In 2014, UT professor (and Alcalde Texas 10 awardee) Eric Tang found that Austin is the only fast-growing U.S. city with a shrinking African-American population. From 2000-10, the city’s overall population ballooned by 20.4 percent, yet the black population declined by 5.4 percent.
“It is completely outside the norm,” Tang said at the time, writing in the report, “These patterns do not square with Austin’s reputation as a tolerant city, one celebrated for its progressivism, cultural dynamism, and emphasis on sustainability.”
Now Tang, an assistant professor in UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies Department, and his research team have delved deeper into the phenomenon by surveying 100 African-Americans who moved outside the Austin city limits between 1999 and the present. Among this group—the majority of whom moved to cheaper outlying cities like Pflugerville, Round Rock, and Del Valle—the top reasons cited for leaving were affordability and schools. Tang spoke with the Alcalde about what he learned from displaced Austinites, as well as how he believes the city can do better.
The Alcalde: What were some key findings in this report?
Eric Tang: Well, we thought we’d just go to the source and ask people directly, ‘Why did you leave?’ We found these folks by going to church on Sunday, because many of them after moving out to the suburbs returned to church in their old community. More than half of all respondents—56 percent—identified affordable housing as the key issue that caused them to leave. About a quarter said that they left because of schools. That is consistent with Census data, because if you look at those who left between 2000-2010, the majority of them were under 18, suggesting that households were making decisions with kids in mind.
You also looked at quality of life in their new communities.
Most people moved north and east, so we looked at those two groups. We found that among those who moved to the east, they said that their access to public services, health services, supermarkets, and the like has diminished considerably. And their relationships too, to neighbors out in the suburbs, are not as strong as they were before.
When we look at those who moved north, they’re saying they have better access to supermarkets, health clinics, and the like. But they, too, say that they had better relations with neighbors when they lived in Austin. Which suggests that even if you’ve moved to a place where you’re happy with your amenities and access, you nevertheless feel a deep sense of rootedness to your historic community. And that sense of rootedness is irreplaceable.
The report mentions how Austin’s historic segregation is still playing out today. Can you talk about that?
African-Americans have been in Austin since its conception. Former slaves populated pockets of the city. Clarksville, for instance, was a freemen’s community. In 1928, the city decided it wanted to more deeply segregate African-Americans and so it created the so-called “Negro District” on the East Side. By the 1930s and 40s, about 80 percent of the black population was living in this area.
Fast-forward to the 1990s and early 2000s, and that area becomes the site of gentrification. Segregation and gentrification exist in all cities, but they had kind of a concentrated, singular impact on African-Americans in Austin.
Austin has a reputation as progressive and inclusive, but your findings undermine that.
One could still maintain that it is an inclusive city, a city enlightened with respect to issues of race, class, and equality, but the numbers and the maps do not bear that out. Austin’s never been an industrial town with a strong working class base that could advocate for policies in favor of working people. There’s not a strong union movement—as much as I love my friends who do union work here—and there’s not a robust affordable housing movement. So that working-class genealogy doesn’t exist here as it does today in places like Houston or Dallas, let alone New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
So when we talk about Austin being progressive, what are we really talking about? A sentiment, a set of values, or a genealogy of working-class life that actually prioritizes issues of race and class equality?
Some people have reacted to this news by throwing up their hands and saying, “This is just what happens when cities gentrify. It’s inevitable.” What’s your message to them?
Imagine a city with no working-class people. A city that’s simply unaffordable for the people who work in it. Something has to be done. Any city as economically segregated as Austin has a very difficult future ahead of it. Data backs this up. Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren at Harvard demonstrated that the more economically and racially segregated a city is, the harder it is for everybody—not just for the working class, but for all of us—to succeed.
What’s next for Austin?
Austin could be engaged in a more robust affordable housing program. It could incentivize city workers, teachers, policemen, etc., to live here by creating residency requirements which would compel the city to create subsidies for workers who live here. We could fast-track students from AISD or community college into new jobs in the municipal sector, and we could encourage tech companies to think more about diversity and to hire people who grew up here. And not all of the jobs are in tech; the public sector is still a robust area, too.
I’ll give credit to the mayor and to city council for identifying these issues and not ignoring them—the mayor is looking at starting an office of equity, for instance, and city council members have had meetings on affordable housing. As a city, we need to think more creatively about how we can create greater opportunities for people who are longstanding residents and their children.
A mural in East Austin. Photo by Bill Oriani.
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