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A shooting at Lone Star College in Houston resulted in three injuries last week, just two days after the first-ever “Gun Appreciation Day.” Gawker tallied at least sixteen incidences of gun-related death or injury on Gun Appreciation Day, too. Because none of these events was a mass shooting, the reader comments on the news stories covering them often contained sentiments like the following from the Houston Chronicle: “No ‘school shooting’ here at all. Just two thugs in a part of town known for gang and gun violence on a daily basis,” or, “A couple of thugs got into a typical thug fight. It happens every day in Houston. The media would have you believe this was a massacre,” or, “This is NOTHING like the shooting at the elementary school…it just happened to happen at a junior college between 2 hot blooded young men!”

They’ve got one thing right. It does happen everyday. Unlike mass shootings, other types of gun violence are so common that, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, more children and teens die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre. That they’re treated as yawn-worthy speaks to our acceptance of gun violence in certain neighborhoods.

Those neighborhoods, of course, tend to be populated by people of color. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that 43 percent of all children and youth killed by firearms in 2009 were black. And while the annual number of shooting deaths of white youth decreased by 44 percent between 1979 and 2009, the deaths of black children and teens increased by 30 percent. The annual number of shooting deaths of Hispanic children decreased, but only by 25 percent.

The question we have to face is this: Do we want to address all gun violence or do we only want to try to prevent mass shootings? Is one group of victims more important than the other? The answer, of course, is no. All lives are important.

Whether it’s a seemingly random mass shooting at a predominantly white, suburban school or the death of a child of color caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting in the inner city, gun violence is often facilitated by two things: Availability of guns and a lack of services and supports available to our children and their families around the issues of drugs, gangs, failing schools and mental health services.

If I had my druthers, we’d ban both assault weapons and handguns, but the proliferation of guns in America makes that a near-impossibility. So, let’s start with the proposal on the table from President Obama. It calls on Congress to close background check loopholes and bans military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Current law only requires background checks be performed by licensed gun dealers, but about 40 percent of guns are sold through private dealers. Requiring all gun sellers to perform background checks and facilitating better sharing of this information among states will help keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

The president’s plan also suggests that Congress allocate money to schools for social and mental health services that address students’ behavioral issues. But it also gives the schools the option to hire more school cops, covertly termed “school resource officers,” that some youth advocates fear will exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Here’s how the ACLU explained it: “We fear that neutral sounding safety policies, such as putting more cops in school will lead to the over-incarceration of school-age children, especially students of color and students with disabilities, who are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for issues that would normally be handled by school administrators when law enforcement is introduced into schools.”

Legislators must consider not only middle-class, white victims who’ve died in mass shootings, but the victims who are more likely to die everyday because of the color of their skin—think Trayvon Martin or 23-year-old Rodrigo Diaz of Georgia, who was shot in the head and killed this weekend after pulling into the wrong man’s driveway.

The president’s plan is not as comprehensive as it should be.. Studies show most gun crime is committed with handguns and it’s not clear how much of an impact the Obama proposals will have on that. Still, even modest, common sense measures will have trouble clearing Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House. That’s just the current political reality.

But while we’re debating gun violence, let’s no longer pretend that it’s a problem just confined to the occasional mass shooting.

Training video from Craft International.
Training video from Craft International.

Ever since Gov. Rick Perry tasked the Texas Department of Public Safety with tighter border security during the 2006 election cycle, trigger-happy bureaucrats have been given carte blanche to turn the state into their own personal theater of war. In October, DPS made headlines when a state trooper in a helicopter shot at unarmed Guatemalan immigrants riding in the back of a truck in Hidalgo County. Two of the Guatemalan men were killed. Last week, the Austin American-Statesman reported that DPS officers have fired from helicopters while pursuing vehicles five times over the past two years. In only one instance was the DPS successful in stopping a vehicle without causing fatalities. Two of the instances required the additional use of spikes in the road to ultimately stop the vehicles, and two instances resulted in the suspects fleeing the scene for Mexico.

“We’re really not apologetic about it,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said of the policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. His remarks came before the Guatemalan killings. “We’ve got an obligation to protect our men and women when we’re trying to protect Texas.”

That DPS allows its officers to fire from helicopters when apparently no other American law enforcement agency does so says something about the agency’s sense of mission. McCraw is fond of painting the Texas border region as a war zone, and he’s got the paperwork to prove it. Funny thing, though: A private firm that stands to profit from the continued militarization of the Texas border region generated that proof.

In March, the independent news site Alternet exposed the controversial relationship between DPS and Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), owned by retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abrams. DPS has paid ALIS millions since 2007 to not only create the state’s border security strategy, but execute a P.R. campaign to create the perception that Mexican drug violence threatens the lives of Texas civilians on an ever-increasing basis.

Even more alarming is the fact that ALIS has been awarded millions in contracts with virtually no public discussion or scrutiny. The Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, has allowed McCraw and DPS to run the state’s border security operations, dubbed Operation Border Star, with little oversight. In fact, a follow-up investigation by the Statesman turned up very few state officials outside of law enforcement who had ever heard of the small Virginia firm despite the fact that it received $22.7 million from DPS and the Governor’s Office for border-security operations from FY 2007 to FY 2011.

What’s more, the DPS and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott have refused to release details of Operation Border Star to the Center for International Policy, claiming it would put law enforcement officers at risk. The same documents, however, were released to for-profit security consultants contracted by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who’s been waging his own little border war.

Is this what conservatives mean by small government? Leaving public safety to private defense companies founded by former military brass with little to no border experience looking to cash in on America’s fervor for “secure borders?”

Although state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) called for an investigation of the contracts between the DPS and ALIS in March of this year, and Comptroller Susan Combs responded in April that her office would “focus on, but not limit the audit scope” to DPS’s contract with ALIS, I cannot find any public report of such an investigation eight months later. An earlier review by the Compliance and Oversight Division of the governor’s office obtained by the Statesman revealed that DPS has a history of improperly diverting federal stimulus funds to pay ALIS, as well as other shoddy accounting practices.

A DPS spokesperson told KRGV News in the Rio Grande Valley that she couldn’t explain why DPS decided to circumvent the state competitive bidding process in 2006 when they began their special relationship with ALIS. The governor’s office declined to comment.

We can’t continue to let private firms profit, using our tax dollars, from this reckless and sometimes deadly militarization. It’s time for the Legislature to launch a full-scale investigation into DPS, McCraw and Perry’s handling of Operation Border Star.

Corrected on Jan. 3, 2013: The original story stated that DPS Director Steve McCraw had been “downright cruel in his reaction to the October killings” of two Guatemalan men and cited a San Antonio Express-News article in which McCraw is quoted as saying he’s “really not apologetic about it.”

However, as the Express-News article made clear, McCraw’s quote was drawn from an interview prior to the Guatemalan fatalities. He was speaking about DPS’ policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. We have corrected the story and apologize for the error.

Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land
Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in Promised Land.

This month, a new film starring Matt Damon and directed by Gus Van Sant, will hit select theaters in time for the holiday movie-going season, a film that will familiarize Americans, if they’re not already, with the f-word—fracking.

(Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing for the uninitiated, is the controversial method of extracting oil and gas by injecting millions of gallons of high-pressure fluids deep underground to fracture rock formations.)

Environmentalists warn that fracking poses serious dangers to groundwater, air quality and public health. They point to evidence that the process can cause earthquakes. Proponents, mostly big oil companies, say that’s nonsense. They argue that fracking is unleashing impressive amounts of domestic energy, decreasing reliance on foreign oil and creating jobs.

Guess which side Matt Damon is on?

In Promised Land Damon plays a young corporate salesman, Steve Butler, who grew up in the heartland and moved to the big city to seek opportunities not available in his small town. On the verge of reaching executive status with his natural gas company, Butler is sent to a rural farming community in Pennsylvania along with his partner, played by Frances McDormand, to buy out the town and begin fracking the hell out of their farmland. Butler’s higher-ups assure him that this is the best thing that could happen to these people who’ve been hit hard by the recession. In fact, many do stand to make millions.

Enter environmentalist Dustin Noble, played by The Office’s John Krasinski. Noble riles the town with a grassroots anti-fracking campaign that includes announcing that fracking killed his farmland. “The land just turned brown and it died,” he says in the trailer. “It’s happened to one of us, it can happen to all of us.” Also featured in the trailer is a short clip of Noble setting a model farm on fire in front of a class of elementary school kids for effect. (This is presumably a reference to a scene from the anti-fracking documentary Gasland in which a man is able to light his tap water on fire.) If that weren’t enough, everybody’s dream grandpa Hal Holbrook plays a local schoolteacher who roundly disapproves of this whole fracking idea.

“You’re a good man, Steve. I just wish you weren’t doing this,” he tells Damon’s character in the trailer. Yeouch.

Critics of the film—mostly conservative news sources at this point since the general public hasn’t seen the film —say the movie is essentially liberal propaganda. One of their favorite items to point out is that Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which helped finance the film, is owned by United Arab Emirates, an oil rich nation that would stand to profit billions by delaying the growth of America’s natural fuel industry. Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer, who is working on his own fracking documentary and who also directed a documentary called Not Evil, Just Wrong to challenge Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, first raised the issue of Image Nation’s involvement at a promotional Q&A for Promised Land. The confrontation was captured on video by McAleer’s team.

In the clip, Damon, who co-wrote the script with Krasinski, says the film was actually funded by Focus Features and Participant Media. Participant, Damon explains, has a deal with Image Nation, which finances 10 percent of all Focus films sight-unseen.

“The first time we were aware that Image Nation was involved with our movie was when we saw the rough cut and saw their logo, and that’s that.” Damon tells McAleer.

It seems with a deal like that, the government of UAE is probably unaware that they helped fund Promised Land, either.

Later, a podcast of the event posted on iTunes was lacking McAleer’s question, according to The Hollywood Reporter—a fact flogged on the social media site of Energy in Depth, a leading pro-fracking public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

According to The Guardian, Energy in Depth is just one of many pro-fracking interests that are preparing for the public backlash that could result from Promised Land. It has, for example, drafted a fact sheet it is considering sending to the press and distributing to moviegoers.

For their parts, Damon and Krasinski told Peter Tavers of Rolling Stone magazine that judging Promised Land as “the anti-fracking movie” without having seen it is a mistake.

“We’re both happy to discuss anything once people have actually seen the movie and they know what it is they’re upset or feeling good about,” Krasinski said.

“It’s all grey area to me,” said Tavers, who has presumably seen the film. “It’s all people saying, ‘I need the money. What am I doing? How do I justify it to myself?’ It’s people.”

“Frances McDormand’s character is making her decisions entirely on her son and on taking care of her kid,” Damon added. “We all know those people. That’s us.”

The title of the film is ambiguous. In the Bible, the Promised Land is a gift from God. But is man’s moral obligation to guard it, or exploit it for the natural resources it provides? I look forward to finding out soon.

McAllen, TX
Photo source:
McAllen, Tx.

Earlier this year, when San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, many Hispanic Texans felt they had finally arrived. When Latinos overwhelmingly helped re-elect President Obama in November, Tejanos continued to celebrate this apparent rise to power. But Hispanic Texans will never take their rightful place at the table until they succeed economically. Nowhere is this tension between rising political power and lagging economic status more apparent than the Texas border. Sixteen of the 100 poorest counties in America are found along or near the Texas-Mexico border. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Hispanic Texans generally receive inferior educations and experience higher unemployment than their Anglo counterparts. So, what’s to be done?

Some border-based entrepreneurs are trying to address these inequities by giving Latinos access to the rarefied world of venture capital.
Rodolfo Sanchez lives in the Rio Grande Valley, and earlier this year, his company, Plasma2Energy, got a contract from the city of McAllen to build a waste-to-energy plant—a cutting-edge, green-energy technology. Developed by Monterrey, Mexico-based ABA Research, the 27-megawatt plant converts municipal trash into electricity, 25 percent of which would be used by the city.

“This technology offers savings in the long term for the city, which is very attractive,” Sanchez says. “It’s also very clean, and that is very attractive too.”

Sanchez offered to deploy the first commercial-sized facility in the U.S. for ABA Research. He just needed the capital, about $15 million for the first phase.

But raising the money took longer than Sanchez’s Monterrey investor was expecting. ABA got nervous and pulled out, leaving Sanchez to bootstrap Plasma2Energy while he searched for funds—funds he still hasn’t acquired. Ultimately, ABA decided to build a plant in Mexico instead. He hopes that Plasma2Energy will build a plant in McAllen in the future, though that’s uncertain.

Sanchez says the McAllen Economic Development Corporation didn’t understand the technology enough to offer more than standard city incentives—a blow that not only cost him much-needed money, but deprived his company of an endorsement that could have generated interest from venture capitalists.

Sanchez’s experience is all too common for Hispanic entrepreneurs. A 2011 Venture Capital Census of nearly 600 venture capitalists found that 87 percent of all respondents identified as white, with fewer than 2 percent identifying as Latino. Eighty-nine percent were men.

This nearly all-white, all-male demographic adversely affects high-tech entrepreneurs who don’t fit the “white guy” tech mold.

“Most people rely on their relationships with wealthy people to get venture capital,” says Teo Tijerina, co-founder and executive director of Austin-based EDCO Ventures, a nonprofit focused on economic development in poorer areas of Texas, including the border region. EDCO has a goal of raising $50 million to $100 million in venture capital for business investment in Texas. So far it’s amassed $3.5 million from the federal government, private investors and national banks.

“If you can do a semiconductor plant in Taiwan with far less infrastructure, you can do one in the Valley,” says Tijerina, who was raised in McAllen, as was the company’s co-founder Leo Ramirez. “The border region just needs the know-how and the access to capital and technology.

Of course, there’s a whole historical basis for why they don’t have it.”

The state of Texas runs an Emerging Technology Fund to help promising start-ups. Recipients must show that they can also raise capital locally. That can be a challenge for entrepreneurs along the border. Few subsidies from the Tech Fund flow south.

“Perhaps regions like Austin, Dallas and Houston don’t need state funding, but the border, East Texas, and other parts of the state do,” Tijerina says.

Tijerina also says that Texas’ leading research universities don’t do enough to aid poor communities. At a meeting with the University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Technology Commercialization, Tijerina says, an official told him the office prefers to work with entrepreneurs who headquarter in Austin.

“It would make sense that the office show a preference toward entrepreneurs in Texas versus an entrepreneur in Michigan, but it shouldn’t matter whether it’s Austin or San Antonio or Brownsville,” Tijerina said.

It shouldn’t matter, but it always has, and only educated and motivated border entrepreneurs are going to change that.

“Sovereignty or Secession” Rally in Austin, Texas on August 29, 2009.

Lately the media has made much of Texas secession, a so-called movement made popular again by Governor Rick Perry who likes to throw the idea around now and then and one that gained much steam when President Obama was re-elected in November.

Take for example, Texas’ most prominent secessionist, Larry Kilgore of Arlington. Kilgore, who ran for U.S. Senator as a Republican candidate against John Cornyn in 2008 with the platform, “Secession! All other issues can be dealt with later,” made national headlines when he legally changed his middle name to SECEDE (all-caps included) after the president defeated Mitt Romney. Kilgore used the publicity stunt to announce that he’d be running for governor in 2014. I, for one, look forward to the “Punish Porn Crime! Deuteronomy 25:1-3” bumper stickers.

Then there was the secession petition submitted to the White House website. The petition received the requisite 25,000 signatures within days and went on to collect over 100,000 by the deadline. The White House says it will respond to any petition that receives 25,000 signatures in 30 days, but Governor Perry has said that Texas will not secede, because he “believes in the greatness of our Union and nothing should be done to change it.” Oh, how the mighty have flip-flopped.

Last week, one pro-secession group, the Texas Nationalist Movement, took things a step further by announcing their own political action committee “signaling the organization’s most significant venture into the legislative process in pursuit of Texas independence” to date. Which leads me to wonder, are these people serious?

Once upon a time, secession talk was a joke to brag about the size of Texas, both geographically and economically. This most recent wave of secessionists, however, is a direct result of President Obama’s re-election. The fact that those screaming “secession” the loudest are overwhelmingly white, conservative, southern men, leaves me with the impression that a) they’re serious, (or they think they’re serious. I doubt the vast majority have the cojones), and b) that racist nativism is the fuel to their fire.

Which is what makes the idea of an independent Texas so funny. What these angry, white men don’t seem to realize is that if Texas breaks off from the rest of the United States, it will instantly become a nation in which people of color are the majority. According to the 2010 census, Texas grew the most of any state in America and 95 percent of Texas’ child population growth occurred among Hispanics.

With those demographics, it woudn’t be long before Texas is no longer a red state. And if you think there’s too much Spanish spoken in Texas now, just wait until we don’t have to communicate with Washington anymore. Spanglish will be the official language of Tejas in no time with breakfast tacos being the official food. Lastly, if you’re into blaming President Obama for the economy, Market Watch says leaving the U.S. will throw any Southern state into a desperate recession, leaving citizens paying more in taxes than they do now and receiving less in government services. Those poor secessionists will find themselves in the very situation they sought to avoid by leaving the U.S. Where will they secede to then? The Republic of The Woodlands? PlanoLand? To paraphrase the words of a guy who talks to chairs, Go ahead. Make my day.

Kay Bailey Hutchison
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Every so often, the GOP is beaten badly enough that some Republicans realize that appearing to support immigrants might be their ticket to relevancy with Latinos. That time has come again for retiring U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona). The pair recently filed an alternative to the DREAM Act called the ACHIEVE Act. As the title suggests, they are not letting immigrants get away with any idle dreaming. They must ACHIEVE to stay in America legally.

The ACHIEVE Act is similar to the DREAM Act in that it requires young immigrants brought here illegally when they were minors to obtain academic or military achievement before earning a pathway to legal status. The important difference, however, is that the DREAM Act ultimately provides a path to citizenship while the ACHIEVE Act only provides a path to permanent residency. If you want to know how the ACHIEVE Act works in detail, you can read about it here.

This isn’t the first time in 2012 that the GOP has flirted with immigration reform. In June, the Texas Republican Party, at its convention, replaced a zealously xenophobic plank on immigration with something called “the Texas Solution,” a Texas-based guest worker program that would provide cheap labor to business owners while offering no path to citizenship for workers. So, what’s new? Well, the Texas Solution calls for workers’ private health insurance to be provided by employers or the workers themselves. (Ha.) It also demands that the federal government limit birthright citizenship to those born to a citizen of the United States “with no exceptions.” Republicans try to pander to Latino voters, but they always end up going off a cliff.

What both Republican plans have in common is that they don’t help immigrants. They help the Republican party win Latino votes. They’re the sort of desperate act that comes of realizing your political party will die if you don’t appeal to the country’s largest growing demographic, no matter how much you wish they would just go back to Mexico.

In reality, both the ACHIEVE Act and the Texas Solution are unfeasible. The Texas Solution is essentially the Bracero Program of the mid-twentieth century all over again. Back then, employers realized that the provisions of the program increased their costs and thus began hiring under-the-table workers again. The ACHIEVE Act not only doesn’t provide a path to citizenship, but would only be applicable for a fraction of the current young immigrant population. A study by the Migration Policy Institute found that less than 5 percent of the country’s 2.1 million immigrants who currently meet all the requirements for the DREAM Act, which are similar to the ACHIEVE Act, have the academic credentials to begin the six-year waiting period required before they can apply to adjust to permanent status. The rest of the undocumented youth and young adults must overcome steep financial burdens, high drop-out rates, and a language barrier in hopes that they will even make it out of high school, much less college.

In short, all the immigration plans discussed here, including the DREAM Act, are a band-aid. What’s needed urgently is comprehensive immigration reform that deals realistically and fairly with the 12 million undocumented people living in this nation. Broaden political asylum to include those fleeing cartel-related violence, beginning with Mexico. Going forward, give all immigrants the same chance we give Cubans. If we don’t catch them entering our border, then they are free to stay and allowed to apply for expedited legal permanent resident status and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.

Whether out of fear for their own political future or because Republicans have truly come to embrace immigrants, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Just get it done.

Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick

It almost seems as if state Sen. Dan Patrick, the talk-radio Republican from Houston, spends his free time thinking up ways to antagonize people who are already in a politically disadvantaged position. Here he is a white, heterosexual male in a state legislature where patriarchy rules, but that’s not enough for him. He can’t sleep at night until women in rural Texas are as poor and disadvantaged as humanly possible, shackled by unplanned pregnancies they can’t afford. His latest tactic: Senate Bill 97, which would extend the in-person time a doctor is required to spend with a patient seeking to terminate a pregnancy using abortion-inducing drugs.

Last session, Patrick successfully pushed the abortion sonogram bill that requires Texas women to receive a sonogram from a medical doctor at least 24 hours in advance of an abortion. For women who live in remote, rural areas—often in poverty—getting the sonogram is an added travel and financial burden. They must take off work, find childcare and drive sometimes hundreds of miles to get the sonogram done. That’s not to mention the emotional drudgery of being forced to listen to a description of the sonogram results from their doctor.

Now, Sen. Patrick’s new bill would require that the abortion-inducing drugs administered in some cases also be given personally by the doctor who performed the sonogram, making the situation extremely challenging for those doctors who roam remote parts of the state treating patients. Historically, this type of procedure is performed by a technician or nurse working with the physician via video teleconference.

But wait. It gets even better. A second provision in the measure requires the administering doctor to have a written contract with a second doctor who “agrees to treat emergencies arising from the administration or use of the drug,” and to provide the Texas Medical Board or the patient with that doctor’s name and phone number “on demand.”

Not only is this a ridiculous burden on those doctors trying to provide medical care to patients spread out across the state, but providing a list of doctors to the government? Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, yes. The Department of State Health Services proposed a rule earlier this year that would have banned doctors participating in the newly formed Texas Women’s Health Program from discussing abortion with their patients. It also would have required them to turn in the names of any physicians they suspected of deliberately or inadvertently discussing abortion with patients. Thankfully, the Texas Medical Association made a big enough stink about it that DSHS nixed the idea, holding fast to the claim that it was only trying to improve the doctor-patient relationship by denying doctors the right to sway a patient one way or the other.

Likewise, Sen. Patrick and his cronies have been quoted in the media this week saying that they are only trying to make things safer for abortion patients.

I don’t think even they believe that’s true. I know I sure don’t.

The University of Texas at Austin.

How many minority students at a university are enough? That was the question facing the U.S. Supreme Court last month during oral arguments in the affirmative-action case Fisher v. University of Texas.

When Abigail Fisher, a young white woman from Sugar Land, failed to get into UT-Austin in 2008, she sued the university for her $100 application fee, saying the school denied her entry because of her race. Fisher did not finish high school in the top 10 percent of her class, and UT says she wouldn’t have been admitted regardless of her race.

UT and many other public universities base their admission policies on the landmark 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court held that the University of Michigan Law School’s interest in reaching a “critical mass” of minority students was constitutional because it was only a limited factor in the admission process. The school argued that such a critical mass is an important component of the learning environment for all students.

But what is critical mass, and has UT reached it?

A critical mass of minorities, as described in the Grutter decision, would “ensure that these minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race; … provide adequate opportunities for the type of interaction upon which the educational benefits of diversity depend; and … challenge all students to think critically and reexamine stereotypes.”

Here is how UT’s admission policy is designed to create such a critical mass: First, the school admits top-ten-percent graduates from each high school in Texas, up to 75 percent of admissions. While the percentage plan helps ensure a baseline of minority admissions, Gregory Garre, representing UT before the court, argued that the minorities who are admitted to UT still tend to come from racially segregated, and often economically disadvantaged, schools.

UT then considers a variety of factors—including race—in filling the remaining spots. The latitude to consider race is important, Garre argued, because a minority student who doesn’t come from a low-income background is “precisely the kind of candidate that’s going to come on campus, help to break down racial barriers, work across racial lines [and] dispel stereotypes.”

After the Grutter decision, UT conducted a study of its minority students to discern whether they felt isolated. According to the study, they did. That’s not surprising at a university that, as recently as last month, was dealing with predominantly white fraternity and sorority members dressing up as Mexican stereotypes at parties, and where, last semester, the student newspaper The Daily Texan printed a cartoon containing an African-American racial slur.

The issues UT students are grappling with are issues their parents and grandparents have yet to reconcile. Affirmative action was created during the civil rights era as a Band-Aid for the institutionalized urban poverty
and structural inequalities that have always existed in this country. As long as those remain in place, there will be a need for affirmative action. It’s not a numerical change that needs to happen, it’s a sea change.

Fisher’s lawyer Bert Rein argued that “critical mass” must be defined, along with the point at which we can say a university has achieved it. As it stands, he said, UT has too much leeway to continue affirmative action admissions indefinitely. But UT can’t define critical mass as, say, a percentage of the student body, because the court decided in Grutter that doing so would create an unconstitutional quota system. It’s a catch-22 for the entire concept of critical mass that Rein said is sure to be its downfall, whether in this case or another in the future. Fisher’s lawyers are asking the court to not only find that UT’s top 10 percent rule doesn’t satisfy Grutter—they’re asking the court to overturn Grutter entirely.

The court isn’t expected to make its decision until early next year. With Justice Elena Kagan recused because of a conflict—she was involved in the case years ago in a lower court—the Supreme Court’s conservative justices have an outsized influence on the outcome. The court could destroy affirmative action, or it could seriously injure it. Look at UT today, though, and you can see why an admission policy aimed at achieving critical mass is as important as ever.

J.M. Lozano (right) with Gov. Rick Perry.
J.M. Lozano (right) with Gov. Rick Perry.

The race between Democrat-turned-Republican state Rep. J.M. Lozano and former state Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles in House District 43 should make for an interesting case study of whether the Democrats have lost their stronghold in South Texas.

The pair are running in a district that looks quite different than it did when Lozano first got elected in 2010.

Until the recent redistricting, Kleberg County, where both Lozano and Gonzalez live, shared a district with the very Democratic Willacy and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley (along with much-smaller Jim Hogg, Brooks and Kenedy counties.) Those southern counties were sliced off and Kleberg is now paired with three somewhat conservative, rural counties surrounding Corpus Christi—a shift that led the freshman Lozano to abruptly change parties in March.

The counties that make up the “new” District 43—Bee, Jim Wells, Kleberg and San Patricio— generally vote for Republicans at the top of the ballot and lean Democratic down-ballot.

Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles
Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles

But this election, Republicans are pouring tons of funds into the district while Dems are arguing that Hispanic Republicans can’t win in South Texas. The Republican honchos have gone all-in for Lozano. Both Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott have endorsed and stumped for Lozano. Ditto for former political rival, Will Vaden, who finished third in the May primary.

With Hispanics set to become the majority in this state, Republicans need a Hispanic poster child in the Texas Legislature and it’s clear from the $860,000 in fundraising reported from Lozano’s camp since the first of the year that the Texas GOP has made Lozano a special project. After all, most of the other Hispanic Republicans elected in 2010 have dropped out or are in tough re-election battles of their own.

Former state Rep. Aaron Peña, from Hidalgo County, who switched parties after winning in 2010, chose not to run again after a San Antonio court pushed him into a neighboring, heavily-Democratic district.

State Rep. Jose Aliseda of Beeville chose not to seek re-election because he got paired with Lozano in the same district. He’s running for Bee County DA instead. State Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi saw his Nueces County district disappear in the Republican-led redistricting process, so he decided to challenge state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, a Democrat, in a long-shot bid for that Senate seat.

And then there are Republicans Connie Scott in HD-34 (Corpus Christi), Dee Margo in HD-78 (El Paso) and John Garza in HD-117 (San Antonio) trying to defend the seats they won in 2010, all of which had previously been held by Hispanic Democrats.

“I think that Republicans have taken a look at these seats and made calculated decisions that J.M. is their South Texas/Latino firewall,” says South Texas Democratic consultant Roger Garza. “Dee Margo and Connie Scott are in the races of their lives and could lose for the second time to their opponents. John Garza is locked in a tight race in San Antonio where the margin could be decided by just a few hundred votes. And since Republicans have invested so much in J.M.—already getting him out of a contested primary and runoff—they can’t make their initial investment turn out to be bad money.”

While the extra dollars translate to more commercial time on local airwaves, Garza reiterates that it’s still a Dem’s game on the lower part of the ballot. “You see a huge Republican drop off when you get to the State Supreme Court races,” Garza says. “1300 more people voted for Texas Supreme Court Dems than voted for Obama in the last election.”

And though Lozano has far outspent Garza (she’s raised $176,000 since July compared to Lozano’s $445,000 in roughly that same period), Garza claims that she has more people on the ground, walking neighborhoods.

Both sides, Republican and Democrat, have made clear that this race has symbolic importance. For the GOP, it’s about whether the conservative juggernaut can make inroads with Latinos and maintain the party’s grip on power. For Democrats, it’s about whether they can continue to appeal to the Hispanic community (or communities) on the usual terms. A loss would be demoralizing for Democrats, who count on Hispanic demographic growth to power them back into competitive statewide races. Reading too much into this one House race is probably a mistake. But listen closely to how the losing side tries to spin things in the days and weeks to come. It may become a recurring excuse.

juliansizedWhen San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke at the Democratic National Convention in September, he received varying amounts of criticism from the right. After all, by his own admission, he “doesn’t really speak Spanish.” Republicans snickered and bragged that their Latino, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, speaks perfect English and Spanish. Sadly, they have no idea how much that typifies their lack of relevance to the vast majority of Latino voters.

Of course, beneath the superficial fluency of a few carefully chosen candidates, the Republican Party is woefully out of step with the Hispanic community. Arizona Republicans’ ban on Latino studies classes screams that message loud and clear. In the long run, the language issue is more indicative of a lack of marketing savvy that will bite them in the collective ass.

It’s no secret that voters tend to vote for the candidate they believe represents them most closely. A cursory look at the 2010 U.S. Census will tell you that Mexican-Americans far outnumber Hispanics of any other origin in this country. In fact, Mexicans are the largest Hispanic group nationwide, and the largest Hispanic group in all but 10 states. Additionally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 51 percent of all Latinos born in the U.S. are now English-dominant, and native-born Hispanics outnumber their foreign-born counterparts roughly 32 million to 19 million. Those two facts are already translating (no pun) into an impact on Hispanic media. Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo are, for the first time, planning bilingual content for the fall 2012 season, including Univision’s “Meet the Candidate” presidential forum, which will air in English and Spanish on television and online. Univision is also launching an English-language cable network targeted at Latinos and an English-language website. In short, speaking so-so Spanish is no obstacle to reaching the country’s fastest-growing group of Latinos. Those who are less tied to their ancestral homelands and more comfortable in English, like Castro, are the rule instead of the anomaly.

One could argue that Rubio, a second-generation Cuban-American, falls into the same category, and he does, but here’s the Latino marketing problem with Marco Rubio that trumps his Spanish fluency: He’s Cuban-American. Since the 1960s, Cubans have been the beneficiaries of a huge immigration double standard in this country and, for that reason, there is the perception among Mexican-Americans that Cubans, as a group, have not suffered in the United States the way other Latinos have.

From the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966, which allowed all Cuban exiles to apply for U.S. citizenship, to the ridiculous “wet feet, dry feet” rule of 1995 that says, “If we don’t catch you in the water, you’re in,” Cubans have been set up to succeed in this country while other Latinos, and Mexicans in particular, have been scapegoated and set up to fail. This perception—whether factually accurate or not—combined with the image of an overtly bigoted Republican Party, is a political recipe for disaster.

Ask average Hispanic voters whether they want to vote for a Mexican-American who doesn’t speak much Spanish, or a Cuban-American who speaks perfect Spanish but belongs to the party that criminalized Chicano studies and passed the “show us your papers” law and built a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and wants to make English the official language of the United States. You’ll quickly see how superficial the fluency issue is.

“The Cubans have never been one of us,” retired Albuquerque educator and community activist Moises Venegas told the Associated Press in a recent article comparing Julian Castro with Marco Rubio. Venegas is Mexican-American. “They came from affluent backgrounds and have a different perspective,” he said of Cuban-Americans. “The Republican Party also has opened doors just for them.”

That Rubio didn’t come from a privileged background, and that his parents arrived in the United States in 1956, well before the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, doesn’t matter. In marketing, perception is reality. If the Republican Party wants to attract Latino voters, it has no choice but to stop scapegoating Mexicans. Because, like it or not, a little enclave of Cubans in Florida is not going to win over 40 other states.