Future of African American Influence in Austin At Crossroads

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As Black History month comes to a close and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus celebrates its 40th anniversary during their bi-annual legislative summit this week I thought it apropos to look at the state of African American influence in the host city of Austin. Despite a history of segregation in Austin and the fact that African Americans represent a decreasing portion of the population they still hold a significant number of local leadership positions: County Judge, County Commissioner, Sheriff, State Representative, City Manager, Mayor Pro Tem, and a recently retired County Tax Assessor. Unfortunately, with Judge Briscoe also retiring, changes to the city charter and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole being termed out its not clear whether we are in the waning period of a short golden age of African American influence over the city of Austin.

It is likely that with the newly passed, yet to be implemented, 10-1 single member district City Council arrangement there will be no black representation on the Austin City Council after 2014. According to city demographer Ryan Robinson the black population has steadily declined as a percentage of population. This is in part because many Austin native African Americans have relocated from East Austin to Northern suburbs as the cost of living has risen and those who are immigrating haven't done so in pace with the growth of the Hispanic, White or even Asian communities.

Even with massive change happening all around the “Eastside”, it is still the home to most of the city's Black community, businesses, and political functions. After the 2010 census Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald told the Statesman in some traditionally Black East Austin neighborhoods property taxes have gone up 400-600%. There have been attempts to work with developers and city officials to protect historically black businesses, affordability for long time residents and the presence of Black culture to varying degrees of success. In 2009, the city council dedicated parts of East Austin as an African American Cultural Heritage District. The Statesman's African American Editor Alberta Phillips lauded the move as a step in the right direction,

“It was a big step forward in unearthing Austin's segregated past, and that is important in understanding and dealing with vestiges of segregation that still exist in our city in the way of low-performing schools in East Austin, as well as a lack of parks and abundance of landfills, halfway houses and dumps that are also located there.”

Besides Phillips, the Austin African American community has several local news on air personalities, two weekly newspapers and a radio station, but the city's lack of urban social appeal has kept Black professionals from staying or locating here. Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce CEO Natalie Madeira Cofield recently told the Statesman she is afraid that with all the booming economic activity happening in Austin the Black community could miss out on a great opportunity, “The cities of America's tomorrows are no longer the hubs of African-Americans…this [Austin] is where the deals are happening and this is the city of the future.”

Monday I listened to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed talk about investing in education and unlocking the full economic potential of the African American community. He should know, Atlanta is home to one of America's most vibrant, successful and growing Black populations. It has the 3rd most fortune 500 companies in the United States, and 43% of its residents have college degrees compared to a US average of only 27%. His advice – “We have to be in the future business.”

Below the jump is a map of East Austin showing the changes over the last decade of the African American population.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

1 Comment

  1. Judge Biscoe
    Outgoing County Judge Sam Biscoe spoke openly about this upon receiving this years Lifetime Achievement Award from the Capital Area Asian American Democrats- specifically on the point that by the end of this decade, the collective Asian population in the City of Austin will have surpassed the African American population as their growth rates (or declines in this case) cross. It's important to hear elected leaders like him addressing the issue in front of all communities. The key point he made was that we are all in this together, and that the path to progress and opportunity lies in working together, not against each other, because ultimately all minority communities share a common dream.

    Austin is definitely a city in transition on many, many levels. I wish I knew of some way to reverse this trend entirely. A lot of it has to do with affordability, but the cultural impact cannot be understated. Anytime a community raises/falls below a certain threshold in a neighborhood (I believe studies have shown this to be about 15-20%) it acts as a dramatic tipping point. Unfortunately in Austin, it's tipping the wrong direction.

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