Emergency and the re-emergence of civic engagement in the US – Reflections of an ethnographer in pandemic Austin, Texas

In June 2020, Central Texas entered the yearly flash flood season in unusual circumstances. In addition to the well-known weather-related emergency, daily living was also being radically shaped by nation-wide protests defending Black Lives, and four months of the coronavirus pandemic. In Austin, where I resided with my family, life in the intersection of these phenomena is significantly different for different people. During my time in Texas and the US this year I could reflect on the relations between experiences of crisis and changes in women and racial minorities’ political engagement. Recent shifts in grassroots politics and governance are shaping each other. To understand the long-term consequences of governing multiple coexisting crises, one needs to also understand how and why minority politics are changing. 

I had come to Austin in mid-February on a Fulbright grant to study the politics of flood management among East Austin’s Latino and Black minorities and especially women. As the pandemic lockdown complicated my access to face-to-face research, I reached out to ethnographic reflexivity to understand minorities’ experiences of multiple coexisting crises. When exercising ethnographic reflexivity, research is understood to be more trustworthy and analytically stronger because the reflexive author is aware of how her own positionality – here, as a woman and a mother in a half-Finnish, half-American-Latino family – shapes her analytical lens.

In the US as in much of the rest of the world, life amidst the pandemic is significantly different for women and men, and for different ethnic groups. Mothers with caring responsibilities have seen their effectiveness at work decline sharply while their partners have been able to maintain their productivity (Lewis 2020). In the US, many mothers have made the choice to leave their jobs to be able to assume the traditional caring role during the continued lockdown. 

In Texas and a few other conservative states, healthcare politics during the Covid-19 pandemic have also nearly produced an emergency for women’s reproductive rights: For roughly a month in the spring of 2020, abortion was included among the “nonessential surgical procedures” that had to be cancelled or postponed to make sure coronavirus patients were getting the care they needed. Motherhood in a pandemic is different depending on who you are and where you reside.

Later in the spring, when Black Lives Matter emerged as a nationwide movement against police brutality towards black people, Austin, Texas, saw attempts to manage pressing minority issues conflict with Covid-19 politics. At the core of these political struggles are fundamentally different understandings of emergency and safety, that get expressed in conflicting demands to either maintain or reallocate funding for the police. While an organization that seeks to promote safety at the University of Texas demands that police funding be kept in order to ensure the availability of first dispatchers and emergency workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, an organization supporting racial minority rights requires that funding for police be reallocated to “other emergency services that will actually help empower the minority community” (Venkataramanan 2020). Suddenly, healthcare competes with the rights of ethnic minority citizens.

And therefore, while white America grapples with the coronavirus, for many ethnic minorities, the health emergency is one more among multiple crises, some of them structurally constituted. As an ethnographer with no access to follow the daily lives of people, my means to understand what goes on for Black and Latina women around me are mostly limited to the shared experience of the everyday constancy of motherhood with a baby – as Lynn Steger Strong writes, children are “so surely and so endlessly just there”. For a mother of a Latino baby, I see that this experience stands for the entire family: Social distancing is harder to do when family is much more than those who live with me under the same roof. In other words, as daily living for all Texans becomes radically shaped by lockdown policies, “the rhythm of motherhood and family” stays somewhat the same to me and others. However, my experience of one emergency is very different from many Black and Latina women’s multiple coexisting emergencies. 

Later, in the middle of the summer, as I was given the privileged opportunity to relocate with my family to Finland, many American minorities were turning towards grassroots activism. For some militant Texans, such as one group in Dallas, this meant taking up arms to defend private business owners’ rights to maintain doors open while the State radically limited business operations to halt the pandemic. Before its annexation to the US, Texas was its own country, and currently it has e.g. complete energy independence. Thus combined discourses of economic revival and armed activism are for many people constitutive of a Texan identity. For many minorities, however, as the yearly floods threatened their housing and Covid-19 posed a risk to their lives that was multiple times the risk to white Americans, the co-emergence of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter came as a chance to take part in shaping the longer term of politics.

Now in November 2020 after the presidential elections, it is obvious that in addition to ethnic minority groups, women were among those who saw that a lot needed to change. According to the sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol, interviewed by the Atlantic, roughly 2 500 activist groups led by women emerged during the spring and summer of 2020 (Godfrey 2020b). Many of them were Republican women disillusioned by Trump, who saw becoming Democrat as their only option (Godfrey 2020a). Many were Black women who either are inactive Democrat voters (ibid.) or women who cannot, now or any other time, imagine voting other than Democrat (Crumpton 2020).  

Journalist Elaine Godfrey writes that the shift in American grassroots politics may extend far beyond presidential elections. She cites Skocpol: “It’s a renaissance of a very long-standing form of American civic engagement”. According to Godfrey, especially women have the potential to shape the long term of politics through statehouse races, local party organizations and school boards. 

For social scientists seeking to understand the long-term consequences of governing emergencies, conceptualizing governance by turning a blind eye to shifts in civic engagement is not really an option. While electoral cycles strongly limit the potential of politicians to prepare for the long term, progressive civic groups that are not constrained by the same short-sightedness may have the ability to pressure for changes that take into account the further future. In a world of complex and intertwined crises, responding to emergency is increasingly a bottom-up issue.


Crumpton, Taylor. 2020. Black women saved the democrats. Don’t make us do it again. The Washington Post, November 7, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/11/07/black-women-joe-biden-vote/

Godfrey, Elaine. 2020a. Revenge of the Wine Moms: How Anti-Trump Women in America’s suburbs are ushering in a new era of political activism. The Atlantic, October 21, 2020.

Godfrey, Elaine. 2020b. Democrats have a Republican-Women Problem: Conservative women in America’s suburbs helped make Joe Biden president. Are they welcome in his party? The Atlantic, November 10, 2020.

Lewis, Helen. 2020. The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism.
Pandemics affect men and women differently. The Atlantic, March 19, 2020.

Steger Strong, Lynn. 2020. I found a rhythm in motherhood. New York Times, May 5, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/05/parenting/how-motherhood-changed-us.html#instincts

Venkataramanan, Meena. 2020. Austin city council unanimously limits police officers’ use of force and asks for cuts to department budget. The Texas Tribune, June 11, 2020. https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/11/austin-police-reform-budget-cut-george-floyd-protests/