The Austin Chronicle

Ott Tackles Austin's Racial Divide

By Katherine Gregor, July 3, 2009, News

At a June 26 PeopleTalk luncheon, City Man­ager Marc Ott addressed a range of topics – the city budget, affordable housing, small businesses and job creation, Austin's growth and the comprehensive plan – and companionably tag-teamed with City Council Member Randi Shade in fielding questions from the audience. But in closing, Ott issued a strong challenge to Austinites to publicly address the racial divide in Austin. "In my 27 years in this business, and in all the places I've been, I've never seen as hard a demographic line," he said, referring to the racial barrier embodied by I-35. "Why is East Austin sequestered?" As Austin's first African-American city manager, he said when he has raised the issue, "people's expressions changed. They found polite ways to change the subject."

The biannual PeopleTalk Speaker Series is presented by PeopleFund, a nonprofit dedicated to improving economic opportunity, particularly on the Eastside. "Are we what we say we are, given our heightened level of sophisticated sensibilities?" Ott asked, gently provoking the progressives eating pizza at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. "We don't want to talk about it."

The city manager then asserted with some heat: "Well, I intend to talk about it! And I intend to do something about it." After describing "you need not apply" racial discrimination that he personally encountered early in his career, he said that now, as Austin's city manager, he believes he's finally in the right place, at the right time, to speak out. "I'm not going to be silent about it. And to the extent that I can redirect resources to do something about it, I will." Gesturing toward Shade, he added, "The only way I'm going to stop is if the seven of them stop me!" He received enthusiastic applause.

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