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Austin has failed to invest in its Black communities, says new report

Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, previews the report at the State of Black Austin address at the Paramount Theatre on Feb. 21.
Renee Dominguez
Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, previews the report at the State of Black Austin address at the Paramount Theatre on Feb. 21.

On March 11, the community organization Austin Justice Coalition and data activism nonprofit Measure jointly released a report titled, “The State of Black Lives in Austin.”

Drawing on Austin Justice Coalition’s deep community ties and Measure’s statistical expertise, the dossier’s 64 pages condemn the City of Austin for its failure to invest in and address Black communities in Austin — whose numbers have been declining since at least 2000 — and present a series of urgent needs elucidated by Measure’s comprehensive study.

For the first time since a similar report came out 16 years ago, the paper enables activists to wield the high card of hard numbers as they approach policymakers — and the coalition hopes the report will indeed furnish policymakers with invaluable guidance if they’ll come to the table.

“I’m all about using data not just as a flashlight, but also as a scalpel, as a hammer, as a wrench where it needs to be, as a nail where it needs to be,” said Measure founder Meme Styles. “It’s us reclaiming the power of data that was taken from us … that was originally taken from us. What you’re seeing is truly the manifestation of restorative data — we’re restoring the power of data back to our communities.”

This year’s report juxtaposes itself with the findings of the 2008 African American Quality of Life Report, which surveyed similar data and cataloged 56 initiatives “underway” to improve quality of life in Austin.

“Year in and year out, it’s these really big promises, but then when you go to cash a check, it bounces."
Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition

Most of the initiatives have not been sustained — and there’s scant proof on whether many got off the ground.

Projects promised in the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Equities 70-page final report in 2017, the coalition found, fell similarly limp.

“You know, I’m careful not to speak for the Black community because, you know, it’s a lot of us and I’m just one voice. But I think this whole experiment with this follow-up report of the 2008 study just kind of echoed the sentiments that a lot of Black people in the city already feel, in that the city just doesn’t take the needs and necessities of Black folks in the city seriously,” Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore said.

“Year in and year out, it’s these really big promises, but then when you go to cash a check, it bounces,” he said.

The study concurred that 16 years after the original report, conditions had not improved. The report identified significant hardships faced by Black Austinites across all major categories examined.

Community safety

Though making up 7.5% of Austin’s population, Black individuals accounted for 15% of all traffic stops and 25% of arrests in 2018. The report noted that Black Austinites continue to experience incidents of police violence and misconduct in interactions with the Austin Police Department.

The coalition called for investment in common diversion services such as social services and mental health resourcing as well as “additional alternative approaches to safety like conflict resolution and restorative justice practitioners, the new Harvest Trauma Recovery Center and the Office of Violence Prevention.”

Though Black students constitute just 6% of the student body of the Austin Independent School District, they account for 17% of referrals to law enforcement and in-school arrests. The report noted that the district “[r]emoving race-specific objectives from Austin ISD’s performance scorecard complicates addressing educational disparities.”

Health and wellness

From 2009 to 2011, African Americans had the highest mortality rate in four out of the seven leading causes of death reported in Travis County. Life expectancy in Austin tracks tightly with racial makeup and home location, with African Americans generally having the lowest life expectancy.

The study found that the 2008 report’s failure to establish and/or track outcomes of health initiatives represents a significant handicap in the effort to improve health outcomes among Black Austinites and exposes the sore need for a “multi-sector approach focused on social determinants of health.”

Business and economics

Measure’s study found that in 2019, the median Black household earned only 54 cents on every dollar earned by the median white household.

Neighborhood sustainability

Austin’s Black population has fluctuated and shrunk over the last decade: “Despite the city’s growth, the Black population of Austin declined but has shown some stabilization from 2016-2021, hovering around 7.5% of the total population.” Black Austinites are also disproportionately represented in both permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing programs.

The report notes that these statistics elucidate an urgent call for “equitable development strategies that prioritize the well-being of Black residents” and “targeted interventions and resources to support Black individuals and families experiencing homelessness.”

Arts and culture

According to a 2022 report, Black communities — 7.5% of Austin — received an average of 2% of cultural funding investment. The study also found that, despite the city’s vibrant music scene, 93% of Black musicians experience discrimination when booking shows.

Though the coalition authored the report to be explicit in its political urgency, they chose to address their clarion call to policymakers in a highly original fashion.

“This Measure Black paper demands answers and accountability from the City of Austin,” states the executive summary. “We’ve included questions at the end of this report instead of recommendations as our community has provided ENOUGH recommendations over the years.

“This concluding chapter is unfinished — such is the ongoing nature of the journey toward racial justice in Austin, Texas,” the coalition asserted following a set of reflective questions for policymakers. “But equipped with the sobering reality this report provides, Austin now has an opportunity to write the next chapter with boldness, starting with heeding the voices that have shone truth on the unchanged state of Black lives in Austin.”

The document’s authors encourage its readers to be especially cautious not to fall prey to short-term thinking. “The lens that I put on when I’m engaging in this work every single day is an Afro-futuristic lens that embraces imagination, the essence of what if, and the potential of curiosity,” Styles said.

This story was originally published in The Austin Monitor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization with a mission to strengthen our shared information space and democracy.

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