I owe a lot of my professional and personal growth to Austin.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Austin is my first love. So much of my world opened up in this city when I started driving down here on weekends my senior year of high school to see concerts at Austin Music Hall or La Zona Rosa — or just to walk around downtown, which was way more fun than walking around Killeen.
My infatuation with Austin solidified when I set foot on campus at UT, the culmination of nearly a decade of life planning that started in middle school back in South Carolina with the pledge to my mom that I would find a way to get myself through college on scholarship. With the National March of Dimes and dozens of other scholarships later, I made it happen. Then, after four years at UT and four years working in DC, Austin called me back with relative ease because entrepreneurship was always the city’s main draw for me, even more so than SXSW or tech or Barton Springs Pool (That explains why my first business in Austin wasn’t a tech startup, but a sneaker boutique, and why back then you were probably more likely to find me at a late-night show at Club DeVille or Momo’s than at a tech meetup.)
My wholehearted embrace of Austin has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I truly believe it’s why I’ve found a fair amount of success in this city. But this is where things get sticky.
I’m from Texas and I went to UT, so much of my embrace of Austin was more innate than it would be for others who moved here to work at Facebook or Oracle from coastal cities, or those who moved here for college from cities with more ethnic diversity, most notably cities with substantial black populations. So like many of the topics I try to lean into with a bit more thought than a tweet, I’ve decided that I just may be uniquely equipped to answer a question that has recently been asked of the city I love.
“Is Austin racist?”
About a week ago, I attended a panel discussion on post-gentrification at the Austin History Center where I heard this question toward the end of the program. Several anecdotes and insights were shared by the panelists for the hour-long conversation (little known facts: Huston-Tillotson was founded here years before UT-Austin and Austin’s Public Library System is led by a black man), and then things really heated up in the packed room when anonymous audience questions were introduced.
Questions were written by people in the audience (a predominantly black, multi-generational group with a few others sprinkled in) and randomly handed to each panelist. My brother, Kahron, was asked the specific question I am referring to. Thankfully, K is easily one of the most insightful people in Austin on this very topic, which he beautifully addresses in his feature stories for the Austin Chronicle while highlighting overlooked legends like Kenny Dorham and Ephraim Owens.
“Is Austin racist?”
I won’t try to quote my brother’s answer directly because he did mention that “someone is clearly trying to get me in trouble” upon reading the question aloud to the audience. He opened his response by sharing a quote from James Baldwin (which reminds me: go see the film If Beale Street Could Talk if you haven’t already) followed by a brief recollection of key institutions and moments in Austin’s distant and recent past, which have fundamentally introduced living, land developing, and governing conditions that have undoubtedly been more detrimental to black and brown people in Austin. The 1928 Master Plan was highlighted as both a moment and an institution of influence on Austin, essentially codifying the kind of anti-equity, anti-inclusion thinking many black and brown people in this city exhibit as critical evidence in the case against the liberal and progressive Austin that University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. candidate, Lakeya Omogun, recently called disingenuous.
There were groans, moans, and snaps throughout Kahron’s response (and Bavu’s right after), and the event left many of us feeling both empowered by the very act of this public discussion and, perhaps, a little defeated by the realities of Austin’s history. It’s easy to become apathetic or discouraged, even if intellectually and politically engaged, when the institutional tendencies (and injustices) of the city you call home range from noted transgressions by the Austin Police Department to less publicized but generationally catastrophic land development and socio-economic conditions that incentivize gentrification.
Task forces, speeches, and commission meetings can only go so far to eradicate decades of intentional efforts to extract value from people and places without making the kind of community investments that enable equity and inclusion. And I’m probably wading into deeper waters than some folks who typically read my Facebook posts would like to swim in, but hopefully some of y’all are still with me because this is important stuff, albeit uncomfortable.
When I think about the number of articles and interviews in recent years noting the declining black population in Austin, or when I walk (usually run) the city’s streets and see little intermixing within white neighborhoods like Travis Heights or Tarrytown with those that comprise black and Latinx families on the (far) east side, I realize that I am both part of the problem and the solution.
I have been an outspoken champion of Austin pretty much since the day I moved back 10 years ago from DC, a few days after Obama was inaugurated. Hell, I can think of multiple black people whom I encouraged to move to Austin; only some of them stayed. But I remain attached to this city even when I’m thousands of miles away. I’m a distance runner and I love live music and wakeboarding, not to mention the fact that I now work in the tech industry and have built a startup nestled right in the middle of Austin’s penchant for showcasing the best in local (food, music venues, you name it) to travelers. This city pretty much works for me the way LA works for the Kardashians, and in a weird way that has made me realize that I can be in other places, but I still belong here.
From integrating a 100-year-old fraternity in college to being one of the few, if not only, black voices in board meetings of some of Austin’s leading nonprofits, I’ve mostly viewed the city’s longstanding problems with diversity and inclusion as a way for me to assert my own drive, will, and determination.
When I attend political fundraising events or birthday parties or nonprofit galas and realize I’m the only black person, or one of few, I quickly remind myself that it’s not an obligation but a privilege to be the bridge for dozens or hundreds of others to a culture, an upbringing, an existence, and a way of thinking that they may have never experienced until my arrival. Only somewhat reluctantly, I have become a token by the simple choice of embracing Austin and all that is great about this city, and it’s often more duty than honor — but it’s always my choice.
I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn or Chicago or Oakland or with college-educated parents who went to HBCUs, but I am a child of cities and towns with far greater percentages of black people. Killeen, Texas, is home to the nation’s largest Army base, making it a much better reflection of America’s ethnic makeup than almost anywhere else. Similarly, Greenville, South Carolina, is 31 percent black, sandwiching its black population (by percentage) between cities like Dallas and Brooklyn. In many ways, my experience being a black person in America more closely aligns with the unfortunate and common tropes of black upbringings than several of my friends who have made social justice, civil rights, community activism, or African American studies a more central part of their life’s work. My father was absent and is now in prison; I’m the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college; I grew up on food stamps and free school lunches; etc. etc.
In many ways, I feel that my upbringing is precisely what brought me to Austin. I was desperate for a larger environment than Killeen or Greenville because I wanted to envision other, bolder ways to live, but I was also desperate for a more entrepreneurial environment than Washington, DC because I wanted to envision other, bolder ways to work. I support Beto and Obama and Stacey Abrams and others with donations, but my real influence is local. I can make things happen here that I would have never been able to pull off in DC as a non-native or 30-something there.
So when I read about other black people’s disappointments with the Austin they’ve moved to, I feel disheartened in the realities of their experiences. Simultaneously, though, I realize my own expectations for Austin are in total alignment not because the city is without issue, but because I, too, am figuring out what my place is in this city. I’ve played a role in shaping the Austin I exist in just as Austin has shaped the person I exist as, no matter how far I travel or what circles I move in. I am of here.
Truth be told, I’ve had a number of racially-charged moments in Austin, like those chronicled in articles about the black exodus, that make me pissed off about this city. Thankfully, Localeur has allowed me to travel in a way that has given me much-needed time away from this city in those moments, yet I always welcome the plane ride home. Still, it’s not out of the norm to hear of friends who’ve faced problems ranging from getting DWB (driving while black) to being followed in The Domain. I’ve written about some of my shittiest moments pitching mostly white male investors, but I’ve left some even shittier ones out (and also have had numerous examples to the contrary: my lead white investors heard the same pitch as a dozen black investors in Silicon Valley and New York, but the ones in Texas actually invested). I am more exception than rule, but to rule out my own experience is to remove myself from the equation in a city where I’ve worked out to become a factor. I have worked to get a seat at various tables in this city, and I have one. And now it’s becoming more imperative that I work to bring others in as well, whether that is new board members for critical organizations KLRU or AIDS Services of Austin or new entrants to the tech startup ecosystem.
Without a doubt, this city continues to demonstrate the fork in the road may have been approached years or even decades ago, and having diversity, equity, and inclusion was not on the path that was taken. But it’s not too late to turn back.
So is Austin racist?
I can’t answer that, but I can say Austin is a city with a longstanding and under-publicized race issue, and pointing to my limited success (or that of a number of my friends who share my experiences as the “token”) as a counter to the person calling this city racist is a bad first step. Instead, I simply believe we need to call a spade a spade.
In this case, let’s call Austin what it is: a city that needs its self-described liberal and progressive white residents to fight like hell to keep black and brown people from asking the question of whether or not the city is actually racist. I just don’t see enough people fighting yet. Maybe that’s by design.