Austin at Large: Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
Big dumb mud puddles of racism, right there beneath our feet
I never had much interaction with now-retired, and perhaps now-disgraced, APD Asst. Chief Justin Newsom. He seemed a competent professional to me, so no, I was not ready and waiting for the (alleged!) racism to jump out (see "City to Investigate Alleged Racism, Homophobia in APD's Top Ranks" for details). But it does not surprise me that a member of my cohort – the middle-aged, middle-class, managerial white men of Austin – is fond of words that start with N.
I've said dumb racist shit right here in this space during my time as a professional Austinite, and gotten dragged for it, and hopefully I learned something. I am not a cop with the license to visit lethal force upon black people while keeping my dumb racist thoughts a secret. An investigation and audit are to come, but we know such viewpoints resonate throughout the police force beneath the threshold of disclosure, on Facebook and on their phones and on their radios. It was true when police rioted upon a Valentine's party on Cedar Avenue in 1995, and when police cheered as Midtown Live burned down in 2005. Austin has changed, but not that much.
Last week, Natasha Harper-Madison – my friend, neighbor, council member, and cousin (we are a proud and sturdy people, the Hyphen-Madisons) – told you she is not surprised, as a black woman who grew up here and got elected to office only to be called words that start with N right there at City Hall. She and Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore drew now-familiar contrasts between the big dumb mud puddles of racism at our feet and the shining image of progressive Austin up in the sky, but even that bit of emotional labor, that extension of empathy and grace, should not be asked of them. People like me, or Justin Newsom, have no excuse not to know or to believe that Austin throws trash in front of its black people as often as not. The question is whether we care – enough even to notice, let alone to buck the inertia and thoughtlessness of our privilege.
Who Do You Mean by "We," Bub?
Representing a credibly mainstream, centered viewpoint is part of the gig of a metro columnist; it's what makes me different from Alex Jones, another middle-aged, middle-class, managerial white man of Austin. There is not nearly enough diversity of viewpoint, or of identity, in positions such as mine, in newspapers all across the nation; it is not surprising that Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio all have (male) metro columnists who worked simultaneously at The Daily Texan in 1989. But the view from a position such as mine is deemed authentic and inclusive as a matter of convention. When I say "we," it means "Austin" – those are the rules.
The fact that my buddies north and south are at major metro dailies while I'm at one of America's last healthy alt-weeklies tells you something. It illustrates how Austin is and remains, comparatively, really white – that the mainstream view here is mounted on the shoulders of what used to be the progressive white counterculture, which is now the dominant culture. It's a well-known story, reflected in our Weird iconography and institutions, including this very newspaper. It's never been a story that has, in a meaningful way, included more than a handful of black people, so it's not surprising that professional Austinites like me can be really oblivious to the realities of our city's black lives.
No, not "people of color," nor some progressive intersectionality that allows affluent cis white gay men, for example, to view their lives as just like black lives. No, not today, Skip. Through our own obliviousness – the thoughtlessness of unexamined privilege, the reflexive centering of viewpoints like mine – Austin routinely, daily, collides with and leaves bruises upon the lives of black people. We need to stop doing that.
But Whoever Could We Center Instead?
We could let Austin's latent and manifest power structures, the ones that bear up our self-perception and values and identity, drift naturally away from the Armadillo, or wherever, and come to rest upon a more authentic center in our community. We could anoint as "mainstream" the viewpoints of today's median or modal Austinites, probably multicultural renter households under 40 who went to college but not UT and are accruing good incomes but no real wealth. We already are seeing changes to this effect – on our City Council, in our response to challenges such as homelessness (especially when compared to, say, Greg Abbott's response), or in our debates over the Land Development Code. These changes can happen faster if we lean in more often than we fight back.
Doing so still wouldn't solve for the specific challenges we place in the path of Austin's black people. But it would help us get past what we think we hear Natasha and Chas saying – but which they are not saying – when they juxtapose our self-perception with reality: that Austin is "supposed" to be different, more tolerant and progressive. Austin is what it is, and where its black lives are concerned, it is simply not those things. Once we admit that, we can make more honest plans to do something useful about it.