The name “Austin” alone resonates a certain sense of ingenuity, integrity and weirdness. For decades, our great city has earned the reputation as one of the best places to live in the nation. Austin has received more than its share of statewide and national rankings for economic growth, job opportunity, quality of life, education, business and culture.
Certainly, Austin is a city that has encapsulated the meaning of the word unique with its political, ethnic and artistic diversity. However, what many native Austinites and newbies alike do not realize, or give much consideration to, are the minority communities that are exponentially underserved here.
In a 2013 Travis County fair housing study, Greater Austin was named the most economically segregated city in the United States. For the past two years, the Austin school district has posted the worst graduation rates for low-income students than was found in any other large urban school district in the state of Texas. Austin’s vaunted music scene and cultural arts community? There’s not one minority-themed “festival” the equal of a SXSW, ACL, Fun Fun Fun Fest, F1 Fan Fest, etc., as the City of Austin largely dedicates resources to Anglo event producers and consumers.
For several decades, citizens of color in Austin have fought and faced adversity in the area of political representation, despite exploding minority population growth and economic growth. There have been changes to policies regarding inclusion of various ethnicity and minority groups, such as those relating to housing issues. Urban population growth has proved to be cumbersome, especially for longtime homeowners from lower socioeconomic communities in East Austin, but everyone seems to try the best they can to adapt.
“Austin’s increasingly diverse population will continue to be a source of vibrancy for the entire community – diverse in terms of nations-of-origin, race and ethnicity – and vibrant in so many ways: culturally, economically, and socially,” said Ryan Robinson, City of Austin Demographer.
“And, yet with this increase in diversity comes a challenge and opportunity in terms of inclusion and economic integration of this City’s amazingly, richly varied constellation of households.”
Austin has seen a growth in population of 9.7 percent from 2010 and 2013. This growth has led to the establishment of new communities and an increase in the development of housing and education infrastructures.
As Robinson explains, “Metropolitan Austin is poised to pass the two million total population mark sometime within the next two years and could reach the three million threshold by 2030, a short 16 years from now. Most of this future population growth will very likely be diverse – racially, ethnically, and culturally. Cities in the U.S. that are diversifying are growing; cities unattractive to migrants with diverse backgrounds are dying on the vine across many stretches of the country.”
The ever-changing faces in our city are a constant reminder that Austin, like the United States, is a place of opportunity and family growth; but, as across the nation, we see a growing trend of non-acceptance or lack of inclusion of the different ethnic groups that continue to move here.
Paul Saldaña, a community leader and longtime Hispanic quality of life issues activist, said, “Concern, and anger, over gentrification has grown in communities across the country and East Austin as housing rental and sales prices have soared. Decreases in affordable housing units have accompanied the higher prices in many places, and as a result, resident displacement from neighborhoods long ignored that now attract higher-income households.”
It is disheartening to many ethnic community members and leaders who have invested in the city to come to the realization that they are no longer valued because of their inability to keep up with the rising cost of living. It seems that a city that is so often synonymous with the idea of activism and tolerance and fighting for social justice has stopped listening to and caring for the people who are most in need of support.
James Nortey, an Associate in the Public Law section of Andrews Kurth, LLP, is a rising voice among community activists, shares his thoughts and experiences regarding racism in Austin. “We’ve actually already had several community conversations about race through the 2005 African American Quality of Life Initiative and the 2013 Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative. The conversation has already happened, but civic action and city policy initiatives are long overdue. The community has already requested that the City consider and enact several recommendations regarding business development, youth programming and mentoring, culture and arts, housing and transportation, health concerns, and public safety. It’s time that we finally take action and make these recommendations a priority.”
Ramey Ko co-founded the Capital Area Asian American Democrats in 2007 and has been an active member of numerous local Democratic and progressive organizations. “Definitely, Austin is tremendously diverse, and that diversity is still growing every day, but all too often we discuss race through outdated paradigms that render many communities invisible,” said Ko, a partner at Jung Ko, PLLC in Austin, whose volunteer efforts are focused on community service.
“Additionally, we now understand that race is just one aspect of people’s identities and experiences, so we have an obligation to address race within the context of intersectionality and the interplay with class, gender, sexuality, and other inseparable aspects of the human experience,” Ko continued. “We also need to move beyond fixation on overt, intentional discrimination, in order to tackle the subtler, more complex problems of institutional and invidious discrimination, subconscious or unconscious bias, and structural racism. These challenges present different obstacles and require different solutions than the race issues of the past, and we cannot begin to address them if we do not take those differences seriously.”
The fight to keep our city whole and united started long ago when the city was established, and will continue until under-served communities are heard and accepted as a part of Austin’s growing affluence. It’s important to continue sending the message that if a person is capable of helping someone who is incapable, then it is their humane duty to make an effort. How much longer can we stand by as a city and project ourselves as united in our greatness to the country when we often sweep our most vulnerable people under the rug or try to keep them hushed?
The City’s demographer, Robinson, thinks that in the end, Austin and its ethnic divide is not so dissimilar to ones affecting other major U.S. cities. “To me, the results of my analyses of demographic trends in Austin, especially how these trends surround challenges in terms of race and opportunity, have become strikingly similar to results from around the country that reveal a much larger pattern emerging throughout the nation as a whole: neighborhoods are becoming increasingly sorted out based on race and class and political beliefs. Some academics are even saying that as a country we are as segregated as we were in the mid-sixties.
“My own sense is that Austin’s stubborn spatial socioeconomic divide is certainly part of a bigger, national-scale phenomenon and yet it will be Austin’s economic and cultural vitality that ultimately act to close this gap. Austin continues to be a very open city, and this openness will ultimately be the agent that closes the gap, not widen it.”