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.