Last week featured an official City of Austin apology from the City Council for the City’s “participation in the enslavement of Black people, for its active involvement in segregation and systemic discrimination, for exacerbating racial divides through both active and intentional means, and passive, inadvertent means, and for carrying out multiple ‘urban renewal’ programs that hindered, and often decimated, the progress made by Black communities.”
The apology came in the form of an unanimous vote for a resolution put forward by Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison. Her co-sponsors were Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar.
The history is certainly accurate enough. For instance, the 1928 Koch Fowler Plan, cited but not quoted in the resolution, says, “In our studies in Austin we have found that the negroes are present in small numbers, in practically all sections of the city, excepting the area just east of East Avenue [pre-IH 35] and south of the City Cemetery. This area seems to be all negro population. It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will be the recommendation of this district as a negro district; and that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area.”
Still today, although the resolution did not directly state this fact, per capita Black wealth and income lags far behind that of whites and people of Asian descent. For instance a 2019 study by Prosperity Now reported that the medium income in Austin of Asians was $78,629, and whites $72,341, while the local Black median income was $40,004. Latinos, not mentioned in the recent Council resolution, were at $44,239.
So the existence of the historical and ongoing inequities is indisputable. A fundamental question regarding this particular Council resolution, however, is whether the action proposed in the resolution meets the task, or the fanfare. The resolution is noticeably light on actual action going forward. After five pages of Whereases, the City Manager is then “directed to conduct a study and provide a report” with the purpose of “outlining the economic value of the direct, indirect, intentional, and unintentional harm caused through economic, health, environmental, criminal injustice, and other racial disparities and declination of resources by the City to be developed through the partnership between The University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs and Huston-Tillotson University.” It’s not clear what if anything will follow that.
The second action item is that, “The City desires to create a centralized Black resource and cultural center – a Black Embassy – that is geared to the success and cultural promotion of the demographics in need by providing relevant resources, and support for existing and future black-led businesses and organizations, in a central location in East Austin. The City Manager is directed to return to Council with a planning scope, process and funding recommendation for how to accomplish this.” Additionally, the Manager is “directed to provide recommendations of existing City held assets located in Central East Austin that could be used to house a centralized Black resource and cultural center.”
The City Manager has until August 1 to “report back. . . with the analysis and report requested by this Resolution.” So in other words the deliverables are a report and eventually a Black “Embassy” in East Austin.
A few speakers at the Council virtual meeting and a number of community members afterward pointed out that a number of similar studies have been done already. Those include the African American Quality of Life task force in the early 2000s and Mayor Steve Adler’s Task Force on Institutional Racism & Systemic Inequities. The Harper Madison resolution did not mention any of those efforts, even though Adler was a co-sponsor.
At least one speaker also pointed out that there are a large number of City facilities in East Austin already. That includes several recreation centers and the Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center. The Embassy, also described as a “resource and cultural center,” appears aimed more at economic development, “providing relevant resources, and support for existing and future black-led businesses and organizations,” although the aim is not entirely clear from the resolution language.
These critiques, however, shine a light on at least one thing missing from the apology resolution. There is nothing that mentions any previous efforts to address inequality or racial disparities in East Austin. Nor is there any mention of any City facilities built in East Austin — except indirectly when the resolution instructs the Manager to consider City property in East Austin for the new Embassy.
This likely reflects a belief among current Council Members that previous efforts did not amount to much, as well what seems like a prevalent sentiment among several 10-1 Council Members — some current and others recently moved on — that municipal governments prior to them were illegitimate because they were under the at large system. Nonetheless, there were a number of City efforts, beginning in the 1970s to build facilities and establish programs to address poverty and historical disparities. Most of these efforts resulted from community activism by generations of East Austin residents. So it might make sense to examine what happened before and how it may or may not have worked — to inform the current effort.
The most contradictory part of the resolution, in comparison to actions of the lead sponsor and recent Councils, is the calling out of “urban renewal” in the resolution. Urban renewal, states the resolution, “hindered, and often decimated, the progress made by Black communities.” If anything this description is too mild in describing the impact of tearing down homes and businesses during the Urban Renewal era.
In current times, however, the lead sponsor of last week’s resolution, Mayor Pro Tem Harper Madison, has consistently and repeatedly voted for development policies that endanger the future of current East Austin neighborhoods; and she has done so against the opposition of wide swaths of longtime East Austin residents. Those votes include the Land Development Code rewrite and almost weekly zoning cases that are, similar to urban renewal, transforming the face of East Austin. On those votes Harper Madison is sometimes joined by the entire Council, but more frequently (including on the LDC) by allies Greg Casar, Steve Adler, Paige Ellis and formerly Delia Garza and Jimmy Flannigan.
Whatever the case, City Manager Spencer Cronk better get busy because he has a report due August 1 and he and the City staff have a lot of other things to do in the meantime as well.
[To read the resolution click here.]
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