Here's How Austin Wants To Solve Institutional Racism

Apr 4, 2017

In November, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced the formation of a group of local leaders tasked with suggesting city policy that could begin to ensure equity throughout the city. On Tuesday, the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and System Equities published its nearly 70-page final report.

Co-chaired by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz and Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette, the group tackled five main topics where they argue racism and inequity is woven into adopted policy: education, real estate and housing, health, finance and criminal justice.

While City Council members heard about the report Tuesday, they did not have a critical discussion about the recommendations. Council Member Greg Casar did provide some feedback, though. When Mayor Adler created the task force last year, he said it was partly in response to recent police use-of-force cases – including the 2016 death of David Joseph, a black teenager. Casar said suggestions about how to combat cases like this were lacking in the report.

“I expected, or suspected, that more mention of how we can address use-of-force issues and police shootings in our community would be more addressed in the report," he said. 

Council Member Ora Houston took a step back, congratulating the task force on having these conversations in a city that she said often thinks of itself as too progressive to do so.

“In a city that is very liberal and very prosperous, it’s hard to talk about institutional and systemic racism," she said, "and you all were able to do it with grace and be able to listen to some of the concerns that people have expressed."

On Thursday, City Council is set to vote on whether to ask the city manager to devise policy based on the task force’s recommendations. Here’s a rundown of some of those recommendations:

Health

In Travis County, low-income communities of color are more likely to have a harder time finding health care services. That’s even though these communities are more likely to be exposed to serious health risks.

According to the task force’s report, low-income minority populations in Austin are more likely to work in high health-risk occupations, which include jobs in construction, fast food, the garment industry and migrant farm work.

“Historic and current racism in land and planning policy also plays a critical role in minority health status,” the task force report notes. “Minorities are much more likely to have toxic and other unhealthy uses sited in their communities than Whites, regardless of income. For example, over-concentration of alcohol and tobacco outlets and the legal and illegal dumping of pollutants both pose serious health risks to minorities.”

According to the Austin Public Health Department’s 2016 Critical Indicators Report, people living in these communities, which are primarily in parts of East Austin, are more likely to live in a food desert, relatively far from a hospital and more likely to die at a younger age.

The task force recommends, among other things, that local agencies, consistently track and report health disparities and their causes among traditionally underserved communities of color.

Other specific initiatives include:

  • Creating an Office of Resilience within the Austin Public Health Department to ensure all services and systems are trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.
  • Training City of Austin, Travis County, public sector and government agency employees on institutional racism and systemic inequities.
  • Dedicating a portion of the funding allocated for community grants for ongoing cultural sensitivity for community health care workers.
  • Providing health promotion and disease prevention educational materials to children and families who are most affected by health disparities.
  • Incentivizing public-private initiatives that increase food access in food deserts.
  • Creating workforce pipelines connecting students from ninth grade through higher education for health sciences and allied health careers. 

Real Estate And Housing

Historically, local policies have relegated people of color, particularly African-Americans, to East Austin. The report finds that this trend has “limited [residents’] access to many things necessary for upward mobility.” The task force’s Real Estate and Housing Work Group is proposing a new set of policies to address these racial inequities in housing.

The report proposes two strategies for the City of Austin to “redress past wrongs” and avoid future inequities. It recommends that the city develop a local fund dedicated to addressing institutional racism in housing. The task force recommends implementing a mandatory linkage fee to fund the creation and preservation of affordable housing, particularly in high-opportunity areas. The report proposes setting a goal of $600 million for the fund over 10 years in order to make significant progress on housing inclusion.

It also recommends that the mayor’s proposed Strike Fund, which aims to leverage private dollars to renovate deteriorating market-rate housing, offer the upgraded housing to lower-income residents, especially families of color.

In terms of development, the report notes that the city continues to allow for higher uses in lower zoning categories in East Austin compared to other parts of the city. Stringent regulations have prevented similar development in much of West Austin. One of the task force’s more ambitious recommendations is enacting a temporary moratorium on all rezoning and demolition of single-family and multifamily homes within certain East Austin districts while the city implements efforts to combat gentrification in those neighborhoods. The report also calls for the city’s chief equity officer to review all new city code, plans and policies and determine whether they may have any negative consequences for residents of color.

Other recommendations:

  • Acknowledging the damage being caused by our community’s continued acceptance of residential racial and ethnic segregation. The solution must begin with our community embracing integration and diversity as a core value.
  • Campaigning to invite Austin-area citizens to embrace the values of racial integration, diversity and inclusion at the individual, neighborhood and regional levels.
  • Marketing housing, both renter and owner-occupied, to people of color in both gentrifying neighborhoods and in traditionally segregated white neighborhoods. Tie together housing, transit, jobs and schools to result in thriving communities.
  • Creating initiatives to support existing lower income residents through affordable and safe ways to access home equity without selling, and for mitigating the impact of increasing property taxes.
  • Enforcing Fair Housing laws, which in Austin today are for all practical purposes ignored. The city must aggressively root out all vestiges of housing discrimination through law enforcement actions based on a widespread program of testing and prosecution using the only effective fair housing enforcement technique —matched pair testing.
  • Making Austin the national center for “neighborhood integration, diversity, and inclusion.” 

Education

Austin’s public school system is often described as a tale of two districts: one that is predominantly white and wealthier, and another that is mostly low-income students of color. The report found that racial and socioeconomic divide is grounded in historic institutional racism seen in many major educational decisions throughout the history of Austin’s public schools.

“Our history includes pivotal moments where we as a community chose segregation and inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities,” the report states. “In the last half century, we have informally, but in real numbers, maintained a de facto segregated reality because most school boundaries follow neighborhood lines and our neighborhood communities remain largely segregated.”

This geographic segregation means that while Austin ISD’s student population is predominantly students of color, white students are mostly educated in schools where they are the majority.

The report focuses on four areas where institutional segregation is most visible: staffing, curriculum, access to programs and professional development. It offered a variety of extremely specific suggestions to improve on these issues. Many suggestions require money and buy-in from various school districts and community groups. For example, the report recommends hiring and recruiting more teachers of color. It encourages more cultural competency training for educators at all levels and suggests implementing a local curriculum that teaches students about Austin’s history of inequity. It also recommends schools reexamine admissions processes to ensure the students who are accepted in high-quality programs reflect the region’s demographics. 

But the report acknowledges these issues will be difficult to fix. There is a lack of diversity in the educator pipeline. Plus, Austin’s high cost of living makes it difficult to retain a diverse staff in the city’s core, and schools don’t always have the resources to pay for third parties to come in and address racial bias among staff, either. 

Task force members call for increased dialogue and training among community members and education leaders to discuss racial inequity in the district. The task force admits just talking about racism, white supremacy and institutional racism was difficult for many without targeted workshops to start the conversation.

The section ends with a call for the city to take a stand in support of the city’s children in the wake of recent events disrupting immigrant communities.

“Many of the working group members work directly with children and their families, or college students who are undocumented, and we have witnessed how classrooms and communities have been impacted in recent weeks,” the report states.

Other specific recommendations include: 

  • Preparing equity assessments and equity reports on minority and gender representation at all levels and ranks in area colleges and universities.
  • Hiring teachers and faculty of color in cohorts or clusters – creating a climate of inclusion. The city can facilitate citywide gatherings to bring people of color in education together across district and college/universities.
  • Offering stipends, loan forgiveness, and grants as incentives specifically targeting teachers and faculty of color.
  • Providing grants for community schools that serve 95 percent of their attendance zone, which provides that school the autonomy to meet the needs of their surrounding community to transform schools into inclusive and rigorous learning environments.
  • Examining admission procedures to determine what the receiving program looks for an applicant and whether racial bias is built in at that initial level.
  • Advocating that all curriculum, PK-16, will be culturally inclusive. This should include ethnic studies courses, most especially Hispanic/Latino and black music, voice, dance and the arts, into the K-12 and higher education curriculum, co-constructed and shared among schools, districts and colleges.

 

Finance, Banking And Industry

In 2014, a study published by the Toronto-based Martin Prosperity Institute found Austin the most economically segregated U.S. city. The group noted how a lack of access to something such as a loan can affect a family's economic mobility: "When one considers that home ownership is a key cornerstone to wealth building, lack of access becomes an institutional barrier."

Where city policy can directly effect change, the task force argues, is regulating the use of predatory lending. In 2011, the city began requiring payday lenders to register or face a fine of up to $500. The report asks that the city ensure the Code Department has the resources to enforce this law and to consider increasing the fine.

While the city has limited ability to police private employers, the mayor’s task force asks that local government lead by example. Recommendations include encouraging employers to educate employees about implicit bias, consider resumes from job applicants anonymously and provide pay based on merit.

Other specific recommendations include:

  • Providing free space for nonprofit organizations that counsel individuals in financial services, budgeting, credit repair and financial services accessibility issues.
  • Developing an active, anti-predatory lending public service campaign that includes distribution of flyers with information on how to get out of predatory lending accounts, available alternatives, and financial education to improve one’s ability to access cheaper credit in the future
  • Using funds from the state of Texas that are generated from payday lending industries to pay for financial education.
  • Locating physical financial service branch locations throughout the city and offering lower denominations through ATM transactions where possible.

Civil And Criminal Justice

People of color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system in Travis County. According to the report, they are often given short shrift in the court system, which should promote justice but instead reinforces systematic oppression.

“We believe the civil and criminal justice systems are institutionally biased and their negative impacts begin early in the life of people of color,” the task force report says. To supports this claim, the report cites the school-to-prison pipeline, the punitive tactics used by law enforcement in communities of color, and the mistreatment of mental illness in communities of color that can lead to attenuated opportunity and a heightened risk of incarceration.

To combat this injustice, the task force suggests reforms within the public school system, the juvenile justice system, local law enforcement, the civil and criminal justice court system, and mental illness and substance abuse treatment in Austin and Travis County, as well as finding ways to improve re-entry outcomes.

“We believe that accountability and transparency coupled with continued community engagement, 
education, and training will alleviate racial disparities found in the civil and criminal justice system,” the report states.

Some specific initiatives include:

  • Investing in anti-racism training for faculty and students. 

  • Publishing annual assessments (in the aggregate) of personnel trends such as use of force incidents and citizens’ complaints. 

  • Engaging in continuous diversity and inclusion training within law enforcement, with special attention to implicit bias training.
  • Collecting and analyzing data on disparities in outcomes in the criminal and civil justice system and dispositions by race.
  • Creating alternatives to incarceration for Class C misdemeanors.
  • Integrating a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program at Travis County Correctional Complex and other prisons. 

KUT's Audrey McGlinchy, Ashley Lopez, Kate McGee, Syeda Hasan and Kate Groetzinger contributed to this report.