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Civic leaders discuss the future of black life in Austin

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Black life in Austin panel discussion Shannon Jones
Black life in Austin panel discussion Shannon Jones. Courtesy of University of Texas
Black life in Austin panel discussion Margo Fraser and Nicholson
Margo Fraser and Damaris Nicholson Courtesy of University of Texas
Civil rights protestors at UT capitol
Civil rights protestors at UT. Courtesy of University of Texas
Black life in Austin panel discussion Shannon Jones
Black life in Austin panel discussion Margo Fraser and Nicholson
archive photo of heman sweatt
Civil rights protestors at UT capitol

On May 1, “The Future of Black Life in Austin” panel discussed a topic that is critical to all in our community. Wednesday’s event was part of the annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights, organized by UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

The symposium commemorates the legacy of the first African-American admitted into the UT School of Law, following a 1950 landmark case before the United States Supreme Court. Four years later, the Sweatt decision led to the overturn of segregation by law in all levels of public education in the ground-breaking case of Brown v. Board of Education.

How’s this for a puzzle? Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, featured on many a "Best City" list. Austin is the it city. Unless you’re black. African-Americans belong to the only major racial group in Austin experiencing a decline in numbers — a trend forecast to continue through 2030 and beyond. How do we make sense of this? And what does it say about the future of black life in Austin?

Wednesday night a panel of civic leaders from sectors including policy, public health, and law enforcement, gathered to not just talk but to look for answers and solutions to these questions.

“We are dealing with a breathtaking demographic and statistical singularity here in Austin,” panelist Dr. Eric Tang, assistant professor in African and African Diaspora Studies told CultureMap. We tend to gloss over the depths of racial and class inequality in this town, he added. “This evening we wanted to give the people in city and state government the chance to talk about what they’ve found,” said Tang. "This is about beginning a conversation that is long past due.”

Each panelist brought data from government agencies at all levels to verify the extent and the long term nature of the disparity. Tang referenced City of Austin demographics, while Shannon Jones, III, Deputy Director, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department looked back over 14 years, highlighting his team’s work in identifying the data on and factors affecting the health of the African-American population.

Jones had both good and bad news. “In eight of the 15 leading causes of death, African-Americans rank first." The good news? “Fourteen years ago, we were ranking first in 10.”

If Austin is going to be an inclusive city, we are going to have to address specific areas affecting public health, he explained. “We are looking at four main areas that impact the African-American community: transportation, access to care, access to healthy food and obesity.”

Austin Police Monitor and former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier drew first gasps then laughter, saying, “The good news here is, you’re not paranoid,” after revealing her office’s analysis. African-Americans stand a one in eight chance of being searched by the Austin Police Department after a traffic stop, compared to a one in 28 chance for caucasians, said Frazier.

 “We need to challenge the status quo and not be afraid of talking about the ‘R’ words — race and racism… That’s when change can happen.” - Damaris Nicholson  -

Damaris Nicholson from the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities passionately asked why we continue to blame the individual when it is clearly the system that is not working. “Families across all racial lines abuse their children at the same rate. Why are we removing these children at a much greater rate?” said Nicholson, citing many other similar scenarios.

The solution lies in facing the “elephant in the room,” she said. “We’ve seen the statistics and we are all very clear that the people with the worst outcomes are African-Americans.” Now, it’s time to start looking at our policies and ensuring that they are equitable for everybody. “We need to challenge the status quo and not be afraid of talking about the ‘R’ words — race and racism… That’s when change can happen.”

Panel moderator Dr. King Davis, the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin, noted the four panelists identified 17 areas where disparities exist. “Everything from child welfare statistics, criminal justice, health, police stops, shootings, students expelled, death row inmates, prison population, mortality — and on and on,” he said. “There is no area where these disparities did not exist. And the disparities have existed for an extraordinarily long time.”

There was consensus that the way forward lies at least partly at the grass roots community level — whether in leveraging the creativity of new, grass roots organizations and venues as suggested by Tang. Or, as the Honorable Wilhelmina Delco counseled from the audience, by leveraging the existing infrastructure of African-American churches and their leaders. “We don’t need to be talking about re-inventing the wheel.”

There was a call to action for elected officials. “I don’t know you can have an honest dialogue about the crisis unless the leaders acknowledge there is a crisis,” said Tang.

As the meeting wound to a close, an audience question sought at least some signs of “hopeful solutions.” Frasier noted that after seeing her data, APD Chief Art Acevedo has made a policy change to now require APD officers to acquire written consent to a search after a traffic stop. Jones noted the community health improvement process his department has begun, including the African-American Quality of Life Initiative. “But that is just a drop in the bucket. The problems we face are major,” he commented.

Tang was even less hopeful, citing Mamas of Color Rising’s efforts to implement a plan for free midwifery care for indigent women being “stymied at every step by bureaucracies.” It’s not just about finding solutions, he said. “It’s about supporting the creative solutions of people on the ground.”

What is certain — Austin cannot with honesty call itself a number one city without facing the disparity issue and genuinely seeking answers. Each panelist in turn called on the audience to capture the passion and energy at the event — to turn rhetoric into action.

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