As Austin Businesses Boom, Retaining Black Professionals is a Bust
By Britini Shaw
For Reporting Texas
Joshunda Sanders, a freelance writer and journalist, says that an African American couple on a visit to Austin from New York a few years ago approached her to say they were thinking of moving here with their children: Was the city hospitable to black people?
“I had to honestly tell them that Austin is not the best place to raise their children,” the 36-year-old Bronx native said. She added that she was concerned how the couple’s school-aged children might fare in a city that lacks black cultural outlets and spaces.
After living in Austin for eight years, Sanders herself left in 2013 for what she considered a more black-friendly city, Washington D.C. And she is not alone in her feelings about the city’s climate for black professionals.
A number of African American Austinites told Reporting Texas that a lack of a black culture in the capital city and the high cost of living leaves them feeling left out. They also cite Austin’s history of segregation and racism, as well as friction between black youth and the Austin Police Department as reasons why Austin can feel less than hospitable. In addition, limited opportunities for networking with other black professionals is less than ideal for African Americans wanting to settle into a permanent home. Others, though, have found a home in Austin.
Austin’s African American population dropped to 8.1 percent in 2010, from 10 percent a decade earlier, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Sanders moved to Austin in 2005 to work for the Austin American-Statesman and to attend graduate school at UT, where she later became a journalism lecturer. Ultimately, she found the experience isolating.
“I knew that I would be the only black person that 95 percent of white people would encounter on a given day,” she said.
Beverly Silas, president and CEO of Beverly Silas and Associates, a public affairs firm, said substantial numbers of black professionals occupy prominent positions in Austin, but they are scattered throughout the area.
“You won’t find an area in Austin where your next-door neighbor is black,” Silas said, adding that there are few cultural outlets, such as media, that cater to the black community.
Michael Hurd, an African American historian and freelance writer, agrees.
“There’s not a lot of African American culture here,” said Hurd, 65. “Austin has a global image because of SXSW, but not so much jazz and R&B.
“When you talk about food or entertainment, there are times you just want to be around people that are like you and not feel out of place,” said Hurd, who is also the co-editor-in-chief of the Texas Black History Preservation Project.
Richard Reddick, a 41-year-old assistant professor of educational administration at UT-Austin, who grew up in the city, said that what he terms “exurbanification” is not unique to Austin — it’s a national trend.
“Blacks are leaving cities for suburban areas for a number of reasons — jobs, more favorable housing markets, just to name two,” Reddick said.
As a result, historically black communities become whiter, the cost of living there increases, and blacks are forced out because they cannot afford to pay escalating taxes.
“The communities that used to be affordable and populated by black professionals are now prohibitively expensive,” Reddick said.
According to Reddick, how youth of color fare in Austin can have a profound effect on perceptions of the city. Any instance of harassment or police brutality against black youth affects the psyche of black professionals who have to worry about how their kids will experience life in the city, Reddick said in an email.
Sanders called Austin “hostile” and said the hostility was not necessarily overt, but rather played out as “micro-aggression.” White people tend to have a very passive attitude toward the lack of diversity in Austin, she said.
Beverly Silas, the businesswoman, said that when she served on the board of Austin’s Capital Metro in 2010, the search committee was looking for a president. She told them not to bring in a black person.
“I explained that it would be detrimental to bring a black professional to Austin because the climate is not receptive,” she said. “There is no infrastructure in place to support African Americans here.”
In the latest census data available, 3.9 percent of Austin’s businesses were black-owned in 2007, compared to 7.1 percent for Texas as a whole. The Greater Austin Area Black Chamber of Commerce wants to increase those numbers. President Natalie Cofield is evangelizing—encouraging black people to come to Austin.
Speaking on a recent panel discussion broadcast on KLRU, Cofield said the chamber is working to build “vibrant businesses, vibrant economies and vibrant organizations that are really going to serve as the roots that people are looking for.”
Cofield said the chamber is taking a “very aggressive and proactive stance on evangelizing Austin across the country, so much so that when we travel people say, ‘I have never had someone tell me they want black people in their city before.’”
Rich Reddick, the education professor, sees some progress: earlier in 2014, Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity with more than 175,000 members nationwide, held its annual convention in Austin. Another step forward is the Black Chamber’s program to to recruit black professionals in the IT field. And organizations like 100 Black Men are re-activating and bringing black professionals together from different areas of expertise as well.
But for Sanders, more needs to be done.
“There needs to be incentive programs that attract black professionals and black business owners to Austin,” she said.
The University of Texas has drawn some African Americans who have stayed. Carishia Williams, a 23-year-old restaurant hostess and a UT graduate, has been living in Austin for five years.
“It just suits me,” Williams said. “It’s not perfect, but I’ve fallen in love with the city.”
She said that if there are no spaces for black people in Austin, then they must create new ones.
While Williams saves money to pursue a doctorate in psychology, she’s making Austin her home. She feels a connection to the city through UT and said a lot of her friends from college have stayed, too.
Although she has seen obstacles to employment in the city, she said she believes part of the reason is because she is young with a low level of experience and not just that she’s a black woman. She did say that if she were back in her hometown of Dallas, she would have a better job by now.
But she doesn’t want to give up on the city.
“I like the party scene out here, and there is always something to do,” she said. “Sometimes I do feel out of place, but I can imagine that could happen in any new city that I move to.”