HTU Race-Unity Symposium Keynote
Wednesday, April 13, 1:30pm
Thank you to Dr. Michael Hirsch of Huston-Tillotson University.
Thank you to President Collette Pierce Burnette, who seems to be settling into the job quite well and making her formidable presence felt in this city.
It is an honor to deliver the keynote at the Tenth Annual Louis Gregory Symposium on Race Unity.
But it is a daunting honor. The theme I was given was quote – building and/or creating race unity in Austin – unquote.
I was further asked – again, I’m quoting from the instructions I was given by Dr. Hirsch, who must really think the Office of the Mayor is imbued with unheard of powers – to lay out how Austin can – quote — “overcome racial prejudice, discrimination, and conflict and build a more powerful and inclusive city that heals wounds and looks forward to accomplishing Louis Gregory’s vision of race amity and race unity.”
After this there will be refreshments in the foyer. So if I fail in answering this legitimate but unbelievably daunting question, at least we all have punch and cookies to look forward to.
Because if you’re looking for step-by-step instructions on ending racism, you’re probably looking at the wrong guy. It probably won’t shock you to know that I don’t have all the answers. Heck, if you did think I had all the answers, it would shock me!
But I will make you some promises.
I will quote neither Macklemore nor Martin Luther King.
I won’t claim that I don’t see race.
I won’t try to tell you that racism doesn’t exist anymore because we elected an African-American President.
And I won’t tell you how many times I voted for him.
If we’re going to dispense with the tropes and artifices that we’ve been using for so long to talk about race, then we might as well tell each other the truth.
And here’s the truth: I believe that we will never have racial equality without economic equality. We can never stand together as equals unless we equally and equitably benefit in the economic opportunities this city has to offer, and that is something I intend to do something about.
I believe that we will never have racial equality without economic equality.
Saying that “Black Lives Matter” is important because it says something very different from recognizing that all lives matter. Saying “Black Lives Matter” recognizes something that is real, but saying it to recognize a symptom. It’s not a cure.
And there is no pill that I can take to end institutional racism and how it impacts what I do and the advantages I have. When I look in the mirror, I know what I can do to be culturally competent. I can model those attitudes and that behavior. And if we all did that together, it would materially help achieving racial and ethnic equality.
But that is not expecting enough from the office of your Mayor. I expect more from myself, and so should you. We still have serious wrongs that need to be made right.
Many of you know that in the 1928 master plan, the City of Austin intentionally created inequality by segregating Austin. If black people – and later Hispanics – wanted to be connected to utilities, they had to live east of East Avenue. That road later became I-35, which still divides our city.
Of course, a black family could live anywhere they wanted. But if they wanted the benefits of living in Austin, including water, power, indoor plumbing, that family had to live in East Austin.
Think about how insidious that was: It was city policy, reaffirmed again in 1957, to create inequities. It was intentional, and it was repeated.
And now it needs to be reversed.
I want to create connections to the economic opportunities this city has regardless of where you live or what you look like.
I want to create connections to the economic opportunities this city has regardless of where you live or what you look like.
Our city has been losing our African-American population for a while now. For some, it was in search of better housing or better schools than they had in East Austin.
Now, we’re losing people because our city is becoming increasingly unaffordable. And that’s something a Mayor needs to do something about.
The poverty rate in our city is falling not because people are doing better but because too many of them can’t make it. And a Mayor needs to do something about that.
Greater Austin is the most economically segregated city in the country, and a Mayor better do something about that.
And a Mayor can admit that when one part of the community falls further behind, it might just be because too often they’re treated like an afterthought.
If we want to reverse those results, it’s time to reverse that thinking.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
Austin is one of seven finalists for the Smart City Challenge, a $50-million federal grant that encourages cities to use technology to make mobility safer, cheaper, cleaner, and more effective for everyone.
There are two ways we could craft our final application.
We could focus on what I call the shiny pennies. The futuristic train stations, the automated cars, and the traffic lights that automatically adjust to weather and congestion. They’re even talking about apps that can tell you where open parking spaces are so you don’t have to drive around looking for them.
We’re talking about really cool stuff here.
But that’s not how our final application is going to read.
When we write our final proposal, we will talk about how the top priority is making sure people can get to their jobs, and schools and health care. Whether close to downtown is only to be available to people who can afford high costs because our lack of transportation provides too few real living options. When people are forced to move further out, whether they’re closed out of jobs that aren’t following them. Our proposal will begin with communities living in the Eastern Crescent. We will talk about people who were exiled from Austin because it became unaffordable will be reintegrated into the flow of the city with more mobility options.
The test for our success in the Smart City Challenge will not be whether we can design the most sparkling technological toys.
The test will be whether a senior citizen in Colony Park can get to her doctor without having to take a bus two hours in each direction.
It is only by providing equal access that we will ever get on equal footing. We don’t have a shot at racial equality without everyone equally and equitably benefiting from the services the city offers. The Smart City Challenge is not about turning Austin into an ever-more-perfect utopia. It’s about becoming an ever-more-equal city.
The Smart City Challenge is not about turning Austin into an ever-more-perfect utopia. It’s about becoming an ever-more-equal city.
This mobility challenge is not about building roads here. We’re creating opportunities and possibilities and greater mobility for the people who are often last in line for the next big thing. This is less about transportation than it is about transformation.
The Smart City Challenge is also a concrete tool we can use to create equitable, sustainable, and transformative economic development in the Eastern Crescent. Finally, we can have an economic boom that focuses economic opportunity on those communities that are usually left behind.
The truth is that opportunity doesn’t usually knock. We don’t always notice the big event when it happens. This is a big event. It’s happening. Opportunity is knocking. We even have a deadline.
And if we win, we not only know when the next economic boom is happening but what those jobs will be.
And if we know that, then we plan. We can prepare training programs to get today’s middle-schooler getting a free school lunch into a college where he or she enters an accelerated training program so that he can enter the middle class when he graduates from college.
Imagine an economic boom that provided real ladders of opportunity into the middle class.
And instead of lifting the next generation into the middle class, we can lift this generation into the middle class within a decade.
Imagine if we could create a STEM institute focused on the Eastern Crescent that sets today’s middle school student getting free lunch on a path for a Smart City job after college that instantly puts him or her into the middle class.
And we accomplish all this with a program that provides better transportation options to underserved neighborhoods such as Rundberg Lane and Del Valle and Dove Springs.
This is an economic boom on a schedule. We know what jobs will be created. We know when they’ll be created. And we know whom we have to train for these jobs. This could – no, this is – the inflection point we need in our affordability crisis.
Austin is the golden goose that has been laying an egg with some communities for a long time. It’s time for this city’s communities of color to share fully in Austin’s economic opportunities.
It’s exciting to imagine transportation innovations that reduces traffic congestion.
But imagine an economic boom that redresses inequities, that lifts up the people who are usually left behind.
We can do this.
Because we can, we must.
And because we must, we will do this. I want the Smart City Challenge to be a ladder of opportunity for those who too often have been told to wait their turn.
That’s why I want to tell you that even if Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx does not pick Austin to win the Smart City Challenge, this city will still pursue these technological mobility innovations.
The Smart City Challenge is just one example of how my office and the City Manager are working to create equitable, sustainable, and transformative economic development in the Eastern Crescent. Most of what we’re working on this regard you’ll come to know as the Spirit of East Austin Initiative.
On September 12 we held a community forum on equitable economic development as part of our Spirit of East Austin Initiative. More than 600 people came out to discuss their ideas for job creation, affordability, education, health and wellness, and mobility.
This lead to more good ideas rising up from the grassroots than this city could do in two generations. But we don’t have that much time. Now is not the time to be patient.
Now is the time to make progress.
The whole purpose of the Spirit of East Austin is to create equal economic opportunities. Because there will be no racial unity until we can deal with each other as peers. In collaboration with community leaders, we will be rolling out a package of big ideas later this Spring.
The whole purpose of the Spirit of East Austin is to create equal economic opportunities. Because there will be no racial unity until we can deal with each other as peers.
So far, as you look around the city to see what’s on the ground, you can see I have thus far failed utterly in my assigned topic. The only grade I deserve is incomplete, but, in truth, the same can be said for each one of us. I don’t know how to create racial harmony. I don’t know the all the specific, positive steps Austin citizens can take to help overcome racial prejudice, discrimination, and conflict and build a more powerful and inclusive city that heals wounds.
But I do know that there is no racial equality and unity without economic equality and unity. Economic opportunity will not solve racism all on its own any more than Macklemore singing a song about it will. But we sure aren’t going to achieve racial unity without it.
Economic opportunity will not solve racism all on its own any more than Macklemore singing a song about it will. But we sure aren’t going to achieve racial unity without it.
But I do know that we’ll never be a first-class city if we keep treating our African-American residents like second-class citizens. If we don’t create economic equality then we will never begin to achieve racial equality.
But I need your help. Your city needs you.
We need you here, grabbing opportunity with both hands, showing this city what only you can do, writing your page in the history of Austin. We are the innovation capital of Texas. We are the city where good ideas become real. Now it’s time for your future to become real.
Realizing the untapped potential of an entire community is the innovation we have never tried, and it’s the one I think Austin desperately needs. We’ve provided opportunities for individuals, of course, but not at the scale we need.
Austin is a success story, but it’s far from finished. This is what’s missing. That’s been our fault for too long. But now, it’s our opportunity.
So if you’re willing to work with me on this, I’d like to spend as much time as I have left in office focusing on the Eastern Crescent.