Austin’s Black Flight

From his front porch, while smoking a joint and playing dominoes with a friend, my new neighbor sits across the street and watches me out of the corner of his eye while I move in. Although I will later come to know him as “Big Dave” and we will trust each other and help each other as only years-long neighbors can, on this day, I am an outsider – I am in the racial and economic minority for the first time in my life. Because of this, as I unload my IKEA furniture, I cannot help but feel wary about moving here. I find myself abruptly cast into a foreign culture – within my own town. Five miles east of downtown Austin has taken me across an invisible border dividing class, income, education, culture, and color — and I find my white, educated, moneyed, and gentrifying self to be alien to this place. The contrast between my life and that of my black neighbors around me is baffling and difficult to exaggerate. I have never lived anyplace with such a difference of race, culture, or income between my immediate neighbors and me.

Austin segregation

How did this happen? How is liberal Austin the 10th most segregated city in the nation? The origins of Austin’s black segregation are actually subject to little dispute or mystery. In the latter half of the 19th century following emancipation, blacks moved to several enclaves throughout Austin’s future boundaries. One of these enclaves was east of East Avenue (today’s I-35) near downtown. In 1928, the Austin City Council took this particular black neighborhood and expanded it into a Negro District. This was accomplished through Jim Crow-era laws that forced blacks to move east in order to access essential city services or businesses that would cater to them. Black owned businesses, churches, and home ownership soon followed this migration to East Austin. Within a few years, the area was firmly black and destined to remain so despite the civil rights laws of the 1960s, school desegregation in the 1980s, or even the start of Austin’s population boom in the 1990s.

Geographic segregation because of racist laws and zoning is not unique to Austin and was even a norm in many pre civil rights era cities. Indeed, the transition into ending legalized segregation and open racism spanned such a long period (stretching from the mid 1950s to the early 1980s) that even though its conclusion was something to celebrate, legal reform alone was not enough to overcome decades of institutionalized racism. This legacy created a firmly entrenched and ostracized black minority across the South behind their peers in essentially all demographic measures of income and development. Merely halting legalized racism cannot undo lifetimes of discrimination and separation. The US as a whole still suffers from this crime.

In East Austin, decades of lower educational attainment, lower incomes due to racism or other historical reasons, higher incarceration rates, outright racist policies denying blacks home and business loans, and many other factors, all conspired to make it harder for blacks to participate in Austin’s economic growth in the 1980s and 90s (among many others Greg McDonald provides a good summary of this in a July 10, 1989 Austin American Statesman (The Statesman) article titled “Legacy of Neglect: Prosperity bypasses East Austin”, which can be found in the Statesman’s archives). The geography of racism itself made improving blacks’ quality of life difficult because the decades of racist policies that concentrated blacks in East Austin also turned the area into an urban slum in which factories, a power plant, an airport, transportation depots, industrial warehouses, substandard housing, substandard schools, and housing projects were all concentrated. City services were also long neglected in East Austin and often improved only through the type of bureaucratic wrangling and negotiation that historically underprivileged populations are least equipped to navigate.

Separate but equal? By the early 1990s, the Statesman was regularly discussing the crumbling state of East Austin. In several particularly telling articles, the Statesman described this area as a region, “Ignored during the economic boom and neglected since the economic bust…with schools, parks and others facilities [that] today are among the most neglected in the city…, [where] drug dealers ply their wares openly and city ordinances aren’t always enforced.” Residents at the time told the Statesman, “East Austin is void of almost everything, to tell you the truth…[and banks say they] don’t want nothing to do with East Austin.” The newspaper wrote, “Today there are no branch banks, no automatic teller machines, only a couple of big supermarkets. And up and down its thoroughfares, empty commercial buildings sit and stare with broken windows and graffiti-covered walls… [with] bulldozed homes and businesses that were never completely replaced.” It is clear that even by the early 90s, when Austin’s economic growth was strong, East Austin was not a separate but equal black version of prospering Austin; it was a slum.

new house next to old

New East Austin development next door to minority owned housing in very poor condition.

Enter the present. A two-decade plus economic boom in Austin has finally brought development and revitalization to the city’s east. However, just as the Statesman predicted in 1989 by writing, “[While] enormous opportunities exist to revitalize or at least revive East Austin, sixty years of neglect cannot be repaired over night,” investors today deal with a legacy that has left warehouses, factories, and even an airport all concentrated in one sector of the city. The process of undoing decades of racist zoning in East Austin costs investors hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize and these investors then seek to recoup their large initial costs by building expensive residences, facilities, and businesses that appeal to wealthier incoming residents (of all races). The citywide economic boom that is dramatically raising housing costs across the city only compounds the unique costs of revitalization in East Austin. I compiled the following three graphs with data from the US Census. The fourth graph regarding home price increases by zip code comes from the Austin American Statesman.

Proportion of Blacks to Total PopTexas GDP GrowthTexas median rentZip Codes and House Price Increase Map-1

Five or six new homes already dot my short street since the time I moved here. Dave, who is in his late thirties, was born and raised in the house across from mine but just told me a few days ago that he was “selling out,” and leaving the neighborhood. His house is in bad shape and I predict it will probably be torn down. “The property tax is just too high,” he said. “And the house is falling apart. I can’t afford to fix it anymore. With what I sell my house for, I’m going to be able to buy an acre of land with a brand new mobile home on it bigger than what I live in now.”

By selling his house, Dave is joining thousands of blacks across East Austin leaving both the neighborhood and the city. Indeed, statistics and common sense make it immediately clear to any observer of contemporary East Austin that the historic concentration of blacks east of Interstate 35 is rapidly dwindling under the assault of Austin’s booming population and economy. In fact, Austin is the only major city in the United States with rapid population growth coupled with a shrinking black population. Census data show that Austin is not unusual among major cities to have a declining proportion of blacks, but nowhere else is it simultaneously combined with such strong growth in other demographic groups. Between 2000 and 2010, Austin gained 134,000 people, while simultaneously losing 4,000 blacks. This is an intriguing paradox without simple explanation.

Google map

In general, those leaving Austin are moving to the suburbs. In its most recent 2011 community survey looking at racial and ethnic groups, the U.S. Census showed that over a fifth of all blacks leaving Austin go to Williamson County, home to Pflugerville and Round Rock. Suburbs or small towns in Dallas, Harris, and Hays Counties absorb another fifth.

Overall more blacks are leaving Austin than coming but this is not the whole picture because coinciding with black flight, there is also a steady influx of blacks into Austin. As opposed to the overwhelming tendency of native black emigrants to settle in nearby suburbs, Census data show that a significant percentage of black immigrants come from much more varied locations ranging both from counties around Texas to places as far away as Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Sadly, the Census does not break up this data by income, but I suspect it would show that lower and working class blacks like Dave are leaving and that middle and upper class blacks are immigrating.

Black migration Travis County

In Austin, the city’s historical black poverty and racist geography is colliding head on with the city’s contemporary rising costs due to population and economic growth. It is the synergy between these two factors that make Austin unique and that are incentivizing native black flight. I want to explain how both of these factors seem to contribute to the black exodus.

I will explain the contemporary economic causes of Austin’s black flight first. In any given area, economic and population growth tends to raise housing costs as demand outstrips supply. This process then tends to push out those groups who are least able to benefit from that economic growth. These disadvantaged groups will be hit by the same rising house costs as everyone else, but they will not have the same proportionally rising income with which to absorb it. East Austin’s native black population falls into this latter group and, like Dave, is being incentivized to move to areas with better economic benefits and/or lower costs of living. Indeed, Census data show that Williamson County has both lower median mortgages and a higher average black per capita GDP than Austin. Furthermore, while blacks across all of Texas had a per capita GDP of $20,038 in 2014, population centers with an increasing proportion of blacks had an income of $23,455, and the twenty communities with the largest proportional increase in black residents had an income of $26,246 – about equal to Texas’ per capita income as a whole. This data seems to show that rather than staying concentrated in areas of historic poverty, blacks are moving to areas with a greater likelihood of future economic upward mobility. This may indicate that one consequence of Austin’s black flight may be greater future economic prosperity for black emigrants.

black pop growth compared to gdp

Second, I believe that the lingering effects of racism are also driving black emigration. As illustrated earlier, East Austin’s historic black population spent generations living in an underserved neighborhood characterized by pollution, crime, poor city services, and a chronic lack of investment. It seems unavoidable that this history would create an unquantifiable sense of frustration, cynicism, and anger that may drive native black emigration above and beyond what might otherwise be predicted by cost of living alone. Like Dave, decades of poverty and discrimination mean that many of Austin’s native blacks live in housing that it is often easier to move away from than try to repair. Similarly, blacks in Austin have suffered decades of questionable or discriminatory practices at the hands of Austin’s Police Department and still attend some of Austin Independent School District’s historically lowest achieving and under resourced schools. Indeed, I found that one of the strongest correlations to predicting black migration was not cost of living but instead black high school graduation rates. Austin has black graduation rates 10 or 20 percentage points lower than those of its neighboring suburbs, and data shows a positive correlation between a given community’s black graduation rate and whether the black population in that community has increased in the past ten years. I think that data like this shows that blacks are moving out of East Austin to go to places free of the legacy and burden created by years of racism and poverty. Finally, the legacy of racism continues to hinder blacks’ ability to withstand or benefit from the rising housing values of East Austin. Research consistently shows that minorities, especially blacks, are less able to qualify for mortgages and more likely to be foreclosed upon than white people in similar situations.

HS Grad Rates

In sharp contrast to the wariness I felt when I moved here, I am in love with the diversity around me and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that living around people of many different backgrounds has given me. I do not want to see East Austin lose its historic identity. But given the racist origins of East Austin’s black community and the living conditions that this demographic group endured for so long, it is difficult for me to abide by the ideas of people who decry gentrification as a travesty destroying what is too often painted as a formerly idyllic East Austin minority community. Such idealism never existed. The entire process of the “gentrification” of East Austin can only exist as a phenomenon because the area used to be a slum. The rising cost of living in this area is thus a necessary but not sufficient explanation for black flight. The legacy of racism is the missing piece.

Is it sad to see Austin’s historic black neighborhoods changing so dramatically? Yes. The destruction of any area’s historic culture is not a preferred outcome. But it is more sad that blacks were racially concentrated in the first place, that they were denied equal services for decades, that their neighborhoods were the sites of polluting industries and other humanitarian crimes, and that, because of this, they are today either unable to weather Austin’s rising costs or simply no longer wish to stay in a city that openly discriminated against them for so long. Again, I find that black flight is occurring primarily because of the legacy of racism rather than the supposed evils of the economic development that has transformed East Austin.

Given the historic poverty and discrimination suffered by Austin’s black population and given Austin’s skyrocketing costs, Austin’s black flight makes sense. Absent a coordinated effort to redress the impact of decades of racism upon Austin’s native black community, a move to the suburbs appears to be this demographic group’s most rational choice. Future research on the economic and social outcomes of this diaspora will hopefully reveal the long-term consequences of this historic migration.

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