Travis County's First Black Judge Speaks About Systemic Racism In Austin

Jun 4, 2020

Sam Biscoe is no stranger to racism. He grew up in the shadow of segregation in Tyler, participated in the civil rights movement and started his career as a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. 

He also is the first black Travis County judge — serving in the role for more than 15 years before retiring in 2015. It's a position he returned to in May on an interim basis after the previous officeholder, Sarah Eckhardt, stepped down to run for the Texas Senate. 

Biscoe says he believes Austin is a more welcoming and tolerant place, especially when compared to other cities in Texas. Although there is much to be praised, he says, there is also much to criticize. 

"A lot of people in Austin and Travis County that do well systematically discriminate against Hispanics and blacks," Biscoe says. "They see them as part of an another world almost."

Given the recent protests demanding justice for police killings of black people, KUT's Nadia Hamdan wanted to gain some insight from Judge Biscoe about this particular moment in Austin.

"I do believe police overreact and, a lot of time, they're scared," Biscoe says. "I always thought that the police department should do a better job of deciding which officers should serve in minority communities." 

Listen to the full interview below:

Biscoe: The demonstrations so far have mostly been peaceful. I believe in that. I'm sort of a Dr. Martin Luther King student, so I believe in peaceful demonstration. However, I can understand those who resort to violence, although I don't condone it. So I think that as a community, elected officials have to work harder to collaborate with one another, but also to bring in community people to participate in the decision-making and the implementation. 

KUT: You've said part of the reason you became a lawyer was because you believed you could help make a difference in the civil rights movement. What do you think Travis County can do to address the concerns of protesters at this moment? You know, what are some of the ways you can bring about real change in regards to systemic racism? 

Biscoe: I just think that you provide more opportunities to those who are without in a community. I do believe that there are those with and those without. I always said that my philosophy would be to leave those with alone, send them their tax bill, and as long as they paid it, get out of their way. But for those that really need government to provide services, we should focus on them and use more of our resources to help them. But they have to be willing to help themselves. 

KUT: Central Texas has a reputation as a liberal, tolerant, welcoming place. Do you think that is still true or was it ever true?

Biscoe: I think it is true. And I wouldn't say Central Texas. I would say Austin-Travis County. I think Williamson County has always been viewed as being very conservative. Some of the other smaller cities that have people who are well-to-do, and a lot of them really don't treat poor people that well. But I think it is true. 

The cutting edge, though, is that a lot of people in Austin and Travis County that do well, I would say, sort of systematically discriminate against Hispanics and blacks. They see them as being part of another world almost. And if you live in Lakeway or Bee Cave, you really don't interact with many minorities. And if you do, the closest you've come is downtown. So I think there is much to criticize. But at the same time, I think there is much to praise. 

KUT: As someone who's been here for so long and witnessed so much change, what recommendations would you have for those right now, not just protesters, but people who live in Austin-Travis County, who are part of this divide that exists in this city between different races and different classes? I mean, you can go down the list. I'm wondering what kind of recommendations you would give to people in this moment. 

Biscoe: I would say that we have to do something to reduce the gentrification. I mean, it is running a lot of poor people out of East Austin. And when they move out, a lot of them move like to Manor and Mustang Ridge, small cities like that that don't have many resources. And so it really is a decrease in quality of life. 

I think that you have to stress education more. My mother went to the seventh grade, but she wanted me to make sure I finished high school and then make sure I finished college. She never thought I'd go to law school. She thought I'd become a preacher. But education was just hammered day in and day out. And we've got to go back to that. The other thing is that we've got to make sure that the quality of schools that serve minority students is good. And if it takes the investment of additional resources to attract different teachers, I think we ought to do that. 

The other thing is that I do believe that police overreact a lot of times, and a lot of times they're scared. I always thought that the police department should do a better job of deciding which officers should serve in minority communities. 

The other thing is that the level of respect for law enforcement officers could be improved. And the way you do that, though, is to have more community policing where officers really interact with residents a whole lot more than they do now and have done historically. More and more if you interact with law enforcement, then I think you see them as being persons just like yourself and not really, you know, the arm of the law, which a lot of people view as being heavy handed. 

KUT: There is a large discussion happening right now in the city where many protesters are saying that too much money is allocated to Austin police within the city. I'm wondering what you think about this push to kind of defund and use more money for other things. 

Biscoe: When I look at the City of Austin, what they pay their officers has to be comparable to what officers make. And San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, etc. I know more about our facts than theirs, but my guess is that that's what the market pays. The other thing is that you can't insist on one hand to get better police officers who are better educated and know a little bit more about working with the community unless you pay them, because there would be better jobs available to which they will go if compensation is not, in their view, adequate. And it's really a tough call. 

Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at nhamdan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.

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