The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The racial inequality embedded in one of the country’s liberal cities

Austin’s liberal politics only go so far

A motorcyclist rides past a mural at 12th and Chicon streets in East Austin depicting influential African American and Latino figures. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

The notorious tagline “Keep Austin Weird” has long suggested that the Texas city is a haven for liberal politics in a conservative state. Yet, both its history and current reality tell another story.

Like so many other cities in Texas and across the United States, Austin is built on racial inequality and discrimination. The gentrification that fuels its economy today comes at the expense of Black Austinites — in fact, it always has.

Black Texans migrated to Austin after the abolition of slavery to join integrated communities, such as Clarksville and Wheatsville. But by the late 19th century, it was difficult for city officials to enforce local and state segregation laws because small Black communities were spread throughout the city. To achieve full racial separation, city officials developed policies to form distinctly Black and White neighborhoods.

In 1928, the Austin City Plan effectively funneled Black Austinites into the city’s east side. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that city ordinances mandating residential segregation were unconstitutional, city leaders developed new methods for racially separating neighborhoods in Austin. This included moving all-Black schools, parks and public facilities east of downtown. A decade after the Austin City Plan was approved, segregated public housing projects continued the process of pushing Black Austinites to the east side and giving the city government control over transportation, infrastructure and utility services. In short, Austin officials confined the city’s Black community to an area without adequate resources or economic opportunity.

Meanwhile, White Austinites reaped the benefits of segregation. The University of Texas’s westward campus expansion in the early 20th century overtook the formerly integrated Wheatsville and Clarksville neighborhoods. At about the same time, city officials placed public housing for White residents close to downtown for easy access to community resources.

In the coming years, as in so many other cities across the United States, the expansion of postwar highway systems separated East Austin from the rest of the city. In 1959, the construction of Interstate 35 emerged as a physical barrier that further solidified racial segregation throughout Austin.

The Black community in Austin fought back against the city’s discriminatory policies. In 1971, Community United Front (CUF), a Black Power organization, leased six billboards around East Austin, including a sign next to I-35, highlighting the bleak living conditions in the area. “Welcome to East Austin,” the billboard read. “You Are Now Leaving the American Dream.” The signs warned residents and tourists to “beware of rats-roaches and people with a lack of FOOD, CLOTHING, [and] JOBS.”

The controversial billboards challenged conventional notions of the American Dream in a society that, in theory, was no longer bound by racial discrimination. Larry Jackson, a CUF spokesman, claimed that “a lot of people did not like the signs.” Jackson also mentioned, however, that the billboards yielded “several thousand dollars in private donations” to support a free breakfast and day-care program for children, a job-training program and a medical clinic for Black residents and low-income Austinites.

Since the American Dream of homeownership and economic mobility did not exist in East Austin because of government policies, CUF members worked to create it themselves through grass-roots organizing and activism.

The organization’s coordinated outreach supported the Black Power philosophy of community control. Recognizing East Austin’s lack of political power and subjection to the city government’s discriminatory policies, Jackson and other CUF organizers developed programs to address Black Austinites’ needs without the support or input from city officials.

After groups like the CUF disbanded, a new organization formed in 1980, Grassroots Leadership, to fill the void. Grassroots Leadership trained activists and community leaders to respond to civil rights and labor issues. In addition to training, Grassroots Leadership tackled issues involving the privatization of education, health care, public services and — most importantly — prisons.

And yet, by the early 2000s, Austin’s population growth had reinforced historical inequalities in housing and community resources. By 2010, East Austin had grown and increased opportunities for White homeownership, but did so while pushing people of color out of the city.

In 2015, the Austin Justice Coalition developed to stop racially motivated displacement and the privatization of public services, while working to abolish prisons and law enforcement agencies in and around Austin.

Even so, the simultaneous expansion of gentrification in East Austin threatens to undermine these community organizing efforts. With limited space throughout the city and East Austin’s proximity to downtown and popular restaurants and nightlife, the area has seen the increase of White renters and homeowners. Property values have increased, which in turn has forced low-income and working-class families of color out of East Austin neighborhoods.

Much of the area’s Black population is confined to public housing and low-income rentals. With property values skyrocketing across the country, homes in Austin, on average, increased by more than $100,000 in the first six months of 2021, with many of those properties located in the former Black enclave of East Austin. As million-dollar home sales raise taxes throughout the neighborhood, people of color are forced to leave for more affordable options outside of Austin.

Although this phenomenon is well-known around the city and state, very few people outside Texas are taking notice of gentrification’s detrimental effects on Austin’s declining Black population.

Even in a city well-known for liberal values, Austin residents are pushing to expand police forces and recently criminalized homelessness. The city’s racial history makes it even more difficult to reconcile this liberal exterior with the reality of inequality and discrimination, past and present.

Austin’s racial makeover reminds us how Austin’s — and the nation’s — history of racial oppression and access to political power has long shaped who has access to the American Dream.