My introduction to Austin night life was a 1977 Antone's performance of Junior Walker and the All Stars ("Blues for Clifford," Music, May 26, 2006). It was a welcome taste of Sweet Home Chicago in my new hometown, and plenty of Austin blues nights followed. Not so plenty, any more – as Chase Hoffberger reported two weeks ago ("Cold Sweat," June 13), clubs prominently featuring black music have steadily disappeared over the last couple of decades, paralleling a decline in Austin's African-American population – certainly as a percentage of the total city population, apparently in raw numbers as well.
Hoffberger cites a report by UT researchers Eric Tang and Chunhui Ren, who describe Austin as "the only major city in the United States to experience a double-digit rate of general population growth coincident with African-American population decline." According to the report ("Outlier: The Case of Austin's Declining African-American Population"), 2010 census figures reflect a 20.4% growth since 2000 in Austin's general population, with a simultaneous 5.4% decline in the number of African-American residents (in raw numbers, from 64,259 people to 60,760).
The overall trend is not new. Reviewing the 2000 census, city demographer Ryan Robinson noted that the African-American population (still growing in numbers) was declining as a percentage. "[J]ust a few decades ago African-Americans made up around 15% of the city's population," Robinson noted, "and just a few decades from now African-Americans could represent a mere 5% of the city's population and constitute the smallest minority group in the city." ("Top Ten Demographic Trends in Austin, Texas.")
The "Outlier" report points toward more research, and only speculates on reasons for the declining African-American numbers: "persistent structural inequalities." There's the reflexive citation of the 1928 city "master plan" that imposed segregation, and then recent decades of "gentrification" – leading many black homeowners to sell under the combined pressures of rising property values and increased property taxes. "Yet the question remains," ask the authors: "Why did African Americans leave Austin ... as opposed to relocating to more affordable areas within Austin?"
One obvious answer is that there are no longer "more affordable areas within Austin" than the central Eastside of just a couple of decades ago. Nearby Pflugerville has become a destination for many black Austinites, precisely because they can buy larger and newer homes for the same or less money. Robinson's "Top Ten" summary notes that the end of de jure residential segregation enabled many Eastsiders to sell their homes and move to the suburbs, although they were still visiting their traditional Austin churches – perhaps not so much in the next generation.
The "Outlier" report speculates that discriminatory police practices, "[loss] of confidence in the public school system," and lack of employment opportunities may all have contributed to the population decline: "[A]dditional research is needed."
I asked Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole – the first African-American woman elected to City Council – for her thoughts on the local diaspora. The overriding issue is affordability, she said, but also "the quality of the schools – or at least the perceived quality of the schools – in Pflugerville and Round Rock," adding she does not know if that perception is accurate. But these out-migrants haven't entirely left Austin: "They still work in Austin. They left so they could get a better house and perceived better schools."
Cole doubts that Austin police practices have much to do with the issue; while she's quite aware of several high-profile instances of Austin police mistreatment of minority citizens, she's seen no evidence that suburban police forces are markedly more nondiscriminatory. On the other hand, she did agree with the speculation that there are too few economic opportunities for black people: "I think it's hard for African-Americans to find employment here. The companies that are booming" – primarily high-tech firms – are not necessarily hiring African-American young people. And the traditional trades for entry-level jobs – most prominently, construction – are mostly going to Hispanic immigrants, meaning African-American workers are being squeezed from the top and the bottom.
Like the Chronicle's music writers, Cole has noticed in recent years a diminishment of the "social scene": "cultural venues and opportunities to socialize with other African-Americans" – so that young people may look around and think there are greener (or livelier) pastures elsewhere, perhaps Houston or Atlanta. She noted also that "social justice issues" in general – dropout rates, teenage pregnancy, poverty – are inevitably raised in these discussions, but in her experience, "I don't think the African-Americans who are leaving are necessarily the victims of those types of statistics. They're probably middle-income to upper-income" – that is, the folks who can leave if they wish.
The tale of Austin's African-American diaspora is a mixed one, but with real cultural and political consequences. For just one visible example, the new single-member district system should be liberating for Hispanic voters, but less obviously so for African-American voters, who may find themselves longing for a new "gentlemen's agreement." Austin is losing crucial voices in our community chorus – and our songs just won't sound the same.
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