It was the summer of 2018, and I was 17. My mom’s Volkswagen Passat shook to the riffs of Kierra Sheard as she looked for a place to park, and I shook along with it, nervously. I was about to embark on an intense weeklong social experiment.
My mom spoke. “It looks really conservative René. Where are the Black people?” I looked around, and could count the people of color on my hands. “René, do you want to go home?”
Boys State — the subject of a recent documentary, in which I was featured — is an annual program run in almost every state by the American Legion. It was founded in 1935 with the aims of fighting socialism and teaching civics. (Girls State, its all-girls counterpart, was started in 1937.) In Texas, about 1,000 mostly white and conservative-leaning high school seniors gather at the University of Texas at Austin campus for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own local, county and state governments. The focus is more on the electoral process than the job in office. It’s a competitive, rowdy and intellectually rigorous crucible created to churn out more civic-minded young men.
And in some ways, for me, it worked: I did emerge from Boys State more inclined to be civically engaged. But what it also taught me was that I want to stay away from politics. What I learned is that the electoral process makes people complacent. It is not intended to accommodate those of us who are Black, or brown, or queer. To effectively represent my identities and communities is to be labeled “radical” and unelectable.
It’s not that I didn’t get how to play the game; in fact, I was good at it. I quickly learned the value of trying to reach people who have no interest in what you have to say. Armed with three years of speech and debate experience, I won over hundreds of unfamiliar, mostly white peers to be elected a state party chair. I praised the values of bipartisanship, though it troubled me to make concessions to viewpoints I didn’t necessarily agree with — including anti-abortion, pro-gun rights and anti-immigration policies. That is how I survived the program.
Yet even as I touted compromise, I had to deal with an old devil: racism. A counter movement formed to impeach and recall me. Nothing was off limits. Images of Black caricatures were shared on Instagram with captions comparing me to them. I once overheard some fellow Boys Staters make racist jokes about me while I was in a bathroom stall. I received anonymous phone calls with threats of lynching.
This brand of demagogy is a familiar strategy that my fellow Boys Staters learned from the current political climate. They brought in race and paired it with ideals around nationalism, using fear as a mobilizing tactic.
I learned that a lot of my fellow Boys Staters were great politicians — but I don’t necessarily consider that a compliment. The program engenders a culture of stringent competition, chest-thumping and underhanded tactics. We were teenage boys whose only understanding of government was what we had seen adults doing. We were all participating in theater.
Now that I’ve been through Boys State, I can see why electoral politics on the national level works the way it does: Anti-black racism appears in (and is often rewarded by) the political sphere. Almost as soon as Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate, President Trump attacked her with a birther conspiracy — just as he had done with Barack Obama. For decades, Black leaders like Shirley Chisholm and Maxine Waters have been pressured to de-radicalize their politics — to prove to white people they are “safe” — so they can remain politically viable.
I’ve decided I’m not going to commit my life to electoral politics. We’re all disheartened, and I definitely plan to vote. But Boys State taught me that my skills can be valuable elsewhere, and I’ve grown increasingly cynical about the system itself.
Instead, I’ve spent the past six months researching policy and scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin, overseen by Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, to better understand the community around me. I’ve protested the public execution of Black people by police officers. I’m developing an antiracist curriculum to introduce in an elementary school.
This is labor I perform to preserve what I hold dear — but it seems as though none of it matters to the establishment if it doesn’t benefit the electoral process. People twice my age express disappointment that I’m not planning a future run for office: “We need you!” But we also need activists, educators and researchers.
In the premiere episode of “The Michelle Obama Podcast” last month, Barack Obama said of my generation that we “take for granted all the things that a working government has done in the past.”
“The danger for this generation is that they become too deeply cynical in government,” he added.
But I embrace the cynicism, because with it comes brutal honesty.
Even Ms. Obama understands that. In her address at the Democratic National Convention this month, she echoed this sentiment: “You know that I hate politics, but you also know that I care about this nation.” She noted that “going high” and playing the game do not mean you can’t critique the system. This is where we align. Through my brand of civic engagement — marching in the streets, research, advocacy, education — I am marrying my cynicism with action.
Boys State immersed me in a culture that refuses to criticize America, confusing praise with patriotism while ignoring the fact that with love comes accountability. I believe that to love America is to be as cynical about our political system as necessary until real change is made, because faith in what worked in the past won’t get us through.
As a country, we need to come to terms with the fact that just because our systems are established does not mean that they are inevitable.