Austin is #1! . . . in Economic Segregation

john yancey

University of Texas professor John Yancey’s depiction – broken tile mosaic – of old East Austin, “Rhapsody,” located just east of I-35 in downtown Austin.

Austin, Texas – self-proclaimed live music capital of the world, home of the Longhorns and SXSW – is the most economically segregated large metro area in the United States, according to a new report from the Martin Prosperity Institute. Three other Texas cities/metro areas joined Austin in the top ten ranking: San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Economic segregation means someone at or below the poverty line doesn’t live in the vicinity of someone making $200,000/yr. or more. These two persons might live in the same city, but they live miles apart, literally and figuratively. Austin is #1 – the wealthy increasingly wall themselves off from their poorer city-mates, making for a hard-set segregation of economic classes, not unlike the racial segregation of generations past.

As a matter of fact, Austin’s economic segregation is distinctly based upon the racial divisions of years past. Interstate 35 – running from Laredo to Duluth – splits Austin right down its middle. Generally, the west side is mostly white and well-off and the east side is not. In the 1880s, Austin had a reputation for being a refuge city for freed slaves – a rarity for the South. At this time, African-Americans lived in various geographic pockets all over town. In 1928, Austin created “Negro districts” (in part, ostensibly) to facilitate access to city parks and schools for African-Americans. Austin’s African-American population at this time was just under 20 percent of its total. The 1920s, like the current era, was a time of economic segregation when the gap between America’s wealthiest and poorest increased significantly. During the Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal-inspired agency created to help struggling homeowners with mortgages, sanctioned the infamous red-lined districts of many American cities, essentially quarantining “the threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population” from more desirable parts of cities. By the 1940s, Austin was racially segregated with blacks and Hispanics living east of downtown. The 1962 completed construction of I-35, walling off the east side toward the west with a 100-foot wide concrete canyon, sealed the deal.

Austin has the distinction of being the only city in the country with double-digit population growth in the first decade of the 2000s to experience a decrease in African-American population. Gentrification happens, yes; but it’s deeply ironic that many of Austin’s black residents are now being forced out of an area of town that their ancestors were forced into. Furthermore, Austin maintains its “#1 ranking” of economic segregation even as some of its economically disadvantaged residents leave to live beyond its city limits. African-American population in the United States has been stable for years at 12 percent; additionally, 3 percent of Americans self-identify as bi- or multi-racial (President Obama, Tiger Woods, Beyoncé Knowles). Austin’s black population is now only 8 percent of its total (70,000 of 885,000).

What’s the rub? Extreme economic segregation, just like racial segregation, denigrates the overall health and well-being of a community. This blog consistently trumpets two related and unfortunate current realities of American life: the cultural and geographic clustering of folks in the same socio-economic class, and the disconnect between those who are well-off economically and those who are not.

In the months since my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good has been published, I’ve had many good conversations with individuals and groups on important topics such as poverty, economic inequality, and social mobility – all covered in JaLBM. I frequently ask fellow well-off Americans the following: Do you actually know anyone who lives in poverty? Oftentimes, the honest answer is “no.” There’s a lot of partisan bickering in today’s America about the social problems – many related to poverty – that confront us. What’s not easy in today’s America is to actually have a relationship on equal terms with someone in a different socio-economic class. And because of that, our society consists of many who, lacking insight into another’s plight, are quick to judge the others that they simply don’t know. Just read (for as long as you can take it) the “Comments” portion on articles of newspaper websites dealing with the above mentioned topics.

Working together for a shared common good is a hard task. It takes a commitment to making relationships (especially with those who are “different”), compassion, and smarts. It also understands that present and future realities are related to past ones. Austin’s childhood poverty rate is close to 30 percent – not good. It’s over 50 percent for African-American and Latino children – even worse. “Their” problem? Not a chance – it’s a community issue that needs communal response, resolve, and interaction from those who live in Rosewood Courts to those residing on the thirty-first floor (from where one can see into East Austin) of the new and swanky high rise, The 555.

 

Click here for link describing in detail John Yancey’s strong and beautiful mosaic “Rhapsody.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Excerpts

2 responses to “Austin is #1! . . . in Economic Segregation

  1. Arlin Buyert

    Right on Tim! Great work. Arlin.

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