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Leaders Look For Answers to Austin’s Shrinking Black Population

On May 1, “The Future of Black Life in Austin” panel discussed a topic that is critical to all in our community. Wednesday’s event was part of the annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights, organized by University of Texas at Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

The symposium commemorates the legacy of the first African-American admitted into the UT School of Law, following a 1950 landmark case before the United States Supreme Court. Four years later, the Sweatt decision led to the overturn of segregation by law in all levels of public education in the ground-breaking case of Brown v. Board of Education.

How’s this for a puzzle? Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, featured on many a “Best City” list. Austin is the “it” city. Unless you’re black. African-Americans belong to the only major racial group in Austin experiencing a decline in numbers — a trend forecast to continue through 2030 and beyond. How do we make sense of this? And what does it say about the future of black life in Austin?

Wednesday night a panel of civic leaders from sectors including policy, public health, and law enforcement, gathered to not just talk but to look for answers and solutions to these questions.

“We are dealing with a breathtaking demographic and statistical singularity here in Austin,” panelist Dr. Eric Tang, assistant professor in African and African Diaspora Studies told CultureMap. “We tend to gloss over the depths of racial and class inequality in this town,” he added. “This evening we wanted to give the people in city and state government the chance to talk about what they’ve found…This is about beginning a conversation that is long past due.”

Each panelist brought data from government agencies at all levels to verify the extent and the long-term nature of the disparity. Tang referenced City of Austin demographics, while Shannon Jones III, deputy director, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department looked back over 14 years, highlighting his team’s work in identifying the data on and factors affecting the health of the African-American population.

Jones had both good and bad news. “In eight of the 15 leading causes of death, African-Americans rank first.” The good news? “Fourteen years ago, we were ranking first in 10.”

If Austin is going to be an inclusive city, we are going to have to address specific areas affecting public health, he explained. “We are looking at four main areas that impact the African-American community: transportation, access to care, access to healthy food and obesity.

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