Looking back at Austin’s history of systemic racism
The swinging pendulum of race in America
Black APD officers discuss problems, solutions
Texas students from low-income families, especially Black and Hispanic boys, neglected the most
Racial disparities in Austin’s health care system
Austin's segregated housing plan and the new challenges of gentrification
Pain. Outrage. Demands for justice.
Following months of racial unrest in Austin and across the nation, KVUE is shedding light on the roots and results of systemic racism in Austin in a two-night TV special.
Chapter one: Looking back at Austin’s history of systemic racism
With the end of the U.S. Civil War, 3.5 million enslaved Black Americans would be set free. Even though President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1862, which would eventually lead to the end of slavery in the Confederacy, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 – the date now known as Juneteenth – that word reached Texas when Union General Gordon Granger announced the order to the people of Galveston, Texas.
As the news spread across Texas, 250,000 formerly enslaved people in the state faced the reality of having to figure out how to make a home, put food on the table and create a better future for their families.
But in that period after the Civil War, matters could have not been more difficult for them. Confederate states like Texas were determined that ex-slaves would neither be truly free nor equal. The Ku Klux Klan and other White terror organizations used lynching and White riots against Black people. Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes were the frameworks for an entrenched system of white supremacy and racial segregation.
By 1870, Blacks made up 30% of Texas’ entire population, which was estimated to be 840,000. But there had been so much violence against them, many would travel to bigger cities such as Austin, Houston and Dallas where federal troops could offer protection.
Many Blacks in Central Texas would settle in what was known as “freedman’s towns.” Even though so-called “free Blacks” had occupied Austin since the early 1800s, the influx of newly-freed slaves led to the creation 15 separate enclaves where they lived near one another and established their own businesses, schools and churches.
There was Clarksville, established by Charles Clark in 1871, home to hundreds of freed slaves. Located just west of MoPac Expressway (Loop 1) between West Sixth and West 10th streets, the Clarksville neighborhood is now known as a place for pricey homes and long-established businesses.
And there was Wheatville, formed by James Wheat in 1869 and located in part of an area now known as the University of Texas’ West Campus neighborhood. The first Black newspaper published west of the Mississippi after the Civil War was compiled, edited and printed there. Its former headquarters still exists in a building on San Gabriel Street that’s surrounded by high-rise UT student condos.
In 1928, Austin City Hall developed a plan that would force Black Americans out of their homes in Wheatville, Clarksville and other freedman’s towns scattered around the city, and into a single community located on the east side of town. To ensure that people would move, city officials warned residents that it would not provide paved roads or sewer lines in the freedman’s towns.
Blacks were forced to settle into what the city planners called the “Negro District.” Though the city did help to provide schools, parks and swimming pools, many were substandard.
As East Austin developed into a growing Black neighborhood, East 11th Street would become the focus of a thriving business community. Nearby Tillotson College would offer new opportunities for advanced education. It eventually merged with Huston College to become the higher learning institute we know today as Huston-Tillotson University.
From the 1940s and on, East Austin developed into the heart of Black cultural life and education, a community that shared a common bond through worship at the abundant neighborhood churches.
Yet, for Black Austinites, having a place in the political process was virtually nonexistent. They were shut out of developing public policy or holding elected offices. Making conditions worse, East Austin was considered an industrial zone and, in 1948, several large oil companies began building petroleum tank farms that, over time, caused ground contamination around a number of homes. They operated until 1992.
A greater sense of isolation for Black Austinites from the mainstream of commerce and city and state government occurred when construction began in the 1950s on an interstate highway that would run through the center of the city, separating east from west. What was once an open and accessible boulevard – East Avenue – eventually would be consumed by a six-lane freeway with additional traffic lanes added later to a deck built above the freeway. For some who lived on the eastside, Interstate 35 would create a concrete barrier between the prosperous and predominately White downtown and West Austin and their neighborhood on the “other side of town.”
But there were positive changes, too. During the 1950s, there was growing awareness on the part of politicians and the courts that Black Americans deserved the same opportunities as Whites. With the passage of Civil Rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s, Black participation in political life took on new urgency.
The first Black American elected to public office in Austin occurred in 1968 when Wilhelmina Delco won a spot on the city’s school board. In 1974, she was elected to represent Austin in the Texas Legislature until she retired in 1995. In 1971, Austin elected its first Black city council member, Berl Handcock.
Voter registration projects became a centerpiece of East Austin political life in the 1980s and 1990s, as did political activism by the local chapters of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Black Citizens’ Task Force, among others.
Families in East Austin won a victory in the courts in 1996 when oil companies agreed to dismantle the petroleum storage tanks near their homes.
Still, change was in the air for East Austin as gentrification took root over the past decade leading many to believe that rising home values forced many long-time residents to leave. While that’s partially true, historian Lisa Byrd has written that even in the 1970s, before the gentrification, Black families had begun moving to the suburbs and smaller communities surrounding Austin, some to be near schools where their children were being bused daily under the school board’s desegregation efforts.
For Black Americans in Austin, past and present, there's a long history of struggles and triumphs with so many new chapters of that history yet to be written.
Chapter two: The swinging pendulum of race in America
Race relations in America can be compared to a pendulum. Momentum grows on one side – building and intensifying – until something happens.
“At some point, something happens or a piece is written or a speech is given or something is seen and folks are shocked into a new consciousness and the pendulum starts to go in the other direction," said Kevin Foster, professor of Black studies at the University of Texas at Austin and executive producer of Blackademics Television.
The pendulum swings, as Foster calls them, are seen all throughout American history. For instance, in 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" swang sentiment among northerners on slavery.
"She writes this humanizing book that, in serial form, people are going to the paper, trying to get the next chapter. And it's sort of painting a picture that humanizes those who are enslaved. Points out that the moral quandaries, the problems with it, etc. And northern readers are pulled off the fence," Foster said.
In the 1950s and 1960s, nightly news programs bring the Civil Rights Movement into living rooms, swinging attitudes about segregation.
"A lot of people that just don't want to be involved, all of a sudden see these horrific images of fire hoses on people, you know, these marchers dressed really nicely, just getting abused, dogs attacking. And again, people go, 'OK, OK, that's, that's enough. We need to do something about this,'" Foster said.
In 2020, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd as people nearby pleaded for the officer to stop and check Floyd’s pulse. The officer didn’t and Floyd died. The video and reaction took over social media feeds, televisions and city streets. And while unarmed Black Americans have died at the hands of police officers in the recent past, this time is different. This time the pendulum swing feels inescapable.
"We have a capacity to turn the narratives toward supporting our predisposed position, right? So any time there's any ambiguity, 'Oh, but they were probably doing this,'" said Foster
"This time … it's clear that something could be done differently here," he added. "It's clear that there is a lack of concern over a person's well-being, above and beyond a need for an officer to protect themselves. And so I think folks watching, they got it in a new way because there was no intellectual sophistry that would get you out of the box of what actually was happening there."
Whether it's a long-awaited and overdue recognition of the struggle or an awakening and realization that Black lives have not mattered as much as others in this country, there is now momentum in the movement fueling calls for change. But to create that change, it’s critical to recognize the factors creating the problem.
"There's the history, there are the biases and there are the ongoing systemic realities,” Foster said.
That trio appears in nearly every part of life for Black Americans. At this moment, they are most obvious to see in policing.
"For some, it might take them out of their comfort zone to truly understand that for many of us, who have police officers in our family by the way, and who know different police officers, that doesn't change the fact that for many of us our experience of police, when we encounter them, is one of fear," Foster said.
"James Baldwin says, 'Look, a cop is a cop. And he might be, she might be, a very nice person, but I don't have time to figure all that out. What I see are guns and uniforms. And I know this might go wrong for me, no matter. So I'm just going to go in the other direction,'" he added. "That is very, very hard for people to get with if all that's ever happened for them is that law officers have served them and served them well. And it's very hard to imagine that the same person that gave your kid a lollipop or was just so nice and helped you get the cat out of the tree, whatever they did, that person that's so nice is the same person that in a different set of circumstances will come quick with a taser, a baton or a gun. Or shouting at you, yelling at you, screaming at you."
The racial inequalities span well beyond the criminal justice system. In this present day, issues with housing and a lack of affordability impact most Austinites, but the issue is compounded when you factor in race.
"Race and class collide, right," said Foster. "And so a lot of the things that are part of our class structure then become horribly exacerbated because race gets mapped onto them in really powerful, enduring ways."
Ways that are still felt today – such as the impacts of the 1928 plan that segregated Austin and uprooted communities. And as Austin started to integrate its schools, the needs of Black students didn't matter.
"We integrated, first of all, by not," said Foster. "Brown v. Board of Education came and went and Austin was like, 'Yeah, no, thank you.' And then finally, the federal government said, 'Folks, you kind of got to do this.' And they said, 'OK, we'll do it. We'll do it. Watch us.' And they closed down all the Black institutions and started bussing Black kids all over the place and made a mess. And the way we did integration was classic a maneuver where we did integration in a way to protect White interests at all costs and then do what we can for Black folk after that."
While some systems have made progress, biases still exist. Even more concerning is the fact that some of these biases are implicit and, in some arenas, can mean the difference between life and death for Black Americans.
"You have doctors who are not claiming racism, don't want to be racist, that is not what's in their heart; and they nonetheless operate through a prejudice that's not even fully recognized, that has them give an epidural more quickly to a White woman than to others, has them recognize pain with more delicacy and care for some people than others, literally giving different prescriptions for the same things," Foster said.
To find solutions to these issues, the conversations may be difficult and make self-reflection uncomfortable, but for the people who live with these realities every day, it's time for the pendulum to swing.
“You can look into arena after arena and see the ways in which race is silently implicated and silently producing outcomes. And dismantling our structures and rebuilding, or if you want to say reforming, our structures, so that they are more just, really takes thoughtful, comprehensive and, dare I even say, brave work,” said Foster.
KVUE is proud to help do that work to build a better Austin.
Chapter three: Black APD officers discuss problems, solutions
In 1913, John Gaines was the first Black police officer in Austin. He was shot and killed at Sixth and Trinity streets by a drunk deputy constable while waiting for backup. He wasn't allowed to arrest a White suspect.
Now, more than 100 years later, there are 135 Black officers on the force, including Lt. Gizette Gaslin.
From the time she was young, Gaslin dreamed of being part of something that would protect and serve her community. But becoming an Austin police officer wasn't her first choice. Her father is the one who encouraged her to apply.
"I've always wanted to help people," Gaslin said. "I joined when I was 24 years old, and it's been the best decision of my life."
During her time at the Austin Police Department, Gaslin has been a recruiting sergeant and an academy instructor.
"I've been on the force now for 25 years, and so I've seen Austin grow, I've seen it change," she said. "I'm about to promote to commander in the next six months, and I'll be the second African American woman commander in the history of APD."
The lieutenant is part of the changing face of the department. But when it comes to racial issues, lately APD has faced its fair share of controversy – including the death of Michael Ramos, who was shot and killed by an Austin officer. Ramos, a Black and Latino man, was unarmed.
Numerous people, including college student Justin Howell, were injured when hit by so-called less-lethal rounds during protests over police brutality.
Many were also angry over how the department handled complaints against former assistant chief Justin Newsom. He left APD with full benefits after an investigation into his use of racist language against Black people.
And in January, the City released a report that concluded, "people of color are still stopped in their motor vehicles at disproportionately higher rates than their percentage of the population here in Austin."
In May, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers set off waves of protests and violence across the nation. In Austin, furious crowds faced off with APD and other law enforcement agencies. Some hurled abuse, while others begged for a dialogue. Still others called Black officers traitors, telling them being Black isn't a choice but being proud of your badge – and the power you hold over others – is.
"We've come a long way, we're a progressive department, but do we have issues? Yes, we do," APD Cpl. Michael Rhone said. "Being Black and being an officer, it's just tough in this day and age."
Rhone knows the difficulties all too well. The 17-year APD veteran said he's faced racism in and out of uniform, and he asks other officers to speak out if they see racism within the ranks.
"One thing, if you let that go, then it festers and will continue on. But the way I approach it if it happens is, 'We're going to deal with this right here and now and it might be an investigation, but you're going to report it to your supervisor.' You have to take some action, and I think that's the only way you weed out racist officers," he said.
APD's motto is "One Austin, Safer Together." But despite years of effort to bring more diversity to the department, the numbers show minorities continue to make up a relatively small part of the force.
"I've had many people stop me and say, 'You know what, you're the first Black officer I've seen in Austin,'" Rhone said. "I'm like, 'Wow, really?' And then you start thinking about that and you're like, 'Well, do we need more officers?' Yes, in my opinion, I think we do."
But experts say people of color, especially Black men, are less likely to apply for the force when so many are taught to avoid officers and believe they're disproportionately targeted by police.
Gaslin believes before you can see a change in APD on the outside, you have to fix the problems inside.
"It doesn't change that I'm a Black woman in this society. When I take this uniform off, sometimes I still get followed in stores or people don't say, 'Hey, can I help you?' So, I still have that experience as a Black woman," she said. "But I can share those experiences with the officers that I work with. You want us in police work, you want us to be able to represent and educate the other officers because you don't want an all-White department."
Rhone said building a bridge of trust between APD and the community will take time. It will mean more community policing, adding minorities to the ranks, additional training about race relations, creating a de-escalation unit and making sure officers treat every citizen equally under the law.
"Weeding out racist officers, immediately. We have a no-tolerance policy if you lie," Rhone said. "If that happens, I think it will get better in the department, and I think the community can see that."
Chapter four: Texas students from low-income families, especially Black and Hispanic boys, neglected the most
There are more than five million students in Texas, and they have similar goals. They want to learn to succeed – but the road to success could be different depending on your family’s income, your gender or the color of your skin.
"One of the things that was an intense frustration in our community was the lack of objective data to be able to make better decisions about how to help students succeed and about how to identify and close equity gaps,” said Susan Dawson, the founder of the E3 Alliance. "Data is just data unless you can use it to drive action."
The E3 Alliance is a data-driven education collaborative based in Austin. Dawson started the organization in 2006. According to its website, it has worked with 15 school districts, eight institutions of higher education, numerous businesses and nonprofits and policy leaders across Central Texas to address complex community issues in education.
Dawson said, according to E3 Alliance's data, students from low-income families, especially Black and Hispanic boys, are neglected the most.
"Some of it literally is just lack of access to resources, whether that's tutors or support at home or opportunities during the summer to enhance learning. Some of it is actually bias in the system against students of color who face additional vulnerabilities and additional barriers when they're trying to succeed. Part of it is connectivity," Dawson said.
Connectivity has become a huge discussion as thousands of students turn to digital learning throughout the coronavirus pandemic. It’s one of the main reasons why the State is trying to reopen buildings this fall at least for students that don’t have technology or Wi-Fi.
The E3 Alliance found there are 43,475 homes without connection in Travis County. Homes with incomes above $150,000 per year are 80% connected and homes with incomes under $25,000 per year are 20% connected.
"It's about calling people into their humanity,” said Dr. Stephanie Hawley, Austin ISD's chief equity officer. "Which groups are not benefiting from the system as is currently designed? What policies and practices do you have in place that are continuing inequities?"
Dr. Hawley was hired in August 2019 amid AISD's school changes controversy. The district's board of trustees went ahead with a vote that closed four schools serving predominantly Black and brown students.
"Most people think, 'Oh, racism or inequities comes from somebody being mean and using racial epithets.' But that's not what it is. It is really about policies and practices that continue to produce the same outcomes for the same groups,” Dr. Hawley said.
In Dr. Hawley’s equity analysis on the East Austin school closures, she said closures would "extend the district's more-than-hundred-year history of racial and economic segregation and once again place the burden on the same communities in East Austin."
The document said the school closures process began with an ongoing financial crisis, 8,000 empty seats, under-enrolled schools on the East side of the district and overcrowding on the West side of the district.
Dr. Hawley said the only way to get rid of inequities in school systems is to interrogate policies and practices.
"The system works really well for White, middle-class English-dominant students," Dr. Hawley said. "But the system doesn't work for a lot of other students. Then you have to help people understand the difference between what we produce and what's the personal responsibility and accountability for change. That is extremely difficult."
One policy recently changed in AISD is the suspension of Pre-K through third-grade kids. Dr. Hawley said that policy was, at one point, allowing isolation and detention of mostly Black and Brown children.
"That's an example of a policy that disrupts something that is harmful to children," Dr. Hawley said.
Recently, AISD released its Equity Action Plan draft, and, in a list, it goes into detail about different groups the district underserves in some capacity. Just to name a few, Black, Asian, deaf, bilingual and immigrant students made the list.
The plan’s first page states:
"The purpose of the Equity Action Plan is to guide district leaders of PK-16 education to intentionally achieve equity for all students as they implement planning and decision-making processes so that all students receive what they need to achieve their full academic and social potential.
"The Equity Action Plan was informed by data collected August 2019 through March 2020. The data were collected from Austin ISD staff, community groups, and community grassroots organizations (participants) during facilitated sessions and workshops at various sites throughout Austin. During the conversations, participants identified points of pride, challenges, and solutions relative to Austin ISD. The language used in the data collection section is the language used by the participants of the facilitated sessions and workshops.* This document is a first draft and the review process is ongoing."
The plan’s mission is to, "Support the district in consistent and equitable resource allocation, evaluation, development and implementation of tools, policies and practices to achieve racial and social equity for students, teachers, staff and the community, regardless of race, ability, socioeconomic status, language, religion, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, gender identity and expression and other human differences."
For African American/Black students, the plan said the district underserves them with, "Lack of academic support for their success; overly placed in In-School Suspension, Disciplinary Alternative Education Program; district not supporting high outcomes; no systemic change to support participation in Gifted & Talented and Advanced Placement; culture in classrooms for rigorous academics described as 'oppressive and alienating'; low expectations; disproportionately identified for Special Education."
For Hispanic/Latinx Students, the plan said the district underserves them with, "Lack of academic support for their success; overly placed in In-School Suspension; Disciplinary Alternative Education Placement; district not supporting high outcomes; no systemic change to support participation in Gifted and Talented; culture in classrooms for rigorous academics described as 'oppressive and alienating.'"
AISD wants the community to read the plan in the next couple of months and give input. What do they believe is missing? How can these issues get fixed?
Dr. Hawley and Dawson both said it will take a lot of uncomfortable conversations to fix these problems.
"If you look at education outcomes in general and specifically at equity in education, it is the civil rights issue of our day. It is the opportunity for students to have a chance to succeed in life, but only if we as a community are willing to change systems to allow all students to access that opportunity," Dawson said.
Chapter five: Racial disparities in Austin’s health care system
Racism is evident in places that you may not expect, like healthcare.
KVUE's Terri Gruca asked Dr. Carmen Valdes, chief of community engagement and health equity at the Department of Population at Dell Medical School at UT Austin, to speak with KVUE about how these disparities impact people in the Austin area.
Terri Gruca: What kinds of disparities do we see here in Central Texas?
Carmen Valdes: “We see inequities both in the burden of illness, but also in terms of access to services at all levels of care. So when I say burden, what I'm referring to is individuals from certain socio-economic statuses or racial or ethnic backgrounds have higher rates of disease, higher rates of risk in their environment. That and certain conditions that can worsen their health or make them vulnerable to different health conditions. We see that it's not only a matter of socio-economic status. People can easily understand how if you lived in poverty, you would have fewer access to resources and you would also live in less stable environments, but we also see a racial effect among educated and higher-income groups. If you are Black or if you are Hispanic, you tend to still have elevated risk for birth fatalities. For example, diabetes and maternal mortality itself. So there are groups that have a socio-economic disadvantage and on top of that a racial disadvantage toward health. Then, because they tend to live in segregated environments, the institutions that are in their neighborhoods and their communities are typically underfunded, under-resourced. All of that over the life course contributes to poor health outcomes and lower quality services and less likelihood of people having a stable medical home.
Gruca: Some people may be surprised in a boomtown like Austin that we're seeing this. But you say that this growth can actually trigger more of a problem here as we grow. How?
Valdes: You know, the west and central parts of Austin are becoming less affordable, but also overcrowded. There's redevelopment that is happening in East Austin that is allowing White middle-class individuals to move into those areas, but that is displacing communities of color that have lived there for many, many decades. They are being displaced to rural areas or outside areas where their traditional support system is no longer present and where resources that are culturally, linguistically, contextually congruent with their experience simply do not exist. We need to diversify the workforce. The more we can do that and then bring in people from those communities who are already invested in serving those communities it will help. People who possibly have lived through some of those conditions themselves and can really understand how they shape patient health and their behavior.
Chapter six: Austin's segregated housing plan and the new challenges of gentrification
It doesn't matter what side of Austin you're on, housing is an arena where race and class collide. That's especially the case for Black people in Austin.
"The African American experience in Austin is so overwhelmingly defined by a single neighborhood," said Eliot Tretter, an urban economist and professor of geography at the University of Calgary.
Tretter explores the history of housing in Austin in his book "Shadows of a Sunbelt City." It’s based on a report he wrote while teaching at the University of Texas.
"We still see the ways that race played a very important role," Tretter added.
After the Civil War, Freedmen Communities, neighborhoods where former slaves lived, were sprinkled across Austin. But the City Plan of 1928 created a "Negro District" and the City employed tactics, such as cutting off City services, to force Blacks out of the areas they called home onto the east side of town.
In recent years, the plan and its impacts were recognized by the Austin City Council and became more widely known. But some may not know that the City’s action only happened after laws were passed by the Texas Legislature.
"State legislatures, primarily in the South although not exclusively, were very interested in using zoning, land use planning, as a way of creating or ensuring racial apartheid,” Tretter explained.
It was illegal, so the courts kept overturning Texas law. But in 1927, Texas passed a group of bills giving cities the power to not only create zoning, but to use that zoning to separate residents by race. At the same time, there was a rise in private zoning, which allowed people to create their own rules about the use of land they were selling or developing.
"This house can sell for this price. This house has to have this design. This house has to have this minimum requirement," said Tretter. "And uniformly, uniformly, every single one says 'no person of African ancestry.'"
Tretter explained banks also played a role in this segregation, often refusing to give developers loans unless the zoning stated no one of African ancestry could live on a property.
Even after the courts struck down these restrictions, the damage from zoning was already done. Today, parts of East Austin are still largely undeveloped and residents lack quick access to amenities like grocery stores and pharmacies.
"Those places became the industrial zones. They became the places that were underdeveloped,” Tretter said.
He notes changes in zoning and land development codes by Austin city planners haven’t made things better.
"They are actually reinforcing those boundaries, reinforcing those differences through all the things that they're doing – and so from where schools get located, to where flood remediation happens, to where roads get built and all of these things," he said.
Fast forward to Austin's boom and gentrification is creating new challenges for Black residents.
"Now it seems ever more pressing because the concern really is that you do push or push all those groups way, way out of the city. You've already seen this, you know, the decline of African Americans as a percent of the population in the city's boundaries,” explained Tretter.
Understanding the history, Tretter said, is key to fixing the problem. He believes tools elected officials have such as land trusts and the power to thoughtfully consider zoning could help.
University of Texas Black Studies Professor Kevin Foster said one such tool city council can implement is putting guardrails in place to ensure people can't game affordable housing programs.
"The property was designed for and intended for our firefighters, our teachers, our nurses, our nurse practitioners, our service workers – all these folks that are grinding it out and having to drive in from Manor or Dell Valle, like that's what we were going for,” Foster said. "But then what you have is graduate students who are broke, whose parents have plenty of money, who give them the one-time down payment and who back the young graduate student in obtaining the loan to get the property."
Foster points out students are well within their rights to use affordable housing programs, but adds it comes with societal consequences.
"Don't complain. Don't complain when we have this huge affordability problem and when we have transportation gridlock and we have all of these other problems that cascade from our inability to fix these things," said Foster.
Foster suggests a few sacrifices from some for the greater good of all – a concept that's not easy, but could help build a better Austin.
PEOPLE ARE ALSO READING: