Photo by Julia Reihs/KUT
Tuesday, November 17, 2020 by Andrew Weber

Black coalition says Austin should pay out millions in restitution for long-ignored systemic racism

Black residents are calling on Austin to address decades of racism, inequity and displacement, demanding the city move to potentially provide as much as half a billion dollars in restitution for the Black community.

Roughly 50 Black Austinites of all ages gathered at 12th and Chicon streets Saturday to announce a proposal that would dole out that $500 million over 10 years, as well as establish an African American embassy to serve as a hub for Black entrepreneurs and a health and educational resource center. The group members did not outline how they thought the money should be distributed.

Rapper Nook Turner, an East Austin native, organized the multigenerational Black Austin Coalition, which includes the Austin chapter of the NAACP, the Austin Urban League, the Austin Justice Coalition and Black-owned businesses.

While Austin’s mistreatment of the Black community stretches back to its earliest days, he argued, much of the modern inequity stems from the city’s 1928 Master Plan, which forced Black people to the city’s east side. He said the coalition’s proposal hopes to rectify that.

“Every time a plan is offered for us, it always hurts us,” he said. “So what we decided to do as the Black Austin Coalition, is we decided to develop our own plan that is not only for us, but it is controlled by us. We don’t need to advise the city on what they need to do. We don’t need to give them a list of recommendations. They need to give us what they owe us.”

The 1928 plan is a blemish on the city’s history. The plan broke up at least 15 Black-led Freedmen’s communities across the city, seized the land for development and forced Black people into a so-called Negro district in East Austin. In short, it robbed future Black Austinites of generational wealth and was a constitutional end-around to achieve segregation based on race through redlining.

While Austin has acknowledged that impact in recent years, longtime East Austin community advocate Michael Lofton said the city hasn’t taken tangible action to rebalance the scales for the Black community. Lofton said he was happy to support the so-called Black restitution fund, as it would be a step toward righting systemic wrongs he’s been trying to address for 40 years.

“Things haven’t changed the way it ought to,” he said. “If nothing else, I can make sure that I help the next generation until one day we get a Council, until one day we get a Commissioners Court, until one day we have elected officials (who) say, ‘You know what? Wrong is wrong, and we need to address it.'”

Austin is the only major city in the U.S. that hasn’t seen commensurate levels of growth in the Black population, despite a boom in overall population. Black and Latino residents earn half of the median income of their white counterparts. Between 2000 and 2010, the Black population in the area around 12th and Chicon dropped by 60 percent, and dogs now outnumber children.

Turner said that while he holds no ill will toward his white neighbors, it’s been frustrating to see them walking their dogs “like Smurfs,” seemingly unaware of the displacement and inequity.

“I see dogs in my city having a higher quality of life than Black children,” Turner said. “And so that’s what this is about.”

Turner said he’s in talks with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, and that he’s submitted a draft resolution for the restitution fund. Adler suggested in his annual address to the city earlier this year that Austin should do more to address historic inequities. Harper-Madison, Council’s only Black representative, led efforts at City Hall to address systemic racism, including declaring racism a public health crisis in Austin.

Turner is also calling on City Manager Spencer Cronk to study the economic impact – and quantify an inflation-adjusted dollar amount – that the 1928 Master Plan had on the Black community.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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