What Nobody Says About Austin

Is Austin the state’s most segregated city?

February 2013By and Comments

Casey Dunn

When I moved to Austin in the fall of 2008 to teach at the University of Texas, I was the envy of nearly everyone I knew. Wasn’t it the coolest city in the state? The country? Quite possibly the earth?! Yet still I was dragging my feet, which many Austinites found offensive (ever tried arguing with one about the superiority of any other place?). I’d lived previously in Brownsville, San Antonio, El Paso, and Houston, and I’d visited Austin countless times as a contributor to this magazine. But I’d always found it wanting in a way that was significant to me: it was the first place in my home state where I was frequently aware of my ethnic difference. Those other Texas cities had their own racial and class problems, sure, but they all had vibrant Latino communities, and they were cities where I could experience myself as both a Tejana and a Texan, an American who was Latina. By contrast, sometimes when I had lunch with my editor in downtown Austin I noticed I was the only non-white patron in the restaurant. Things weren’t much better at UT, where the faculty was just 5.9 percent Latino (and just 3.7 percent African American). I had to ask myself, In a city where Hispanics made up over a third of the residents, why were they so hard to find? 

Austin prides itself on its cultural liberalism and sophistication, but given the invisibility of Latinos, it irked me that the city was obsessed with Latin American culture. Austin’s fixation with tacos and migas and queso (“kay-so”) seemed to me a way for locals to fetishize a world most of them didn’t regularly engage with. When I went salsa dancing downtown, a few times a white guy would sashay up to me with a sultry “Ho-la, ¿quie-res bailar conmigo?” and I had to explain that I spoke English. I also felt persistently overdressed. When invitations called for “Texas chic” or “Austin cool,” I invariably wore the wrong clothes. Once, I showed up at a beautiful Hill Country ranch wedding in a long summer dress and stilettos when all the women were in knee-length frocks and sandals or wedge shoes they could manage the rocky grounds in. I’d never even worn flip-flops out of the house! 

I bought a condo in southwest Austin, in a neighborhood with a nice mix of natives and newcomers. For some reason, the area felt to me closer in spirit to the rest of Texas. On William Cannon Drive, I could drive a couple of miles west for lemon–poppy seed pancakes at Kerbey Lane Cafe or east for 99-cent barbacoa tacos at Las Delicias Meat Market. The development was still under construction when I moved in, and a crew of strictly Mexican workers was a ubiquitous presence during the first months I lived there. It was from them I learned about the great Austin divide and began to understand why I rarely saw any Latinos or blacks. A long-standing east-west geographic rift shapes race and class relations in the capital to this day. The workmen lived on the east side of I-35, where the city’s biggest concentration of minorities resides (Latinos make up 35 percent of Austin’s population, blacks 8 percent). The west side of I-35 was mostly white. This was where they came to work, and they literally kept their heads down while they did so. Was the state’s most progressive city also its most segregated? 

Austin’s geographic divide has a specific legal past. As I came to learn, African Americans had been living throughout the city in the early 1900’s, until a 1928 city plan proposed concentrating all services for black residents—parks, libraries, schools—on the East Side to avoid duplicating them elsewhere (this was in the time of “separate but equal”). Racial zoning was unconstitutional, but this policy accomplished the same thing. By 1940, most black Austinites were living between Seventh and Twelfth streets, while the growing Mexican American population was consolidating just south of that. 

For years Austin has held the dubious distinction of being the only major city in the country clinging to an outmoded model of elective representation that all but ensured its racial exclusivity would persist. Since 1953, members of the city council have been elected on an at-large basis, which means that residents vote for individuals to represent the city as a whole, not their own neighborhoods. Because levels of voter participation, not to mention money, are unequal from neighborhood to neighborhood, this has perpetuated a serious imbalance in who holds and influences power. In the past forty years, half the city council members and fifteen of seventeen mayors have been from four zip codes west of I-35, an area that is home to just a tenth of the city’s population. The few have been governing the many.  

The roots of this system are shameful. Until 1950, the system was straightforward: the top five vote-getters on a single ballot would become council members and select the mayor themselves. In 1951, a black candidate, Arthur DeWitty, then president of Austin’s NAACP chapter, came in sixth, which alarmed the city’s white business establishment. The system was rejiggered to create designated seats, or “places,” requiring more than 50 percent of the vote to win, a majority no ethnic candidate could achieve at the time. Not until twenty years later, in 1971, was an African American elected to the council, followed by the first Latino in 1975. 

At that point, forced to acknowledge the slowly growing political clout of minorities, the city’s establishment came up with an informal “gentleman’s agreement”: one spot on the council would be reserved for Latinos (Place 5, although later it became Place 2) and another spot (Place 6) for blacks. Though nothing prevented minority candidates from running for another place, they generally complied with the rule, since to do otherwise would disrupt the system, making victory unlikely. To date, no Latino or black has held a different seat (though in 2001, Gus Garcia was elected Austin’s first Hispanic mayor). 

For forty years, local activists have pushed to fix the disparity by moving to a system of single-member districts. This legal remedy emerged throughout the country in the seventies. The 1965 Voting Rights Act had outlawed policies impeding racial minorities’ access to the electoral process, including practices that might dilute the effectiveness of their votes. A series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions compelled city and state governments to draw up districts with non-white majorities, which would ensure they could elect to office one of their own. By and large this fix has worked. Single-member districts have been especially effective at overcoming historic segregation in cities with similarities to Austin, where the system was specifically designed to weaken the voting strength of minorities. They have far less impact in cities where ethnic groups are dispersed or where they represent a sizable portion of overall voters. 

Austin had tried and failed six times to pass a single-member-district ballot initiative. Finally in November, 60 percent of voters approved a plan known as 10-1, for the ten districts it will create citywide. “You’re finally going to have a council member that actually lives in your area and experiences your same traffic jams, day-to-day life, trips to the grocery store,” said council member Mike Martinez, currently the council’s only Latino. 

But whether single-member districts are fully the answer remains to be seen. African Americans face a special challenge: they have been moving out of Austin entirely, making it harder to carve out an electoral district that will guarantee their representation. A different problem affects Asian Americans, who now make up 6 percent of residents. Not suffering the same segregationist legacies as blacks and Latinos, they are more spread out across the city, making it difficult to guarantee direct representation. As for Latinos, when the plan goes into effect in 2014, they will probably net one or two more seats. 

Perhaps the biggest case to make for single-member districts in Austin is that they will lead to geographic diversity on the council. Today, five of its seven members, including the mayor, live downtown or in West or Central Austin. “I do feel that having a diverse governing body with not just ethnic diversity but geographic diversity, age diversity, diversity of professional experience—that really is going to add another level of enrichment to public policy,” said 37-year-old Perla Cavazos, who ran, unsuccessfully, outside of the traditional Hispanic seat in 2009. “It just makes for a richer decision-making process.”

The question is how increasing diversity in political representation will eventually make Austin a more genuinely multicultural city. Politics is one thing; the next step is getting citizens from different backgrounds to know one another, to eat in the same restaurants, to move through the same spaces. One thing I always admired about Houston is how confidently immigrants claim public space for themselves—how working families picnic in Hermann Park or elated quinceañeras roam the Galleria with their brightly attired entourages and pose for portraits before the Williams Waterwall. I sorely missed this sight when I moved to Austin, this visibility and celebration of cultural difference. But maybe things are changing. On a recent Sunday following a peaceful afternoon at the Oasis, on Lake Travis, I passed two very proud parents and a girl in a flaming hot-pink quinceañera gown on their way up to the restaurant. She seemed as out of place there as a gal in stilettos at a Hill Country wedding, but she was beaming, unencumbered, and she made me smile.

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  • Andy

    As a North Texas country boy (and a prototypical WASP) I encounter a lot of the same issues in downtown Austin. I don’t think its racism, per se — it may be a matter of wealth and the perception of what it means to be successful that drives Austin’s homogenization (be it an amalgamation of race identity, income, politics, the color of one’s collar, etc.).

    That said, I’ve been working on the East side for a month or two (Airport/MLK area) and have found it to be quite diverse … and livable! You can still buy auto parts and barbacoa here, in other words. But then you have complaints of gentrification creeping in, and salt-box houses replacing more native structures. We’ll see how it all pans out. But I do hope that our new single-member council districts will fight for affordability and less regulatory burdens so diversity of all kinds may continue to thrive here.

    • Homsburg McRedditsworth

      Spoken like a true cuckold, Andy. Austin’s homogenization? Are you talking about the massive flux of Mexicans turning every neighborhood brown? Surely you meant heterogeneous since Austin’s white population has dropped 12% every decade since the 60’s. We’re now at a 48% white population in Austin and immigration advocates like yourself are still championing diversity. What’s it going to take for you to wake up? Maybe when your little girl comes home from school and asks, “Daddy, why am I the only white kid in school?” you’ll stop saying “Diversity is our strength”.

  • Homsburg McRedditsworth

    Nothing to see here, folks. Just another idiot liberal screaming for more diversity. What the author would have you do is just accept an illegal alien family into your home – anchor baby and all. Government policy since the 60’s has been, “Bring in as many brown people as possible.”. White Americans wake up and are now strangers in their own country, but Austin’s white people are racist because they’re keeping Mexicans on the East side and just keeping a brotha down. Don’t forget to check your white privilege.

  • Victoria M Rumfield

    First off, you kinda need to be an austinite to really claim such speculations. The article is very bias. I’m born and raised 78704 an 80’s kid graduated from Travis High School, ACC. And me and my husband own our own electric company. My dad, same as me. Also Retired City of Austin. I’m a liberal too. And it’s not about race segregation, it’s all about money. And its Simple. No vibrant Latino communities? So what? Go back to your country and get it there! We eat tacos and migas just cuz we like it. So what? We wear sandals and knee high dresses cuz it’s hot! Maybe you over dress! Ever been to a wedding outside in the summer here? Guess not! And don’t give me crap about the break downs and orgins of the history of Austin and politics. We were segregated like the rest of the country. My grandfather owned a bar- back in late 70’s on Congress. He was Hispanic. Treated great by everyone. Why? He had money. Btw: he played accordion for a Tejano band.
    I speak English, not a lick of Spanish, Stevie Ray Vaughn loving ass I am; more white than a white person. And this author lived southwest on wm cannon drive? This area is financially segregated too! But there are plenty of tanned people there too! You see brand new benz’s everywhere. And then you see my used Sonnata. How I know? My kids go to school right down the road and I work at a major retail pharmacy 5 mins away. There ain’t any good Mexican restaurants in sight either. There are good tex-mex places. Bottom line is I like Austin the way it is, it has a rich music heritage -a breed of its own. ‘ One’that always knew no color or race but judges only how original you are at your art. We have all kinds of festivals. Been to them all! It’s expensive to live in certain areas, but if your educated, get a good job, it’s yours to have. If you put $300,000 toward a house to refurbish, you would want to make a profit too!I rather see old east Austin rebuilt instead of falling down houses. That takes money! Before that boom, you had drug deals in the middle of 12th st in broad daylight that held up traffic! I have lived/worked in all areas of Austin and greater area too! Brown folks are everywhere. There are programs for affordable housing in decent neighborhoods going up as I ramble. Income based all the way.
    Honestly, My mom and I face more racism because I’m not Spanish speaking. I should be ashamed or some BS. Look, we speak English here, love English speaking rock-n-roll and eat ALL kinds of food. I gotta go to your country and learn your ways right? Well, this is Austin, not San Antonio, not Dallas, and it sure ain’t no Mexico, so quit hatin’, quit comparing, and embrace. It’s not like I get affended when the there is no Jewish festivals. Which I am, in addition to being French, Spanish, and Native American. No one segregates latios here except yall! If you don’t see sh-t vibrant is cuz you don’t correlate it! White people gotta do it for you too? We already wipe asses on our tax. Austin says come on in! We got bats and music! And if Mexicans don’t have a seat in office, its cuz they don’t run. I think it’s actually unfair to hold a seat for minority’s. So the white guy living next door to a Latino can’t run for that chair? He lives in your hood…. But he’s white. Racism? And Latinos don’t win like everyone else. you gotta keep trying like everyone else! Can you imagine how hard it is for a white man to run? Black people are moving further east cuz the rent is cheaper. Well, that’s their choice, they have education and free programs for all folks to better themselves to get a better job. No one owes anyone a handout. And Mike Martinez? He’s all right. I used to serve him at the CVS on IH 35 and 11th street. High crime area. He acts snoody too and uncomfortable with his snoody wife and lives in a huge house Somewhere in an upper class east side area. Never wanted to talk politics with me. I met senator, then running, for president, John Carey, about to jump on a plane -same CVS. We talked for 20 mins!
    We never called ourselves Hispanic, Latino, mex-American. My family has been here for hundreds of years! We call ourselves natives. We are dark cuz it’s sunny in Texas! My last name is Spanish, not Mexican. But I’ve been marking that stupid box forever. Mexicans hate us because we are Americans. Truth! I have been called everything under the Mexican sun! And honestly, I really don’t appreciate them coming over here with 5 kids and getting government assistance. How the f-ck do they do this? And it’s not cuz I’m liberal! Last I checked we had a republican governer for like ever! And my sons have to learn Spanish in school? I’d rather them learn Hebrew. It Should be mandatory to learn English for gov assistance. And let’s not forget their sometimes horrible consumer behavior. I’m not hating on them, but Mexico is a third world country and they need to recognize! So if you ask me, we are becoming too damn tolerant. People come from all places around the world and talk shit about us, attack us, burn our flag, and then they go on Facebook and Instagram and tell everyone about it. Wake-up people! This is my town and you ain’t gonna change sh-t unless it’s over my so-called Gringa ass! Sorry if I affended anyone. It’s just this author is hating on white folks in my neighbor hood! They just some hippies! And don’t think I can’t make a tamale! Cuz I can -not to mention bomb ass Indian food!
    In my line of work, people bleed the same color. But if your ignorant and see your skin different from mine, it’s your problem. We don’t owe any ethnicity squat! We got enough diversity in what we are doing thank you very much.
    Sorry, got off on a tangent on a sleepless night cuz the folks down the road are booming their Tejano jams till 3 am. Lol! I’m out!

    • Victoria M Rumfield

      And the reason why yo ass didn’t see any Hispanics around is because you think all Hispanics are dark brown! And you didn’t hear Spanish in the air? Go to Heb on wm cannon and I35 and they will look at you like you don’t belong there and be racist toward you. Ha!

      • Doris

        You need to love yourself. Not all POC do.

        • Victoria M Rumfield

          As oppose to white people? They all love themselves? I am an American. If I do not love myself it’s because I do not love my neighbor. How could you exactly know whether a person of color loves themselves because of their tone of skin color?
          I met many “white folks” who don’t like themselves because they are white!
          This is just ignorant talk! I promise you this, the more artistically diverse you are here in Austin, the more you are admired. It inspires people by heart. And that my friend is liberal.
          Btw: my skin color is actually whiter than my white husband! Lol
          And he knows more Spanish than me!
          I love my hometown! Everyone wishes they got Austin! Go Longhorns!