Mayor Forms Racism Task Force

With Austin's long history of systemic racism, why did it take this long?


Mayor Steve Adler speaks on Wednesday, Nov. 16. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When Mayor Steve Adler came to work last week after announcing the formation of a task force to address the city's institutionalized racism, some colleagues took it personally: "Who are you going after? You're not aiming at me, are you?" he said they asked. To pacify those failing to acknowledge the painful reality of implicit racism or who simply remain unaware of it, Adler stressed that his new initiative isn't targeted at individuals, but rather at systems.

"It does not mean that we're racists here in Austin or that we have a racist society," said the mayor. "What it does mean is that we have structures in place that create unjust and inequitable outcomes."

“Don’t be afraid to break some eggs,” Adler advised. “I’m not interested in just turning up the dial on the status quo.”

Speaking to the press last Wednesday while flanked by members of the newly created task force, Adler called on the city to "own the challenge" of fixing systemic inequities – with a first step set as understanding that it exists. Motivated in part by the February fatal shooting of David Joseph, and APD Officer Bryan Richter's brutal June 2015 arrest of teacher Breaion King, the mayor's task force will take a comprehensive look at institutional racism locally, with plans to come back by March with an "action plan" to combat the barriers. "Don't be afraid to break some eggs," Adler advised. "I'm not interested in just turning up the dial on the status quo. I want things to be shaken up."

Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, and AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz will co-chair a steering committee of nearly 50 community leaders. Recent instances of police abuse served as impetus, but the task force's goal is broader than criminal justice reform. Five subgroups will tackle:

criminal and civil justice;

finance, banking, and industry;

real estate and housing;

education; and

health.

Adler says the task force was not timed to coincide with the presidential election, but he believes campaign rhetoric has served to "sensitize people to some of the issues" he hopes the group will analyze.

After releasing their report next spring, the group will disband. Asked why a group tasked with fixing a deep-rooted, ongoing problem would dissolve within six months, Adler said its actionable items, taken to the community, Council, and boards and commissions, will pervade. However, Adler and the task force co-chairs intentionally kept those action items vague. "It's a clean slate and that's how we get to something that really causes change," said Pierce Burnette.

Task force member Chas Moore, of the Austin Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization working locally to reform criminal justice, says he's surprised to hear the mayor publicly acknowledge the city's institutional racism. From black residents being pushed out of the city ("The Case of Austin's Declin­ing African-American Population," Nov. 3, 2014) to persistent gentrification, and the 2013 officer-involved shooting death of Larry Jackson Jr., Moore and others in minority communities see the issue as long-running and pervasive. "Austin is great in theory – the food, the music – but when it comes to people's access to resources I think that's where we kind of dropped the ball," said Moore. "We need to realize people of color are being displaced and we need to understand the city isn't necessarily booming for them."

Moore classified the task force as a progressive step in the right direction. "Police brutality has made us look at everything in society differently," he said. "I want us to create safe spaces for black and brown people. And I want people to feel comfortable wherever they go in Austin."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Steve Adler, Chas Moore, Bryan Richter, Breaion King, Larry Jackson Jr., David Joseph

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