Austin City Council apologized for its role in disenfranchising Black residents, but students at The University of Texas at Austin said words are meaningless if no actions follow.
The apology was included in a resolution unanimously passed by the council on March 4 with vocal support from Mayor Steve Adler. Proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, the resolution acknowledges the city’s involvement in enslaving Black people, approving segregation plans and exacerbating economic inequalities for Black Austinites.
“We cannot move forward unless we recognize the city’s role in creating the Black and white wealth gap,” Harper-Madison, Austin’s only Black council member, said at the council meeting. “To be clear, ‘gap’ isn’t even the right word. It’s a chasm of inequality, of inequity. … I want to make sure that we don’t just settle for words, that we demand actions. Justice demands actions.”
Symbolic statements and absent actions are concerns UT senior Malcolm McGregor has in response to the city’s apology. McGregor, who serves as the ad hoc for UT’s Black Student Alliance, said he hopes the city takes a more action-first approach with its next steps in reversing harm placed on Black Austinites.
“It’s nice to acknowledge a dark history, a dark past, but it’s also kind of ironic if you acknowledge the past, and then don’t really do anything to counteract it,” McGregor said. “Prove that not only are you apologetic for it, but you want to make sure those generational effects don’t continue.”
In an interview, Harper-Madison said she agreed with community members that the resolution should be “the first of many steps” to repair past harm and prevent discrimination against Black Austinites. She said the resolution is moving Austin in the right direction by accompanying past City actions like declaring Juneteenth an official city holiday and racism a public health crisis.
“This is a movement, not a moment,” Harper-Madison said in the interview. “We are at the epicenter of a movement towards racial reconciliation and atonement.”
Prosperity Now, a nonprofit that provides research on economic opportunities, reported in 2019 that the median household income for Black Austinites was nearly 45% less than that of white Austinites. Council member Greg Casar said in the meeting it is important the resolution directs the creation of a Black resource and cultural center, or “Black Embassy,” to aid Black-led businesses.
A design editor for BlackPrint ATX, UT’s only Black-interest publication, McGregor said he wants to start a graphic design business but is intimidated by the lack of support Black-owned Austin businesses receive. He said he wants the Black Embassy to provide students of color with entrepreneur funds and financial literacy education. McGregor said when “you plant the seeds, they’ll grow,” adding that investing in the Black community can expand the financial success of Austin.
“Austin’s Black community is full of so much once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime talent, … especially the youth … who want to do so much for the city,” McGregor said. “Investing in the Black community, creatives and entrepreneurs is only going to pay off for a city like Austin that (has) … potential to be even more of a powerhouse city in the future.”
UT senior Joyce Kabwe is the founder of Munia, a hand-embroidery business highlighting African culture. She said she is interested in the Black Embassy promoting her business with Austin’s “well-connected startup environment”. Kabwe said UT and the city should provide more mentorship and networking opportunities for Black and Brown student entrepreneurs to promote diversity and innovation in Austin.
“It can be difficult for us to be taken seriously because we are students and … get our foot in the door because of our race,” Kabwe said. “With the city … making (student businesses) a priority, that’ll allow other business people to see the potential in student entrepreneurs and prompt them to invest in us.”
UT senior Enebong Ephraim said the city needs to improve Black students’ access to affordable housing, food and professional clothing.
“(Austin wants) to live up to this progressive, diverse label they like to create for themselves,” Ephraim said. “They have to take a look in the mirror and realize, ‘Are they actually fitting up to the label?’ and helping Black businesses, people … be successful. Help them fit this label, instead of just having a diverse, progressive label, but everything is white-owned and white-backed.”
Teaching Austin’s Black history, Ephraim said, is an essential step for the city in preventing discrimination against Black residents. He said the impact of Austin’s segregationist past was seen during February’s winter storm when East Austin, largely populated by Black and Latino/Hispanic people, lost power and water for weeks.
“You have to talk about the segregational nature that’s deep within the roots of Austin,” Ephraim said. “We try to dust it under a rug when talking about diversity, but it’s an inherently racist city.”