical moment that is receding in the rearview mirror. And that scares the hell out of some people.
None of which is to say that we should tear down the Alamo or get rid of Texas history classes in middle school (although God knows I wished for that in my school years). Texans love their history in a way that has no equivalent in any other state; our connection to our past is one of our defining features. A Texas bereft of Texas history would basically be Oklahoma with a coastline and better restaurants.
But if we’re going to move into our majority-minority present and future together, it might make sense to recast that history as a story that belongs to all of us and rid ourselves of the damaging notion that our forebears were freer than we are. In recent years a number of scholars, such as Monica Muñoz Martinez, have reclaimed the stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans killed along the border by vigilantes, including many Texas Rangers. Annette Gordon-Reed has brought new attention to Juneteenth’s complicated legacy. Hispanic historians and intellectuals have long challenged the myths constructed about the Alamo’s Anglo combatants, and in response you can now hear a very different version of those stories when you visit the Alamo.
Righting historical wrongs in this manner is essential work. But if we’re looking to create a usable past for everyone, perhaps it should draw attention to another underappreciated fact: for most of our history it wasn’t just minorities who were ground down by those with power—the vast majority of Anglos worked themselves to the bone in desperate poverty too. This was especially true when we were a cotton economy, but it remained so well after Spindletop came in.
A version of Texas history that emphasizes how tough this land and this climate were on virtually everyone may be a less triumphalist version of Texas history than the one we’re used to. But it’s more likely to lead to the triumph of a vibrant civic democracy than the Legislature’s fervent efforts to protect what they see as the “real” Texas from our booming cities and the people who live in them. Maybe we’ll lose a few “Don’t Tread on Me” flags along the way. But we’ll also have a fighting chance to live up to our much-trumpeted ideals.
Austin writer Richard Z. Santos is the author of the novel Trust Me.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Majority Doesn’t Rule.” Subscribe today.