Racist delusions about Texas

November 27, 2013

Jason Netek looks at who's behind the right-wing obsession with Texas secession.

TEXAS SECESSION? It's difficult for people outside the state to take such talk seriously. The fact that independence rallies can gather even a few hundred supporters is something that generally puzzles non-Texans. That a petition calling on the president to grant Texas independence (and peacefully at that) garnered 125,000 signatures is bewildering.

Micah Hurd, who started the petition, quit the Texas State Guard to join a militia and talks of "revolution" against the federal government. The impulses behind such sentiment are generally racist, anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, and anti-anything from the federal government, especially in the years since the first Black president was sworn into office. Last year, a Lubbock judge named Tom Head publicly warned of a pending civil war if Obama was re-elected.

It's a special kind of right-wing nationalism that affects Texas ultra-conservatives like the "birthers" and the Tea Party and some on the farthest right. But secessionist language also often comes from powerful members of the state government, and this does a lot to legitimize the idea. Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas and darling of the Libertarian movement, called secession a "deeply American principle." Gov. Rick Perry courted secessionist support in his 2010 campaign for re-election.

Secessionist leader Barry Smitherman
Secessionist leader Barry Smitherman (Texas Tribune)

In 2011, state Rep. Leo Burman sponsored a secessionist rally organized by the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM). The TNM claims that 250,000 people have signed a form supporting their basic principles. At the beginning of the year, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst met with leaders of this group, and Speaker of the House Joe Straus III opened up the legislative session with a speech declaring that if Texas were to become its own country, it would be the 14th largest economy in the world.

Rick Perry caught heavy flak during his 2012 bid for the presidency for pro-secession comments made at a Tea Party rally a few earlier. His apologists maintained he was being taken out of context. It was a harder to make that claim after similar comments were recorded during a casual discussion in his office.

In the following years, Perry toned down his overtly secessionist rhetoric. Someone probably told him that it made him look really bad to everyone who wasn't on the farthest fringes of the conservative movement. He even went as far as to publicly dismiss the independence petition. He may be responsible for helping popularize the idea for his own political gain, but in the end, Perry is too pragmatic a politician to hitch his wagon to a project doomed to fail so utterly.

Perry has announced big plans for the creation of a "Fort Knox of Texas" in which to hoard gold to ensure Texan "sovereignty." While such a vision is not inherently secessionist on its own, Perry and others in his government have already given people plenty reason to make assumptions.

Open talk of independence emerged once again in the state's halls of power in September. This time, it wasn't Perry, but Barry Smitherman, the Texas railroad commissioner who intends to make a bid for the state's attorney general. While discussing the energy policy of the state, Smitherman said: "Generally speaking, we have made great progress in becoming an independent nation, an 'island nation' if you will."

THERE ARE a number of reasons why right-wing Texans, fringe and mainstream, dream aloud about their state becoming its own country. For one, it's always been a part of Southern conservatism since the Reconstruction era, when the federal government briefly intervened in former Confederate state governments to ensure civil rights for all.

But Texas nationalism is a lot more mainstream than neo-Confederate sentiment in other Southern states. There is a powerful nostalgia industry, complete with reenactments of battles from the "Texas Revolution," facsimiles of the Texas Declaration of Independence on truck stop walls, and the preservation of the Alamo, which is the state's most popular tourist destination. Four million people go to the Alamo every year, and they can buy reproduction Texas banknotes and all sorts of mementos from the time when Texas was its "own" country.

This nostalgia for "independent " Texas is built around two false notions.

The first one is that Texas has the legal right to secede. It really doesn't, though. As the myth goes, the treaty that allowed for the annexation of Texas by the U.S. contains a clause allowing Texas to peacefully depart from the Union. Large numbers of Texans believe this to be the case.

The actual clause states that Texas can break up into as many as five separate states. Voting trends across the state indicate that such a move would actually result in a few very strongly liberal states centered around the largest cities.

The second myth is that the Republic of Texas was an honest attempt at nation-building in the first place. Officially founded in 1836 by pro-slavery settlers from the U.S. who led an armed rebellion against Mexico, the government of Texas began negotiating for U.S. statehood during its first year as a republic.

It actually took Texans a full 10 years to win their statehood bid and during that time they had to administer the place. Hence, Texas was once "independent." For all the mythmaking and posturing, what really happened was that Americans crossed the border into Mexico and took over a big chunk of territory for the U.S.--specifically for the U.S. South, with the direct intention of maintaining the legality of slavery.

Texas did secede once in 1861, against the pleas of Gov. Sam Houston who was previously "president" of the Republic of Texas. The slaveholding state formally declared itself to be a white man's government with a "dependent" Black population and joined the Confederate States of America.

OF COURSE, there's also not much of a chance that pro-independence sentiment will ever take hold among even moderate conservatives, let alone the general population, which is actually turning more liberal by the year, according to opinion polls.

The real danger lies in the further legitimacy of nationalism and racism in a hyper-militarized border state that executes poor people of color at a rate unparalleled in this hemisphere. While Rick Perry and his ilk seem to be acting out an absurd comedy, what they do on the ground shows the horrific effects of their ideology.

Despite the Obama administration's dramatic intensification of the war on undocumented workers, the supposed lack of "border security" is one of the primary grievances that Texas conservatives all have against the president. It's also one of the main ingredients in the secessionist cocktail that the far right has been drinking lately. To the extent that they can pretend there is a border problem that the federal government won't deal with, their "state's rights" rhetoric will have particularly vicious policy consequences.

The burden is on the left to ridicule but also systematically oppose such sentiment at every turn. Like the real secessionists who started the Civil War, the modern purveyors of this racist garbage have to be pushed back in word and in deed.

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