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Photo by Julia Reihs/KUT. Rapper, activist and East Austin native Nook Turner at a press conference announcing the creation of the Black Austin Coalition, a group that's called on the city to formally address systemic racism in its historical policies – and invest more intentionally in Black Austin communities.

City Council apologizes for Austin’s systemic racism, vows to invest in a Black embassy

Friday, March 5, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin City Council has formally apologized for its role in perpetuating racist policies that contributed to historical equity, health and wealth gaps that persist for Black Austinites.

A resolution, which passed unanimously Thursday, directs the city to quantify the impact of systemic racism in real dollars and invest in an effort to build a Black “embassy” in East Austin to serve as a resource center for Black residents.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who led the effort on Council to pass the resolution, said while the measure is symbolic, it’s an important step in addressing the city’s racist past. Shortly before the vote, Harper-Madison said she hopes the resolution will more tangibly address what she called a “chasm of inequality, of inequity” between Black and white Austinites.

“I want to make sure that we don’t just settle for words, that we demand actions,” she said. “Justice demands actions.”

The resolution acknowledges Austin’s failures throughout history, highlighting the city’s role in propagating slavery in its earliest days; its support of urban renewal and development efforts that displaced Black communities throughout the 20th century; and its present-day struggles to address disparities in health and wealth impacting the Black community.

The resolution also directly acknowledges the impact of the city’s 1928 Master Plan and Jim Crow-era segregation. City Hall has previously acknowledged that impact, but advocates have argued those efforts were symbolic and failed to lead to any relief, restitution or resources for Black Austinites.

The 1928 plan broke up at least 17 Black-led Freedom Communities across the city, seized the land for development and forced Black Austinites into a so-called Negro District in East Austin. The plan effectively stunted Black residents’ ability to create generational wealth by legally segregating the city’s Black population across what is now Interstate 35.

Nook Turner, a rapper and member of the Black Austin Coalition, ran point on the community-led effort to get the resolution to the dais at City Hall. A native East Austinite, Turner organized the coalition late last year and helped draft the resolution along with Yasmine Smith of the Austin Area Urban League.

Turner said he hopes the resolution leads to fundamental change within his neighborhood in East Austin — a historically Black neighborhood where the Black population has been decimated because of urban renewal and gentrification in recent decades.

He said the resolution’s plan for an embassy – a city-backed center that would aim to provide health resources, foster growth and creation of Black-owned businesses and serve as a cultural hub in East Austin – will go a long way toward addressing and reversing long-standing inequalities.

Austin is the only major city in the U.S. that hasn’t seen growth among its Black population despite a boom in overall population in the last decade. White Austinites earn double the median income of Black and Latino Austinites. Between 2000 and 2010, the Black population in the area around 12th and Chicon streets dropped by 60 percent.

“Blacks have to be able to have an opportunity as Blacks to enjoy the same quality of life that Austin boasts about and that makes this such a great city,” Turner said. “So we stand behind this resolution. We stand behind anybody that wants to … work with us to make sure that we see a future (that’s) better for our kids.”

The resolution also directs the city manager’s office to partner with Huston-Tillotson University and UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs to quantify the “direct, indirect, intentional, and unintentional harm caused through economic, health, environmental, criminal injustice, and other racial disparities” as a result of the city’s action, or inaction.

Turner and others hope that dollar amount could result in financial restitution for economic losses faced by the Black community in Austin – restitution that would ultimately be invested into the embassy and into the community.

City Manager Spencer Cronk is expected to report back to City Council with a report on how best to implement the plan by Aug. 1.

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

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