A Misunderstood ‘Diversity’

Over downtown Houston (Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Dreamstime)
A multicultural Texas, 200 years in the making

A Houston scene: Three men at a high-end health club, two of them middle-aged, one of them a teenager. The older men wear bespoke button-down shirts with their jeans and high-dollar cowboy boots, while the younger man is still wearing his workout clothes. They switch back and forth easily between English and Spanish. They are talking about the sports they played while in school. The young man says that he recently has taken up Ultimate Frisbee. “Frisbee,” says one older man, the contempt in his voice accentuated by his heavy Mexican accent. “Frisbee is for dogs.”

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, recently offered up Houston — the exemplar of Erica Grieder’s “big, hot, and cheap” model of Texas — as a case study in what a more diverse, dynamic, and immigrant-friendly United States might look like.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many Republicans prefer a dying white America to a place like, say, Houston.

Houston has very light zoning regulations, and as a result it has affordable housing and a culture that welcomes immigrants. This has made it incredibly diverse, with 145 languages spoken in the city’s homes, and incredibly dynamic — the fastest-growing big city in America recently. (Personally, I wish it would do a bit more zoning — it’s pretty ugly.)

The large immigrant population has paradoxically given the city a very strong, very patriotic and cohesive culture, built around being welcoming to newcomers and embracing the future.

There is something to this, though I am not quite sure that Brooks has it exactly right.

Cheap housing — and a generally low cost of living — is indeed a big part of Houston’s secret sauce, as it is for other Texas cities not named for the “Father of Texas,” along with other livable and dynamic cities such as Las Vegas and Orlando. As for the zoning tradeoffs: The high-toned people of River Oaks are not too jazzed about that gigantic porn emporium on the corner just down from the Galleria, but the ugly parts of Houston are no uglier than the ugly parts of Los Angeles or New York City. Ugly is ugly. Take the train from Washington to New York someday and you’ll see the ugly backside of everything.

Living in a place where it is less of a struggle to pay the rent or make the mortgage payment does indeed chill most everybody out a little bit. But it is not at all obvious that what Houston — or Texas at large — enjoys is in fact a culture that is generally welcoming to immigrants in a way that is different from Scottsdale or Trenton or Missoula. What Texas does have is something close to the opposite of that: a large and very well-integrated Mexican-American community. Anglos in Texas aren’t welcoming to Latinos because we are in some way uniquely open to the unfamiliar, but because they are not unfamiliar.

This matters in ways that are not obvious if you didn’t grow up with it. My native West Texas, along with the whole of the border and much of the rest of the state, has a longstanding, stable Anglo–Latin hybrid culture. Houston does, too, but Houston, being a very large city, is a little more complicated; I had lunch yesterday with a conservative leader who chatted amiably with the staff in Spanish at . . . an Indian restaurant.

Anglos in Texas aren’t welcoming to Latinos because we are in some way uniquely open to the unfamiliar, but because they are not unfamiliar.

That robust hybrid culture ensures that the people Anglos hear speaking Spanish are not always poor, not mowing the lawn or cleaning a hotel room, that they are not usually immigrants, not people who cannot speak or read English — not alien. They are neighbors who, if you are lucky, make Christmas tamales. And they might be your employer or your employee, the guy who sells you a car or approves your car loan, a pastor at your church, a professor, a member of your Ultimate Frisbee team . . . or an illegal immigrant, or a criminal, or someone who is in some way unassimilated, alien, or threatening. When one out of three people in your county is “Hispanic” — a word that in Texas overwhelmingly means “Mexican-American” — then you tend to know Hispanic people of all descriptions: the good, the bad, and the ordinary.

That is not the case in, say, Arlington, Va., which does not have a large and well-assimilated Mexican-American population but does have a large and poorly assimilated population of Spanish-speaking immigrants. The two things are not the same — more like opposites. Add to that the fact, sometimes lost on Anglos, that there is no such thing as a “Hispanic” culture or population, that people with roots in Mexico do not think of themselves as being part of a single cultural group that includes people from Central America and South America. A while back, I heard an older fellow of Mexican background complaining about the Guatemalans moving into his area — and he was an illegal immigrant. That’s a funny reality: In Texas, even some of the illegals don’t think that we can let just anybody cross the border. But ethnic politics is a strange business: In West Texas, young whites without much money (college students and the like) who would never for a moment seriously consider moving into a low-income black neighborhood will not give a second thought to moving into a largely Hispanic neighborhood.

All of which is not to say that Texas does not have a fair number of poorly assimilated Spanish-speaking immigrants: It surely does, especially in the big cities. (People forget how urban Texas is: Six of the 20 largest U.S. cities are in Texas.) But it is easier to accommodate — and, one hopes, to assimilate — those newcomers when you have a culture of mutual familiarity and trust, which is based not on newcomers but on oldcomers. Texas’s ancient Mexican-American community — whose members famously boast, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” — is a kind of buffer that makes absorbing newcomers less stressful.

Reality is complicated, and it is particular. This should be obvious to anybody who is paying attention. My habitual advice to people who want to understand the complicated class and racial dynamics of the United States is to spend 30 minutes in a Walmart and 30 minutes in a Whole Foods. Of course race matters everywhere, but a white guy buying $30/pound grilled salmon at Whole Foods and a black guy buying $30/pound grilled salmon at Whole Foods probably have a lot more in common with one another than they do with anybody shopping at Walmart, and vice versa. It is not their enjoyment of diversity that takes the edge off of racial different, but their commonalities. Send 2,000 dirt-poor Nicaraguan immigrants to live in San Antonio’s tony Alamo Heights and see how much everybody there enjoys that addition to the gorgeous mosaic of America.

Reality is complicated, and it is particular. This should be obvious to anybody who is paying attention.

Brooks is correct about Houston’s remarkably diversity and the relative ease with which that diversity sits (or at least seems to sit) on the city and its people. But this is not the virtuous multiculturalism of the Ivy League imagination — it is life as it actually is lived in a real place with a real history.

Beyond cheap housing, what Houston has is a lot of jobs, from blue-collar industrial work to high finance. And while the city’s economy has diversified over the years, much of its prosperity remains rooted in a single industry: energy. If you ever have spent much time covering city government, then you have heard a variation on this story: A mayor or the CEO of the economic-development agency visits Silicon Valley and decides that the future of Muleshoe, Texas, is in attracting high-tech companies. Or the mayor of Buffalo visits Las Vegas and decides that casinos are the future. I remember Philadelphia mayor John Street insisting, with great earnestness, that the economic future of Philadelphia was to be based on tourism. (Let’s see: Liberty Bell, maybe the Constitution Center, the Rocky steps . . . okay, I’m out. Too bad they ruined the Barnes Foundation.) Silicon Valley did not become Silicon Valley because the San Jose Chamber of Commerce hatched a brilliant scheme to make it so. It was a development that was largely exogenous to policy, as they say. Houston was a cotton-trading town until Spindletop came in. New York has oil, even if the state’s batty governor won’t let anybody at it, but not every place has a dormant energy industry, and even those that do are not going to build the nation’s fourth-largest city on what they have.

In short: It makes sense to learn from the successes and failures of our cities, but imitations have limitations. (The town fathers of Lubbock, Texas, once got it into their heads that they should develop a river-walk like the famous one in San Antonio. The plan apparently reached a surprisingly advanced degree of development before somebody had the good sense to point out that there is no river.) You can call the area around Salt Lake City “Silicon Slopes” and insist that the Dallas suburbs are the “Silicon Prairie,” but that mostly is nominal magic.

Texas’s “welcoming” attitude, if it really is that, took a couple of hundred years to develop. You cannot transplant that to Greenwich, Conn., overnight — and you certainly cannot transplant it easily to a place such as Southern California, which has its own very complex and considerably more fraught and tense model of Anglo–Latino relations. By all means, loosen up San Francisco’s zoning laws and do what you can to cultivate blue-collar prosperity in Northern Virginia. But Houston is the way it is for a reason, and those reasons are local, historical, and largely nontransferable.


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