Lawyers of Color – Discover Texas!
I can’t believe I’m saying this: maybe Texas isn’t the last place I want to be on earth anymore. I say this as someone who spent most of my childhood and my entire teenage years trying to get the hell out of Texas – something I accomplished spectacularly living in Manhattan for over three decades. .
Why am I going soft on Texas these days? The immediate reason is that I recently returned from Austin where I attended the University of Texas Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership in 2022. I met a lot of incredibly smart women there from across the country, but one group stood out for me: women lawyers of color who have chosen to live and practice in Texas and who seem happy about it.
Maybe it doesn’t sound so shocking to you, but to me it’s unfathomable. If you’re a very accomplished person of color who can work anywhere in this country, why choose a state that seems determined to bring back the 1950s? (In case you need a reminder, Texas has draconian laws that restrict abortion rights, access to vote, and the rights of the LGBTQ community, though you can almost never carry your gun. anywhere.)
Admittedly, I have a personal baggage on the subject. I grew up in Houston during the Dark Ages of the 60s and 70s. As the only Asian – and, as I recall, the only minority – at Red Elementary School in Houston, I remember being taunted by kids calling me “Jap” and “Chink” or gesturing with slanted eyes or flat noses.
Worse, no adult or child ever intervened on my behalf. Racism was so ingrained that it was not even noticed. It was a different time, and neither I nor my parents would even think of raising the issue of racism in school. As immigrants, we simply put up with such indignities. (Today, the school is 61% Hispanic, 18% Black, 4% Asian, and 16% White.)
To say I felt like “the other” would be an understatement. So it’s kind of amazing that some of the Texas women of color I met at the conference didn’t seem to feel that racism had touched their personal or professional lives.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt racism,” said Daniella Lander, a partner in Womble Bond Dickinson’s Houston office, who grew up in an African-American neighborhood of Houston. A graduate of Purdue University and the University of Texas School of Law (Class of 1996), Landers lived in Los Angeles and Detroit before returning to her hometown in 1999 to be closer to her family.
Although Landers said people made assumptions about her background (“Older white men assumed I was going to an HBCU”), she said it “mostly came from lawyers in New York or ‘other offices, not other Houstonians’. She added: “I don’t want to say it’s racism or sexism, but it’s clear they were trying to size me up.” As for prejudice in Texas, Landers said, “it’s primarily driven by economics rather than race.”
Instead of feeling marginalized by her status as an Asian American lawyer in Texas, litigator Lisa Tsai, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Texas School of Law (Class of 2001) , saw an advantage there.
“Because I grew up here, I understood there was a growing opportunity for women and people of color to be more prominent,” said Tsai, a former Latham & Watkins associate who is now a renowned associate at the Reid Collins & Tsai litigation boutique in Austin. “You know you’ll be a trailblazer – which was a lot of my experience in Texas. I don’t see other people like me who are experienced in trial work, but I felt I had to be that person.
Where do they get that trust? And how come they seem to feel like they belong in Texas? Is it because the Lone Star is such a radically different place from the one I knew?
The short answer is yes, and it has everything to do with the state’s rapidly changing demographics. Since 2010, Texas has gained more residents than any other state, and its Hispanic population is nearly as large as the non-Hispanic white population, according to The Texas Grandstandbased on 2020 U.S. Census figures. Now people of color account for 95% of the growth.
And the place that rivals New York for diversity is (gasp) Houston, my hometown. In fact, it is allegedly the
In Harris County, home to Houston and its ever-growing list of suburbs, the numbers tell the story. According to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, in 1960 Harris County was 74% white, 20% black, 6% Hispanic, and 0.03% Asian/Other. In 2020, there were 28% White, 43% Hispanic, 19% Black, and 10% Asian/Other.
“When I came to Houston in 1972, I shared your feelings. I thought it was a pathetic place – just a bunch of white men who wanted to make money,” said the professor emeritus of the ‘Rice University. Stephen Klinebergan authority over the city. “Then the world changed in the 1980s when the oil boom collapsed, and it had to embrace diversity and immigration. That’s Houston’s destiny.
In Klineberg’s book Prophetic City: Houston at the Dawn of a Changing America, he wrote, “No matter how many undocumented immigrants are deported, no matter how high the wall you try to build…no conceivable force will stop this city, state, or nation from becoming more Latino, more Asian, more African. American, and less Anglo-Saxon as the 21st century unfolds. The demographic transition is an accomplished fact. Houston is America’s rapidly changing demographics.
Prophetic words, but aren’t there vestiges of racism still in Texas?
“There are still prejudices,” Klineberg said. “A lot of English speakers are worried because it’s not an Anglo country anymore… But people of different races are falling in love and having multiracial children. There’s the psychology of inevitability at play. And that triggers the idea that it’s not terrible.
Klineberg’s parting words to me: “Come back to Houston!”
To visit? Definitively. But stay? Not ready for this.