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Presentation on city’s racist history explores why Black Austinites are leaving

Friday, March 19, 2021 by Seth Smalley

A joint commission consisting of the bicycle and pedestrian advisory councils fielded a presentation Tuesday from the Equity Office on the history of racism in Austin. Topics ranged from redlining and gentrification to the schism between Austin’s stated values and contradicting realities.

Kellee Coleman with the Equity Office drew attention to discrepancies between some of the city’s values – economic opportunity and affordability, safety, culture, lifelong learning, mobility and government that works for all – and long-running racial inequities.

The conversation preceded presentations from the Austin Transportation Department on the equity action plan and the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan policy framework.

“I thought it would be helpful to present on the racial history of Austin to sort of frame the work that you’re trying to do,” Coleman said to the joint commission.

Coleman presented the findings of an Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis study by Eric Tang, titled Those Who Left, about the city’s declining African American population. The study examines their list of reasons for leaving Austin, with affordability topping the list at 56 percent. Quality of schooling and racism came next, at 24 and 16 percent respectively.

“I think actually we’ve started to get away from that, but it goes back and forth. One year we’ll gain some Black folks, and one year we’ll lose some. It’s always fluctuating,” Coleman said.

While Austin has been ranked the No. 1 place to live, according to U.S. News and World Report, Coleman noted it is also the only major American city whose African American population is declining.

Dove Springs, the Austin neighborhood where Coleman grew up, still has over 40 percent household poverty rates. Children of color are five to seven times more likely to live in poverty in Austin, according to Coleman.

“That’s really what helps us try to be accountable to the community we’re serving: to know the data, and to know who is most negatively impacted by our systems,” Coleman said, spotlighting the contributions of the Equity Office.

Coleman drew a nutshell portrait of racism in Austin and sketched the (much later) origins of its Equity Office.

In 1922, Chapter 81 of the Ku Klux Klan consisted of approximately 1,500 members, one of whom was the Travis County sheriff. Real estate deed restrictions and ordinances prevented minorities and minority establishments from buying in many locations, including Travis Heights and Hyde Park. East Avenue – later Interstate 35 – was the original red line, dividing the affluent white area from the minority population. In addition, Austin minority homeowners were faced with historically higher interest rates, trapping them in debt cycles for generations.

In 2015, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” on City Council to have at least two people of color on Council.

“This was an agreement we would have at least one Latino and one Black person on Council and no one else would run for those seats. After (the) 10-1 (Council structure) was passed, we were able to have neighborhood districts redrawn and people were hoping there would be more representation and accountability,” Coleman said.

Following that effort, the local community organized to push for health equity, in particular.

“The same folks who organized around health equity also knew that, even if we were able to fund the most magnificent, perfect programs, those programs are really just Band-Aids on larger systems that are still cranking out negative outcomes for the community,” Coleman explained.

“This same group organized around creating an equity tool to figure out how to have this system stop causing so much harm – and maybe even cause some positive outcomes too.”

Following an extensive search and interview process, Brion Oaks was hired as the city’s first chief equity officer in October 2016.

“It wasn’t something the city just kind of came up with on its own. But it was open to it. So that, I think, is hopeful,” Coleman said.

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