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Draft Of New Austin City Council District Maps Reflects Growth In Asian Population

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

As Austin redraws the boundaries of its political voting blocs, the city is close to establishing a district where nearly a third of the population identifies as Asian.

“The Asian population has actually grown considerably,” Christina Puentes, chair of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, told KUT. “And a lot of that is concentrated in District 6.”

At its meeting Thursday, the commission voted in favor of new, but still preliminary, City Council districts. Over the next several weeks, the commission will present these maps at five public meetings before offering a final map to City Council members for approval by Nov. 1.

Since 2014, Austin has elected City Council members across 10 geographic districts. The boundaries of these districts are amended every decade in response to new census data. In this latest rendition, commissioners have to consider several demographic changes, including the fact that people who identify as Asian now account for nearly one-tenth of the city’s population; Austin’s Asian population increased from 6.3% to 8.9% over the last decade.

“It will continue to grow,” Amy Wong Mok, founder of the Asian American Cultural Center, said. “I have no doubt about that.”

“It would be really nice to be able to see that representation,” Saatvik Ahluwalia, a digital strategist for the Austin Asian Community Civic Coalition, said. “One way to do that is definitely to have an [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders]-majority City Council district.”

Austin City Council District 6, which encompasses neighborhoods from Lake Travis to the edges of Round Rock, is home to the city’s largest Asian population. When the maps were first drawn in 2013, roughly 13% of the district’s population identified as Asian. If these latest maps are approved, that portion would nearly double to 28%.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who identifies as white, currently represents the district.

But Ahluwalia cautions that representation, especially among a racial group that includes thousands of languages and cultures, is not that simple.

“We often tend to look at AAPI as a monolith, but I would argue we’re the most diverse community in the U.S.,” he said. “So much of what informs our political views in the U.S. … comes from what happened in the countries we came from. I’m the son of Indian immigrants and the perspective that Indian immigrants have in the U.S. is different than, say, Cambodian immigrants who came as refugees.”

Unlike state political boundaries, which are drawn by politicians, Austin’s City Council districts are shaped by a commission of citizens chosen through an application process. The group working on the current maps includes a graduate student, an attorney and a pastor.

Overall, the proposed maps don’t appear to enact any major changes to the boundaries of the council districts. Any adjustments made, Puentes said, were in an attempt to get a district closer to an equal share of the city’s population.

“They are as similar to the old districts as we could make them, just adjusting for population growth,” she said.

Nonetheless, the commission has to balance several factors when reshaping the boundaries. First, members have to ensure that districts have a roughly equal population of about 96,000 residents. (That’s up from about 79,000 residents per district a decade ago.) Districts also should not split neighborhoods, particularly communities with shared socioeconomic interests.

The redistricting process also must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, meaning that the city cannot dilute the voting power of racial groups. For instance, Austin has and will continue to have four heavily Hispanic districts, which span from east of I-35 to North Central Austin.

One of these districts, District 1, will be considered a Black “opportunity district,” meaning it will have the largest concentration of Black residents. In the proposed maps, 22% of District 1 residents are Black — down from a decade ago when 28% of the district identified as Black.

“It is disturbing that in the African-American district for the first time in my life … we could not find a single [voting] precinct that was majority African-American,” said Peck Young, who directs the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College and consulted with the commission. “The fact that the African-American community in Austin is being driven out of town is disturbing, but it is not the commission’s business.”

Check out one of these forums to give feedback on Austin’s new City Council districts:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 21, 6-8 p.m., Mayfield Cottage, 3505 W. 35th St.
  • Saturday Sept. 25, 1-3 p.m., George Morales Dove Springs Recreation Center, 5801 Ainez Dr.
  • Tuesday, Sept. 28, 6-8 p.m. Via Zoom
  • Saturday, Oct. 2, 11 a.m. -1 p.m. Travis County Community Center at Oak Hill, 8656 Texas Highway 71

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Saatvik Ahluwalia's last name.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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Corrected: September 17, 2021 at 11:48 AM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said District 6 is close to becoming a near-majority Asian district. It is close to having a plurality of residents who identify as Asian.
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