African-Americans are moving to Austin again, but many don’t feel welcome

A mural outside the African-American Cultural and Heritage Facility in east Austin depicts black leaders and cultural icons. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
A mural outside the African-American Cultural and Heritage Facility in east Austin depicts black leaders and cultural icons. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Monday’s celebration of the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., comes as the city of Austin faces an ongoing struggle to keep African-American families from moving and convincing prospective black residents that the city is as welcoming as it says.

Numbers released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau show the total number of African-Americans in the city is on the rise, but the percentage of the population that is black continues to fall, down to 7.6 percent as more people move in.

The figures are compiled every year for the American Community Survey, and this most recent analysis takes into account five years of survey data, making it a more accurate snapshot than a single set of numbers, but still with a greater margin of error than the full census released every decade.

The last census in 2010 recorded a sharp drop — 5.4 percent — in Austin’s black population in the 10 years leading up to it, even as the city’s population overall grew by more than 20 percent. A researcher at the University of Texas at Austin found Austin was the only city among the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country to see the black population decrease during the decade.

This most recent survey found the number of African-Americans in the city rose by 4,385 between 2010 and 2016, but the percentage of the total population fell from 8.4 percent to 7.6 percent over the same time period.

That follows a trend Joseph Parker, senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, has seen in the black community. African-Americans, he said, are spreading out over the city as families are priced out of historically-black areas like east Austin. Fewer businesses are catering to that population, he said, making longtime black residents and potential new ones feel less welcome.

Parker is hopeful city and business leaders can turn the trend around, but wonders if the commitment to equality “is in the DNA of our city.”

Lahoma Dade, owner of the event planning company Events Unleashed and ambassador for the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, wonders, too. Black Austinites simply aren’t competing on a level playing field, she said, especially from a business perspective. She hasn’t seen black-owned businesses or events supported or promoted the same way as others, and that contributes to the inequality African-Americans feel in the city.

“African-Americans have to tell their own story in Austin,” she said, “which is not like the majority of the population.”

The tech space is a problem as well, she said, where hiring practices, cultural competency, and funding for startups favors white entrepreneurs and job-seekers, she said. The fix she sees starts with the top — in this case city and business leadership.

“We can talk as the African-American community all day about the issues, but the best thing we could do is find a good solution,” Dade said. “And, that is, one, supporting black businesses, and two, being willing to be an organization that hires people of color, that doesn’t just have lip service to check off a box.”

It’s something the city has been working on for years, starting in 2004 with the creation of the African American Quality of Life Initiative, a four-year process that identified 56 recommendations, from changes to healthcare, housing, and public safety, among others. The final report in 2008 showed, among other successes, the city attracted more than 25 African-American conferences, including thousands of new black tourists, and generated $6 million for the local economy.

But there’s more work to be done, Austin’s chief equity officer Brion Oaks told KXAN, and in the coming months the city will continue to experiment with ways to make Austin a place for everyone.

Gentrification is still a big force for displacing longtime black residents, Oaks said, and it comes with other unintended consequences for those families. Moving further outside the core of the city increases transportation costs and can decrease access to grocery stores and healthcare, he said. A big focus for his office is determining how to develop more affordable housing in the city.

More fundamentally, Oaks said, he’s working to improve cultural competency among city staff to ensure everyone has a shared understanding of racism and inequality. He’s tasked city departments with performing internal racial equality assessments and plans to start an equity training academy for employees that aims to show how systemic racism and implicit bias play out in Austin.

Parker, the pastor who has followed trends within Austin’s black population, hopes to see the city follow through on its commitment to making the city more welcoming to African-Americans. Resources need to follow the words, he said, and he doesn’t know how the new city manager will direct those resources.

But government is just one part of a bigger solution, he said; nonprofits and businesses large and small also have a role to play in making the city a place for everyone to live comfortably.

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