Austin mayor Steve Adler had to do something. In a nation increasingly attuned to the reality of racial inequality, in a state that has seen a great deal of racial strife, in a city that touts itself as the progressive Oz in the reddest state of all, an atrocity had occurred.
In February of last year, an Austin city cop shot and killed an unarmed, naked black teenager, who was behaving erratically and refused to comply with the officer’s requests. The officer who shot the teen faced no charges after his acquittal by a grand jury. Then, last June, dashcam video was released which showed a 2015 incident in which a police officer manhandled a cuffed black woman, and told her that white people feared blacks because of their “violent tendencies.” Austin police officers were also accused of using excessive force on a group of black and Hispanic tourists; in the video of that beating, one of the tourists asks an officer, “What did I do?”
In most cities, this kind of abject, wanton abuse of power would result in massive street protests. But Austin remained relatively quiet. There are plenty of reasons for that, to be sure, not the least of which is that Austin is the only growing city in America that does not have an increasing black population.
But Adler didn’t need massive protests to realize that change was needed in Texas’ most progressive city, which has a population of nearly a million people. By the end of 2016, he had commissioned a “Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequalities,” led by Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette and Austin Schools Superintendent Paul Cruz, and including 200 community members.
Adler was not interested in a rundown of statistics. He wanted a delineation of the systemic factors causing racial and economic inequity in Austin; he wanted the city to see that it was up against decades of socioeconomic disparity and embroiled racism.
“Don’t be afraid to make me or the community uncomfortable,” he said to the task force. “I’m not looking for easy solutions.”
The task force took the direction to heart, and the results are unsettling—the kind of thing that rocks a city that prides itself on progressivism to the core. The report found astonishing amounts of inequality among Austinites—things so glaring that, according to Reverend Daryl Horton, an Austin-based Baptist cleric who helped develop the report, readers grew “very uncomfortable.”
“It’s easy to assume that there are tangible injustices throughout our spheres of power in Philadelphia,” Dix says. “When have we ever had this conversation in Philadelphia? When has there been anything like a task force to analyze our history?”
Per the report, the average family median income of Asian Americans and non-Hispanic whites in Austin is roughly more than twice that of blacks and Hispanics. Even though Hispanic students make up nearly half of the entire public school population in Austin, just 20 percent of public school teachers are Hispanic; similarly, the report found a titanic difference in the percentage of educational disciplinary referrals of white and Asian students compared to their Hispanic and black peers. The report touches on everything from food deserts to women’s mental health, and the sad statistics are abundant. But they’re not even the most important part of the document.
In fact, a rather small amount of the 70-page report is dedicated to running down the scary numbers that define Austin’s embarrassing levels of inequality. Those are easy enough to find. What’s most striking about the report is the extensive outline of the historical factors behind that inequality, the causes of historical financial and racial segregation.
The report devotes much space to Austin’s vastly unjust legal history, and the ripple effect that past municipal policy has had through the decades. It addresses, among many other things, the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, which calls for the creation of a “Negro District”; the removal of black Texans from Austin-area “freedmen towns”; a 1957 law that called for the industrialization of a predominantly black neighborhood; and the purposeful displacement of Hispanic Austinites through municipal development. The report takes an unsparing view of Austin’s educational system, and addresses the historic inequalities when it comes to the availability of medical care for Austinites of color.
It is an ugly, unsparing look at a blue city that has rarely, if ever, dealt with its inconvenient history—and a reminder that being blue does not necessarily equal being progressive.
The report isn’t all doom and gloom though. It also contains hundreds of recommendations of innovative measures for Austin’s city council to consider in order to reverse the city’s growing racial and economic disparities. Some seem pie-in-the-sky, like researching reparations for Austinites who have been hurt by the city’s unsavory history. Others, though, seem doable, like calling for a spike in the hiring of minority educators, or setting aside a $600 million fund to ensure equal housing for people of color.
In April, the city council voted to task the city manager with drafting policies that address the findings and contour with the report’s recommendations.
Philadelphia and Austin are remarkably similar cities. Both are massively racially segregated, ranking in the top 50 of the most racially segregated big cities in the country. (In fact, Philadelphia, according to a 2015 study by 538, is the fourth most segregated.) What’s more: Both cities have astonishing levels of financial inequality. A report conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute earlier this year found both the Austin and Philadelphia metro areas to be among the top 10 most financially segregated in the country, with Austin ranking first and Philadelphia eighth. (The Philly metro area includes Camden, Philadelphia and Wilmington.)
And like Austin, Philadelphia is a progressive city that has done little to confront its segregatory past. Like most major cities, it ghettoized minorities to help concentrate its wealth; white flight to the suburbs, and the practice of “redlining” certain city neighborhoods as mortgage risks based primarily on race fueled a disparity in housing. What followed in many cases is what we see now—neighborhoods in disrepair, with schools that struggle to keep up with the need, unemployment and lack of access to transportation and what jobs there are. Like in most major cities, ethnic groups found themselves in furious struggles against one another over the availability of labor, as in the 40s, when Philadelphia Transportation Company (the precursor to SEPTA) workers organized a strike to signal their objection to the company’s integration. These issues, among others, are part of a bargain that seemingly every major city made once: Separate out the have-nots so the haves can flourish, historical consequences be damned.
“I think what’s happening in Austin is the exact same thing as what’s happening in Philadelphia,” says Richardson Dilworth, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy. “If you look at Philadelphia and surrounding neighborhoods, you have massive growth. But it’s majority higher income, majority white, and it creates an increasingly de facto sort of segregation.”
The report devotes much space to Austin’s vastly unjust legal history. It addresses the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, which calls for the creation of a “Negro District”; the removal of black Texans from Austin-area “freedmen towns”; a 1957 law that called for the industrialization of a predominantly black neighborhood; and the purposeful displacement of Hispanic Austinites through municipal development.
As Austin’s task force reminded its politicians and residents, these problems are as old as the city itself. They echo through decades, and our efforts to fix them, without probing their historical causes and contexts, are like treating a metastatic cancer with a bandage. That’s the lesson to take away from Austin: If we’re really going to build a more equitable tomorrow, we need to be fully aware of our past.
“What they did in Austin is a bold step toward accountability and reconciliation,” says David Dix, a political consultant and managing director at LuminousStrategies. “We’ve never really had validated task forces. They’ve never really offered an analytical look at the history, and they’re never really staffed or propagated with relevant leaders or stakeholders, like in Austin. They very rarely have the teeth or ability to enact anything once they’ve done the studies.”
Dix, who is African American, has worked with Republican governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker and also served as a fundraiser in Pennsylvania for Pres. Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. During last year’s Presidential campaign, he spearheaded Donald Trump’s controversial visit to North Philadelphia to talk about African American issues.
He says this type of task force is long overdue in Philadelphia, particularly one, like in Austin, that is made up of people across sectors of the city, and that focuses on recommendations—a way to move the city forward. He acknowledges that Austin and Philly look different on the outside—one, a gleaming southern tech boom city, and the other a gritty east coast metropolis—but they have what he calls similar “racial fault lines.”
As for what Dix would expect from such a task force, he has one idea for what he’d try and tackle if he were part of it. He says he’d recommend an overhaul of the police civilian review board, and give it greater abilities to sanction officers who have stepped out of line. But that’s just one thing; figuring out the rest is exactly the point.
“It’s hard to predict what [a task force] might discover,” he says. “But it’s easy to assume that there are tangible injustices throughout our spheres of power in Philadelphia. When have we ever had this conversation in Philadelphia? When has there been anything like a task force to analyze our history?”Header photo: Maina Kiai, via Flickr