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Madeline Y. Hsu, Director BUR 480, Mailcode A2200, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-232-6427

Austin has taken great leap backward in racial equality

Op-ed in The Statesman by Assistant Professor, Eric Tang

Posted: June 20, 2012

Article link at Statesman.com.

Today is Juneteenth Emancipation Day or Freedom Day in Texas. Texas distinguishes itself as the state that officially declared the end of slavery on June 19, 1865 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Historians attribute the delay to a combination of factors: the brute force of Texas slaveowners who refused to comply, the collusion of a Union army that turned a blind eye on slavery's continuance and a general campaign of denial and misinformation against the enslaved. In the end, nobody was held accountable for the crime of denying slavery's statutory end. And in many ways those denials are ghosted in the present. After 147 years, how much is still unknown when it comes to the realities of black life and death in Texas, especially in an enlightened oasis such as Austin?

As a researcher, I can't help but be surprised by the stunned expressions of otherwise well-informed and civically engaged Austinites when they are presented with the hard facts. African Americans are the only major racial group in Austin experiencing a decline in population, which can be attributed to a multi-pronged assault on black life that is consistent with national trends but also unique to this city. As with the rest of the nation, the wealth gap between blacks and whites in Austin is at a near 30-year high. African American children are three times as likely to be removed from their families by the state's child welfare agencies as their white counterparts (though government studies prove that race is not a factor in determining whether a parent will abuse or neglect a child).

Austin schools are as racially segregated as any others in the region. But perhaps more shocking are the areas of racial inequality in which Austin and Travis County surpass national averages.

The black infant mortality rate in the United States is alarmingly high at 13.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to a rate of 5.6 deaths for whites. But in Austin, black infant mortality has climbed to as high as 20 in 1,000 in recent years while other racial groups have stayed at or below national averages. All told, black infant mortality in Austin is three times that of whites'.

Equally stunning are emerging statistics on HIV. Black men in Austin and Travis County have one of the highest per capita rates of HIV in Texas, trailing only behind Harris County. Sixty percent to 70 percent of the female HIV-positive population in Austin is composed of black women.

"The burden of death is (borne) greater by the African American community than any other community in Austin," said Shannon Jones, deputy director of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services. Jones points to the lack of adequate access to public health services as a contributing factor.

As the crisis grows, community clinics in the most vulnerable areas, including Northeast Community Care Center, which serves a high concentration of black patients, are being shut down.

Taken together, the data is truly astounding. Suffice to say we haven't seen inequality like this since Jim Crow. That this should take place in a city consistently noted for being among the nation's "healthiest," "most liberal," "best places to raise kids" and "most sustainable" cities makes the situation all the more disturbing.

Kellee Coleman, a member of Mamas of Color Rising, an organization committed to addressing the racial and gender health disparities in Austin, said: "The eco-friendly, ‘Keep Austin Weird,' laid-back culture masks a much harsher reality. Just look at these numbers; nobody wants to believe it."

This is not to suggest that Austin is unworthy of its progressive reputation. Take sustainability, for instance. It's true that Austin is the first city to implement a residential green building program, one of the first to set goals for "zero waste" (by 2040) and one of the few to hire world-class arborists to protect its heritage trees. Here, grass-roots voices advance a vision for the future, and the City of Austin seems to be pulling its weight.

Yet this mandate for sustainability is never extended to the populations that are so clearly endangered. Why not the same sense of urgency — or at the very least the same level of passionate public discussion — on how to address Austin's great leap backward on racial equality?

One of the concrete outcomes from the city's 2005 African American Quality of Life initiative was the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage District. A team of community members took the reins on this recommendation and has turned it into reality.

On Juneteenth last year, the team broke ground on the construction of the Cultural and Heritage Facility. By end of this summer, the new building will be open the public. In the face of this crisis, community leaders are still literally holding their ground.

"This is our sustainability project," said Lisa Byrd, the chairwoman of the steering committee for the development of the district.

"This is not about building museums or monuments to the past," Byrd said. "It's about keeping things alive — promoting the future of our living institutions."

Yet, in order for that future to truly take hold, Austinites must first acknowledge and address the persistent racial inequalities that haunt this city.

What better day than Juneteenth to begin that reckoning?

Eric Tang is an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Asian American Studies at UT-Austin.

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