An assortment of political materials that have arrived at the author’s home during the 2022 midterm elections. Photo by Orlando Lara.

Who is Threatened by Critical Young Minds?

 Words by Orlando Lara
Edited by Abigail Vela

In the past year, Texas has become a favorite target of highly partisan, emotion-fueled school censorship and book-banning campaigns. Long assumed to be a Democrat stronghold, South Texas is now a battleground region, and young people, particularly Latina/o youth, have once again become the target of fear and concern. As of 2021, people of color made up 95% of the state’s growth, with Latinos being the largest non-white group. This means that half of Texas youth under 18 are Latino/a.

As noted by political scientist Regina Branton, Latina/os tend to vote Democrat in the early immigrant generations when their experience of exclusion is fresh. The growth of Latina/o youth does not bode well for conservatives, especially if they are eligible or eventually become eligible to vote. The same is true for their parents. At a 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference meeting, Trump called any legalization program a “suicide mission” for his party since this could give political edge to Democrats.¹

To counter the political effects of a growing Latino population in Texas, the Conservative movement and propagandists are using at least four strategies: 1) limit the growth of the Latina/o voting population through inhumane and restrictive immigration policies, 2) swarm Latina/o adults with political ads and mass disinformation to activate the more conservative end of the Latina/o political spectrum, which can be moved by conservative Christianity, homophobia, anti-Blackness, the distrust of government, and the inter-generational fear of communism, 3) continue to use procedural rules, politically-motivated redistricting, and voter suppression to extend white minority rule in the state for as long as possible. And more recently, 4) commandeer the educational system to criminalize even modest attempts at diversity, equity, and inclusion. The goal here is to maximize the possibility that conservatives can woo young Latina/o, black, and Asian-American voters, while shielding the predominantly white children of conservative parents from information that might help them question their own parents’ home-grown, and often very real, indoctrination.

When I taught at a community college in Baytown, TX, children of conservative parents often told me: “Mr. Lara, I may not agree with everything we discuss, but I appreciate that in this class, I at least get to say what I think.”

“You don’t get that at home?” I would sometimes ask and receive a slow and careful nod as if an angry and ever-present parent was watching them.

This ever-present surveillance is quickly becoming a reality. The Freedom Foundation of Texas (FFOT), a far-right political group that has set out to make war with historical truth and critical thinking, is alarmed by a growing acceptance among youth of what they believe to be horrendous ideas: collective care and social safety nets, otherwise known as democratic socialism. The FFOT website cites, not surprisingly, victimsofcommunism.org to note that 50% of young Texans believe that the government should provide work for people who can’t find a job or that 39% of Gen Z’ers say there should be a universal basic income. A more credible Gallup poll from 2018 suggests that 51% of millennials feel positively about socialism, a percentage noted since 2010.

Rather than view these shifts as an example of growing empathy among youth, the right wing sees them as an existential threat to what they believe is the core of the US soul, laissez-faire capitalism, or what they call “freedom.”² In a clear response to the mass support that youth gave to the Bernie Sanders campaign, the George Floyd protests, anti-racist education, the freedom and dignity of LGBTQIA+ people, and the mutual aid movements of the pandemic and the Great Texas Freeze, the political right has re-dedicated itself to casting all philosophies of collective care outside the pale of permissible thought, particularly in a field that they still largely control – Texas public schools.

A screengrab of the FFOT website. The graphic is provided here as an illustration, not as an accurate depiction of millennial attitudes. The source data of the referenced poll is no longer available on victimsofcommunism.org for review or evaluation.

The irony, of course, is that the Texas curriculum still largely leans conservative and is staunchly pro-capitalist. If students are becoming more critical, it is not because they are learning this in schools but through their engagement with social movements and social media. So why target schools? Schools are much easier to regulate and control. Additionally, with the right mix of disinformation, alarm, and accelerated funding, parents have proven relatively easy to inflame.

So, what does this have to do with South Texas?

In this election cycle, several far-right political candidates who are also, conveniently, people of color are running for office. Conservatives have been working in this region since the 2020 election when support for Trump seemed to climb. South Texas defied the expectation that Latina/os would turn en masse against the former president, especially after his harsh family separation and anti-immigrant policies, both experienced directly in the RGV. It is now a mantra: Latina/os are not a monolith and far-right Republicans have zeroed in. In a final bid to sway the election, Trump held a rally in Robstown, TX, the Saturday before early voting. Trump loyalists made an in-person appearance, while others kept a safer distance through recorded video messages. As a sign that the Trump brand may be losing its reliability, Greg Abbot did neither. This seeming turn to the right is fueled by more than competing ideologies: immediately following the passage of SB3, the school censorship bill, Governor Abbot called a rare third special session to redistrict voter maps that could dilute the impact of demographic shifts. Texas Republicans are now counting on these new districts and a renewed politics of fear to flip the House of Representatives and install a slate of far-right Republicans in the Texas State Board of Education.

In South Texas, far-right politicians attempt to present themselves as even-keeled Conservatives who want to govern based on family-friendly Christian values. These candidates are tied, however, to the highly uncompromising far-right of the party, a segment that uses religion to justify rigid ideologies and anti-Democratic actions, such as the former president’s efforts to stoke a para-military insurrection after failing to overturn the national election through 62 court actions.³ Self-described Christian nationalists tolerate this kind of authoritarian violence  because they are not loyal, ultimately, to the constitution or Democracy but to a particular interpretation of Christianity, one that allows them to seek “dominion” over all aspects of society and disregard the political and religious views of the rest of the country. They are “patriots” only insofar as they love an abstract idea of the country, not the people or the country that actually exists.

Some politicians like Mayra Flores claim that this election “really is” a battle between “good and evil.”  A more moderate picture of Flores is painted in the election ads for District 34 that stream over YouTube and Hulu. Here, she is a grateful and “legal” Mexican immigrant that holds backyard family cookouts. The ads claim she wants to secure the border because she worries about her Border Patrol husband, not because of any larger efforts at racial and political population control. Flores, however, is not your ordinary next door vecina. She openly supported Trump’s lie that the election was stolen and has yet to publicly acknowledge that Biden legitimately won the national election.

Less well-known is LJ Francis, a Jamaican American graduate student who is running for the second district seat of the Texas State Board of Education. He is backed by the previously mentioned Freedom Foundation of Texas. In his campaign materials, Francis presents himself as a moderate Republican who wants to stop “teaching to the test,” a position long-held by progressive advocates, and prohibit the use of so-called “political social agendas.” On his website, he is more explicit. He claims that “woke philosophies” and “critical race theory” are taking over Texas schools, a far-right lie that relies on a gross mischaracterization of CRT and what actually goes on in schools.⁴ No such take-over has actually taken place.

A collage of voter guide comments provided by LJ Francis to Texas Values. The graphic on the right describes the guide as “Grounded in God. Rooted in Research.” Collage by Orlando Lara.

LJ Francis reveals more in a voter guide distributed by the far-right group Texas Values. In it, he claims to be against sex education in schools and argues that Social Emotional Learning is a “euphemism for Critical Race Theory,” another outright lie. Social Emotional Learning is a tool that helps both students and teachers deal more effectively with the challenges of school and life. Every student I have ever worked with appreciates this more empathic teaching approach. In this voter guide, Francis takes a strong stance against LGBTQ marriage and claims that he simply “can’t think of any” circumstances in which an abortion could be allowed. LJ Francis not only endorses the use of academic dishonesty to justify censorship; he also supports the legal discrimination of LGBTQIA+ people and the total elimination of reproductive rights.

Do residents and youth of South Texas want these candidates to represent them on the school board and Congress?

While it is easy to normalize the use of deliberate dishonesty and misinformation to win elections, this is not your usual political electioneering. The legal regulation of misinformation has failed to catch up with the acceleration of social media technology. Meanwhile, religious groups and political opportunists like Trump and other white supremacists have teamed up to extend the life of present-day white Christian nationalism. The result is a slide toward ideological fascism dressed in the garments of fervent religious belief and facilitated by the ethical gray areas of modern technology. This specific interpretation of Christianity uses religion as a political weapon to turn ordinary electoral politics and economic debates into a battle between good and evil. The logical conclusion of this view is that there is no room for dialogue: the opponent is the embodiment of evil. They are either sexual predators, enemies of the US, or secret communists that want to ban religion. This leaves no doubt: they must be pre-emptively banned, censured, or eliminated before they have a chance, it is presumed, to do any of those things first.

This production of eliminable monsters is no mere distraction. It is real harm and a likely precursor to more intensified harm in the future.

Signs posted by the Hidalgo County Democrats on the day before early voting. Some local organizers argue that such signs could be counter-productive. They argue that political messages should lead with broad shared values such as those provided by the Texas For All Coalition. Photo by Orlando Lara.

How can our communities respond?

Certainly, and at a bare minimum, vote. Vote early. Encourage others to vote. Vote for candidates who will accept the results of democratic elections, believe in the basic value of truth, and work to empower young people to identify and address core problems.

Organize. Learn how to organize; learn from as many different people as possible. There is no one way to organize and nobody, young or old, has all the answers. Don’t rely on schools to teach you. SB3 attempts to make it illegal for teachers to give you credit for engaging in social and policy advocacy. Find ways to do it anyway. Read all the banned books that give you life.5

The battle for free and mutual co-existence is long, and it will not end anytime soon. It is better to accept this. In the midst of all this, remember to rest and find peace and joy in the struggle.

No generation gets to choose the time that it lives in, but it can make a storm.

What is your storm? And how will you build love and connection in the middle of it?

Organizations to connect with:

The Grande Narrative

Mesa Communitaria on Mexican American Studies

The Ethnic Studies Network of Texas

Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies

  1. See the “Introduction” of Trumpism, Mexican America, and the Struggle for Latinx Citizenship, edited by Mary Louise Pratt, Renato Rosaldo, and Phillip B. Gonzales (2021).
  2. Laissez-faire capitalism is the idea that individuals and families should struggle alone in a contest of survival with no help from state institutions. In this view, the federal government should do nothing to regulate the market. Historically, this economic policy has exacerbated already existing inequalities.
  3. Roger Stone, a Trump propagandist, said even before the election took place, “fuck the voting. Let’s get to the violence.”
  4. CRT, or critical race theory, is a set of tenets that, among other things, attempt to understand how racial discrimination persists even in the face of “race-neutral” or “color-blind” policies or language. Engaging in blatant academic dishonesty, far-right propagandists have constructed a straw man version of CRT that completely ignores or twists these tenets beyond recognition in order to claim that CRT is “everywhere.”
  5. Online harassment is real so learn how to manage your public information. You can create separate public and private accounts, depending on your needs, and manage your public accounts with the knowledge that they can be read by everybody: including friends, future employers, and potential harassers. 

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