City's Racism Task Force Unveils Report

Group focuses on five issues to combat institutional racism

Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, helped lead the city's Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On Monday, after five months of review, the city’s relatively new Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities released its anticipated report concerning how to help dismantle the glaring problem in ostensibly progressive Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler formed the task force in November, in part in response to last February’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old David Joseph, and the July revelations about APD Officer Bryan Richter’s aggressive arrest of Breaion King in June 2015. The Mayor said at the time that the group should not be afraid to “break some eggs.” It’s since been led by Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, and AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz. Together, they oversee about 50 community leaders, who each received a draft of recommendations from working groups tackling five interrelated issues: criminal and civil justice; finance, banking, and industry; education; real estate and housing; and health.

Up front, the group reports that Austin suffers from deep systemic and institutional racism – a result of the confluence of racially-motivated city policies and ordinances in place for decades – and the city must now act with haste and accountability to reverse the long-standing embedded inequality. (The task force defines institutional racism as “racism perpetuated by powerful social organizations – as opposed to individual actors – that implements racial inequality through systems – that is, through deliberate and organized processes.”) Among its proposals, the group encourages diversity training for public leaders, greater transparency with law enforcement, a fund to alleviate housing inequality, and the city government’s full acceptance of racist policies. “To be clear, this report is not the end, but rather a continuum, or next phase of building on the great and sacrificial history of work led by many talented others, some of whom contributed to this current report,” write Cruz and Burnette.

The finalized report is lengthy and comprehensive, and some of the suggestions are not new. We’ve broken down each section and a handful of the myriad recommendations below. You can read the 70-page report here.

Education: Rooted in school segregation, Austin classrooms continue to be culturally “mismatched,” to the detriment of students of color. While 47% of the K-12 student population is Hispanic/Latino, only 20% of teachers are Hispanic/Latino. Meanwhile, white students make up 37% of the student population in Central Texas; 73% of all teachers in the K-12 system in the region are also white. That mismatch can lead to white teachers assigning white (and Asian) students higher expectations. Large disparities in disciplinary referrals exist for students of color, especially black students, who are disciplined at “far higher rates” than their white counterparts.

The task force recommends equity assessments 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 to create a “climate of inclusion,” and offering stipends, loan forgiveness, and grants as incentives specifically targeting teachers and faculty of color. They call for using language that label issues such as racism, oppression, systemic inequity, institutional racism, white supremacy; and encourage cultural proficiency professional development – like the Beyond Diversity training – for all public school and university employees and ethnic studies courses for students. The city should also create a curriculum on the history of Austin’s inequity, including the 1929 city plan, they suggest.

Real Estate: Economic and racial segregation plagues Austin, and has resulted in a city that is “separate and profoundly unequal,” authors write. Laws, ordinances, and city planning were “directly responsible” for the segregation and gentrification driven displacements seen today. The task force points to the 1928 Master Plan; “Negro Districts,”; the pushing of black and Latino families to Montopolis and Clarksville in the 1870’s–1920’s; the displacement of Mexican-Americans to the East and South side after the damming of the Colorado river, and urban renewal programs. “City government has yet to take full responsibility, much less redress these past racial injustices,” the authors write.

Accountability is key for the task force: The mayor should issue an executive order that acknowledges the city’s racist past and current policies, and every new city code and ordinance plan should be reviewed and approved by the Chief Equity Officer, who will identify any potential negative consequences for minorities. This includes the current draft of CodeNEXT, authors note.

The task force asks the city to develop a “local dedicated fund” to alleviate institutional racism in Austin real estate and housing – they recommend a mandatory linkage fee of $2 per square foot, which could raise $60 million annually and create 400 housing units at $150,000 each. The 10-year goal should be $600 million. The group also urges the city to “redress racial injustices” created and sustained by city policy through the creation of a comprehensive program to fight systemic racial inequities in Austin housing. Part of that plan is to bring former residents back to gentrified areas and institute a “right to stay” policy; use public-owned property to build new land-banked and land trust homes for low-income former East Austin residents of color who wish to move back; and enact a temporary moratorium on all rezoning cases and demo permits for single-family and multi-family homes in the East Austin Homestead Preservation Districts and the Black Cultural Heritage District while the city “considers its official position on gentrification.”

Health: Low-income communities of color face the greatest burden when accessing health care services, authors write. That’s partly by city design, not necessarily individual choice: Toxic areas and over-concentration of alcohol and tobacco stores are much more common in minority communities, regardless of income. (For instance, as mentioned earlier in the report, the Industrial Development Plan of 1957 zoned all property in East Austin “industrial,” which guaranteed the most polluting industries in East Austin stayed there for years to come.)

Recommendations to bridge the inequity include regular reporting of health disparities and causes among traditionally underserved communities of color; creating an Office of Resilience within the Austin Public Health Department to ensure services are trauma-informed and trauma-responsive; allocating more resources for the city’s Health Equity Initiative; dedicating a portion of funding carved out for community grants for ongoing cultural sensitivity to go toward community healthcare workers; and incentivizing public-private initiatives that promote food access in areas with few healthy food options.

Finance, Banking, and Industry: From “redlined” districts to predatory and exploitative lending practices, institutional racism has prevented upward mobility for minority communities locally. In Austin the median family income (MFI) for Hispanic/Latino ($43,198) and blacks ($50,820) continues to be significantly lower than non-Hispanic/Latino ($97,939) and Asian Americans ($101,699). To mitigate that problem, the report suggests, the city should create an anti-predatory lending public service campaign; collect and make public data on borrowers, as well as rate, fees and amounts; and provide free space for nonprofit organizations that counsel residents in financial services, budgeting, and credit repair. The task force also advises the city to make it easier to hire people by creating a jobs database and an “Economic Mobility Center of Excellence” to show best practices.

Civil and Criminal Justice: “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 authors write. Inequalities in the school and juvenile justice system (that help lead to the school-to-prison pipeline) can be mitigated by the city’s investment in anti-racism training for faculty and students. As for law enforcement, the city should publish annual assessments of use of force incidents and citizens complaints; increase recruitment, retention, and promotion of minority police officers; and work toward using 35% of daily patrol time for community policing. The task force suggests APD partake in continuous diversity and inclusion training (with special emphasis on implicit bias education) and de-escalation and “less-than-lethal” technique training. They also recommend the city require yearly psychological evaluations of all APD officers. When it comes to jails, the group advises the city to create alternatives to incarceration for Class C misdemeanors and to provide greater legal and community support for those with mental health issues who have been incarcerated. The city should also begin a study on the details on the number of people jailed by offense, the demographics of the defendant, and what prosecutor and judge is involved to better understand disparities in the court and jail system.

So, what’s next for the task force? They’re urging the city to form a team to vet and push the recommendations, identify funding sources, and adopt a model to sustain the equity work across all systems and communities.

Sounds like the city has a whole lot of homework ahead.

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