Flanked by city colleagues and leaders in both academia and the nonprofit world Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler introduced the city of Austin to its newest task force: a group that will combat “institutional racism.” The group will be made up of local community leaders in education, immigration and housing.
Adler said the point is not to talk the city out of racist structures but rather to come up with a list of actions to ensure equity in a city oft-cited as being one of the most economically segregated.
“None of us in this room helped write the 1928 land plan that was adopted in this city that sent different peoples to different parts of this city and denied folks utility service if they found themselves in the wrong part of town,” Adler said. “But we are responsible for remediating the enduring legacy of inequities that continues to flow from what was a pretty horrific plan.”
A steering committee, co-chaired by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz and Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette, will head the task force. Five subgroups will report back: criminal and civil justice; education; health; finance, banking and industry; and real estate and housing.
The steering committee, which also includes representatives from the Austin Police Department and the NAACP, has held its first meeting – though neither of the co-chairs was willing to speculate on what will come out of the group.
Adler has asked the task group to develop an action plan to present to City Council in March. He emphasized honest conversation throughout the process.
“Don’t be afraid to make me uncomfortable,” said Adler. “Don’t be afraid to make the community uncomfortable. I’m not looking for easy here.”
After news of the task force broke Tuesday, Adler and others noted some initial emotional reaction – not all of it positive.
“‘What is this exactly?’” Adler said, repeating feedback he had received and noting some defensiveness among colleagues. “‘What does this mean? Who are you going after? You’re not aiming at me?’”
Burnette acknowledged some skepticism.
“When I was making some of the phone calls asking people would they be engaged, would they be willing to do this work on behalf of the mayor, I did receive responses such that, ‘How is this going to be different?’”
Chas Moore, founding member of the Austin Justice Coalition, said a dose of cynicism could be healthy.
“I think that cynicism will provide the people on the task force the ability to constantly update the people in our communities and our organizations and institutions … about what’s going on, and hopefully curbing that into some optimism,” Moore said.
This story is a part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.