“When white Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. Now I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Many negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made the color of their skin a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”
– Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK on Genuine Equality – NBC News
The quote above is one of my favorite quotes by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although these are words from 1967, they have merit 54 years later. I am the only Black man in the UH Graduate College of Social Work Austin Legislative Internship Program. I say this not to highlight the differences I have with my other esteemed colleagues, but to inform the reader of the unique lens through which I view this experience. Being a Black man navigating this legislative session has been highly challenging, yet extremely rewarding. The Texas Legislature did not plan for people like me to be working in it when it was constructed. I can even feel the deliberate exclusion of people who look like me 133 years after its opening.
I received my undergraduate degree in Social Work from Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in December 2019. My alma mater is a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). I lived in the Deep South my whole life. Although born in Michigan, I lived 12 years in Georgia and 16 years in North Carolina before moving to Texas in August 2020 to start graduate school at the University of Houston. Pro-Blackness is all I know. For my whole life, Black culture and community enveloped me. Someone who looked like me always surrounded me. The times I experienced racism were always outside of my “beloved community.”
In my short time as a Texas resident, I have witnessed overt racism and bigotry like never before. While living in Austin for this internship, it was the first time I can recall in my life where a prominent Black “beloved community” didn’t surround me. Although I have seen and experienced discrimination, racism, and bigotry, I have never had to constantly grapple with it in the way I do as an intern at the Texas Legislature; the rhetoric, the culture. There’s no other way to describe this other than a culture shock.
I find it incongruous that every time the Texas House of Representatives convenes, it begins with an invocation. Many members tout their Christianity and deep faith in their legislative biographies and say very little about their legislative abilities, emblematic of the bills they pass. Immediately after the invocation, bills are debated and passed in the House, which directly conflicts with the faith to which they just pledged allegiance. I, too, am a man of faith and cherish my convictions. However, I do not believe that one should legislate their faith and religious beliefs. In a state as diverse as Texas, it is absurd to assume that all 29 million are Christians.
“Evangelicalism, white supremacy, and politics are all intertwined, and politics are all intertwined, and the Texas Legislature is the perfect example of this issue. This group of policymakers has highlighted several nonissues while ignoring topics such as racial and social injustice and inequity. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2020 didn’t seem to impact conservative, evangelical lawmakers, who sadly are in political control. Instead, attacking Critical Race Theory and African American studies, voting rights, and abortion became a priority for this Session.
Many days I feel like I do not belong. Sometimes I think that accepting this internship was a mistake because what can I do to dismantle this system? I am fortunate enough to take advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help change the narrative. Although not a native Texan, I have drawn inspiration from figures such as the late Mickey Leland, Barbara Jordan, and other current legislature members, such as the member for whom I work, the distinguished Jarvis Johnson, and the eminent Senfronia Thompson. They have taught me, indirectly, to continue the fight and that progress is similar to dripping water. Although change is desired to happen overnight, it often comes as the result of perseverance. One of my favorite quotes says: “Dripping water hollows stone, not by force, but through persistence.”
SHAKING IN MY BOOTS
Oh! That’s right. I don’t have any boots. As a low-income, bisexual, disabled Black Man in the State of Texas, many would tell me to “pull myself up by the bootstraps,” but fail to realize I don’t have any boots; I was never given any and never given the access to acquire them. Certain buzzwords like “personal responsibility” or “God-given right” seem to be the magic words sprinkled on issues to make them indisputable. Many conservatives believe that everyone should take personal responsibility for their outcomes in life, ignoring the legislative responsibility they possess that can influence equity. The Legislature is the right place to change issues; sadly, some policymakers create problems instead of fixing them.
Conservative lawmakers who are advocates of personal responsibility should take time to learn that personal responsibility is not a cure-all. There are structural barriers that hinder people of color, non-Christians, disabled people, and people with different sexual and gender identities. Privileged individuals believe that all people must do is pull up their bootstraps because, in essence, that’s all they have had to do or are even capable of doing to have opportunities presented to them. Due to centuries of white supremacy and bigotry, people of color and those of differing sexual and religious backgrounds must work doubly hard to get just a fraction of the opportunities that those in the majority enjoy.
The Texas Legislature, in many ways, has proved this to be accurate, whether consciously or unconsciously. While examining legislative intent, countless bills during this 87th Session illustrate that those who look like me and identify like me were not considered. During the internship, I have seen gun rights increased, while limitations are placed on voter’s rights, Medicaid expansion is again rejected, and abortion bans are passed. These issues have had a significant impact on me. I have never been so scared and hopeless in my life. The stress of wanting my member’s bills to pass, however, knowing that politics would probably kill most of the good legislation that could help millions of Texans weighs heavy on me.
Just as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, many Americans, especially Black Americans like me, don’t have boots due to the centuries of oppression we’ve faced. Fairness and equity are two principles that should guide all lawmakers, regardless of partisanship. Understanding centuries of injustice should guide policymakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure that “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
THERE IS HOPE
You might feel a bit depressed by reading the words mentioned above; however, I always believe that hope is imminent. All my experiences have not been negative. There have been some outstanding bills that passed one or two chambers and might make it to the Governor’s Desk. There have been strides made in protecting maternal/child healthcare, foster children, youth experiencing homelessness, to name a few. Progressive members are working as hard as possible to ensure that their constant drip of legislative victories erodes the stone.
Personally, in my capacity as an intern, I was able to help assist several constituents in matters dealing with state agencies where we were able to intervene and see positive outcomes. I was also privileged to staff two bills and one resolution concerning Sickle Cell Disease. (The real reason why I’m here. I will share more in my next blog post).
I believe that there is hope. I cling to it. I wake up every day actively working toward and looking for it. I am wild enough to think that there are many streams of dripping water here that will wear a hollow in the stone. Many of them are in my cohort, work in my office, and work in other offices at the Legislature. As a person of faith, I wholeheartedly believe that we will see “mighty floods of justice and an endless river of righteousness….”
by André Harris, intern with Rep. Jarvis Johnson
Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.
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