Speakers provided tough talk to some two-thirds of declared council candidates
by Joseph Caterine
Citizens and City Council candidates alike filled the small conference room in the Westminster Branch Library June 24 for Undoing Racism Austin’s City Council Candidate Forum on Racism. About 40 candidates attended, with future voters making up the rest of the crowd
Marisa Perales, a lawyer with Frederick Perales Allmon & Rockwell PC, who serves on the City’s Environmental Board, opened the briefing, expressing her gratitude for the number of people who showed up and emphasizing that the presentations were intended for the candidates. She asked the audience to defer to the candidates during the question-and-answer session at the end, adding, “this is a safe space. There are no stupid questions.”
Despite this assurance, tension began to build as presentation after presentation confronted the would-be city leaders with hard facts about Austin’s history of institutional racism.
Anika Fassia, a program associate from the nonprofit Public Works, set the stage for the other speakers, defining the “racism” being discussed as not necessarily the prejudice imposed by one individual upon another, but rather intentional policies that disproportionately exclude or negatively affect people of color. “Intentional policies do define opportunity in the United States.” she said.
The policies today might not appear as overtly racist as they did in the past, Fassia said, but that did not mean the discrimination was any less real. As an example, she described how the GI Bill led to racist outcomes in post-WWII America. While white people returning from the war were able to secure their financial future with the help of the GI Bill, veterans of color ran into discriminatory criteria imposed by the Federal Housing Authority, which prevented them from purchasing a house. In addition, she said, the GI Bill was implemented through state agencies, some of which were still under influence of Jim Crow laws. Fassia concluded that these procedural obstacles facing veterans of color made the GI Bill racist, regardless of the intentions of its creators.
A picture of a water drop appeared on the projection screen, and Fassia emphasized that the negative consequences of these racist policies are felt generations after they are inflicted. “These ripple effects are still happening in Austin,” she said.
The history and future of East Austin
Daniel Llanes, a local community organizer, focused on how city zoning laws were made in the spirit of racism, with the 1922 Standard State Zoning Enabling Act essentially giving “authority for cities to segregate,” he said. In 1928, Austin created a master plan that relocated African-Americans, Latinos, and poor whites to East Austin. “Public Housing started in Austin, Texas,” Llanes claimed. According to the City of Austin Housing Authority website, Austin was indeed one of the first few projects to receive funding from the Housing Act of 1937.
Llanes moved on to another area of racial disparity in Austin—education. He got the first crowd reaction of the night when he described how his two oldest daughters attended Austin High, but his youngest daughter attended LBJ High school. When he first visited LBJ and saw the disparity in quality of the two schools, Llanes said he was “appalled.”
Taking on the City’s environmental policy, Llanes pointed out how the Keep Austin Beautiful initiative had been successful at cleaning up West Austin, but at the expense of dumping all the refuse at the BFI recycling site in East Austin.
He also denounced the positioning of the Pure Castings Company, which is located at 2110 E. 4th St., across the street from Zavala Elementary School at 310 Robert Martinez Jr. St. Llanes directed his next statement to the candidates sitting in the front rows, saying, “Politicians talk about getting rid of it, but it’s still there.”
Ted Gordon, PhD, presented the research of Eric Tang, PhD, assistant professor of African and African Disapora Studies with the University of Texas at Austin, on the trends of African-American Displacement in Austin over the years: “Story that you all know, but now we have some data to back that story up.” The hypothesis of Tang’s work, Gordon said, was that if you have a major growth city like Austin, then you are probably going to see a growth across all racial populations. The next slide on the screen, however, revealed that every major growth city in the United States saw simultaneous growth across racial populations except Austin, which saw a decline in its African-American population.
There are other cities where the African-American population is decreasing, Gordon said, but those cities are seeing an overall decline in population. Additionally, Tang’s research showed that the decrease in East Austin poverty rates are the result of displacing poor African-Americans. In short, Gordon said, East Austin has been subject to the process of gentrification.
Eshe Cole and Kellee Coleman from Mamas of Color Rising spoke next about the racism in Austin’s health policies. Through independent research, they found that Austin’s maternal and infant mortality rates paralleled the national numbers:
- Black women are four times as likely to die than their white counterparts in the course of pregnancy and birth, and
- black infants are 2.5 times as likely to die before reaching their first birthday.
Despite measuring differences in income, education, and access to healthcare, Cole claimed that none of these factors are responsible for the disparity in health outcomes, but that the cause is chronic stress linked to racism. She claimed that a white, low-income teen is more likely to have a better birth outcome in Austin than an educated black woman with a good job and access to prenatal care.
Coleman used the term“anti-blackness” to describe the health policies that privilege whites. She expressed frustration at working with organizations and running into the wall of “we don’t see color” or the excuse that racism isn’t an issue anymore. Referring to this culture of ignorance and negligence concerning the suffering of people of color in Austin, Coleman exclaimed, “No wonder people are running away!”
Coleman then addressed the candidates directly, “We’re trying to build a critical mass of anti-racists that are going to hold y’all accountable when you get in office.” She said, “In order for you to get our support, we want you to know that you need to adopt an anti-racist lens and framework for whatever it is that you do, because if your program has problematic outcomes, that means it’s racist. Period.”
More than numbers and data
Angela Ward of the Office of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness for Austin Independent School District, said many discriminatory education policies still exist, including no-tolerance discipline policies and No Child Left Behind. The irony of the latter, she asserted, is that it requires school administrations to measure data by race, but no one is allowed to talk about the racist consequences of the policy itself.
Sheila Craig of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities, started by admitting that she had been watching the white people in the room during the previous presentations. An important first step, she said, is for everyone to talk about race in a way that is “respectful, humane, candid and frank.” Another point she emphasized is that, “We are not just talking about numbers and data.” She referenced research done by her organization that revealed three zip codes in East Austin where the health outcomes have grown worse and worse. But again, she reminded the crowd that “these aren’t zip codes, these are people.”
Craig said black children in schools can be disciplined for something as simple as chewing gum in the hallway, at which point she paused and pointed at a man in the front row declaring, “You’d be in trouble.” The crowd laughed, but then Craig corrected herself saying, “Well but maybe not because you’re a white man.” The resulting gasps, jeers, and awkward snickering were a testament to the underlying anxiety felt by everyone in openly discussing racism. Craig closed by challenging the candidates in the room to face this anxiety and these racist policies and “deal with it.”
The white superiority complex
Lauren Ross, PhD, an environmental engineer and owner of Glenrose Engineering, was the only white person to speak, and she focused on that perspective during her talk. It’s easy to look at the people of color who are talking about their problems, she said, and think that they can’t be right because the system seems to work “for those of us that are white.” But she encouraged everyone to step out of that mentality and realize that racism is something that affects all of us.
An Austinite since 1974, Ross described how she has seen City Council after City Council elected by the majority white vote and how this trend has shaped policy. White people in Austin have access to power, wealth, education, and healthcare, “more or less,” she added. For generations we have collected the unearned privilege of racism, she said, “but we are still living in a world of violence, of sickness, of addiction.” She described whites’ “internalized sense of superiority.” She said, “It makes me think that I have the answer to every question, it makes me think that I have to step up and solve every problem.”
She described how during the hour and a half meeting about the Halloween floods of last year, staff from the city’s Watershed Protection Department analyzed the morphological reasons for the flooding, but the disproportionate amount of people of color who were affected by the flood was never brought up. Despite feeling nervous and uncomfortable, Ross said, she took it upon herself to raise the issue at the meeting, for which staff avoided her after the discussion was over and some even sternly lectured her for raising the issue.
She ended by once again speaking to the candidates, “We will ask you at every single forum, this question: How will the people most affected by racial inequities in Austin benefit from your policies, practices, and procedures? We will ask you that question, so write it down.”
Gentrification an assault on community
Tane Ward, PhD, executive director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, gave the last presentation. His topic concerned the “cultural territory” of East Austin and the idea that people have a right to their land. He displayed a picture of one of the new developments in East Austin next to one of the older houses in the neighborhood. “It doesn’t say ‘Whites Only,’” he said, “but it doesn’t need to, right?” He said, “The City has had plenty of opportunities to make choices about what kinds of houses are built,” but that its decisions have led to the gentrification in East Austin.
And this process of displacement is more than the effects of zoning and planning policies, Ward said. When the City fails to compensate the families of victims of police shootings, they are not just making a statement to that family, but they are making a statement to the entire community, he said.
Communities want revitalization, Ward said, and he defined revitalization as putting in working infrastructure for the existing community. Instead, what we see is gentrification, he said, which is putting in development for incoming communities. Ward asked, “What policies have aided the displaced communities and what policies have aided the displacement of communities?”
Ward finished by bringing up the upcoming election and new 10-1 system, and how voting participation in Austin, which historically has been predominantly seen in West Austin, is “the one thing we know is going to change.” He reiterated to the candidates that Undoing Racism is a growing network of people in Austin who believe these issues are important. To prove his point, Ward asked people in the collective to raise their hands. Then he asked people who’d been to a Undoing Racism training. Then he asked people who are committed to undoing racism in Austin. With a room full of raised hands, Ward exclaimed, “Let’s get to work people!”
Candidates cautious to speak about race
Most candidates remained cautious and refrained from engaging with the presenters. City Council Member Mike Martinez, a mayoral candidate, left the room 20 minutes into the presentation to answer a call and never came back.
Those who did ask questions avoided the topic of race, giving the impression that the speakers’ lectures had fallen on deaf ears. Most of the questions echoed the “how do we fix it” mentality that Ross had warned about during her presentation. The presenters, however, held firm in their conviction that race needed to be discussed.
Daniel Llanes closed the discussion by saying “in order to stop (racism), you got to stop it wherever you see it, whenever you see it.”
The point of the forum
In an interview with Llanes the week following the forum, asked why have this meeting addressing the candidates rather than confronting the City Council more directly, he replied, “Because City Council doesn’t talk to us.”
He said the Undoing Racism collective set up this briefing for two reasons: first, to educate the candidates about the history of racism in Austin and how well-meaning policies can still have racist consequences, and second, that the elimination of racism is a priority that the community here feels deeply about, “especially young people.”