Happy New Year ATX!
“Happy New Year, Dr. Tane Ward, Equilibrio Norte.”
That was how I signed off a recent letter to the Austin Chronicle. My name stayed in print, but they took out the name of my organization, my title* and the “Happy New Year.” The rest of my letter was published, and that’s nice, but I feel that my intention of good will was subdued by this omission. So I want to put it out there – Happy New Year, Austin Texas!
Austin has received a gift this New Year season – single member district representation, aka Democracy. For the first time in history Austin will have official citywide politics. It’s nice. Not because every district earned a unique champion to represent them but, because for the first time we can look at our city and see the politics that really lie beneath the liberal image: no more gentleman’s agreements, no more West Austin dominating the rest, no more pretending that there are no Republicans in the city. Instead, we have genuine opportunity to work through the city’s real issues. This is also known as Politics.
While I am very happy about the victory of my very own representative – Ora Houston, I am quite disappointed about the defamation of hometown heroine Susana Almanza. I am glad to see the money come out into the open, to see who was willing to back whom, to hear people talk about the working class. I am eager to get to move forward from the point at which we now find ourselves. It is time to map out where we are as a community, dig in, and work to build a more equitable Austin.
If you haven’t seen the outcomes of the recent city elections, I suggest looking up who your district councilperson is; I then suggest doing your best to form a good relationship with this person that combines support, accountability and good intentions in equal measure.
Representative democracy is often an obstruction to movement-based politics. Change to Austin’s city council signifies a rupture in the status quo that has stifled political agency in Austin for decades. There is opportunity to reestablish community led, place based and justice oriented politics. However, this will also be an opportunity for conventional powerful interests to maneuver, and we should expect this. There is a clear opening for movement, and we should all be ready to engage on this political front.
In order to push our movements forward, we need a better system. The restrictive government system we have will only become something better by critical activists working with the new system and our newly elected officials. Those who fight for justice may choose to use democracy, or not. However, at all levels of political engagement, now marks a moment when it is important to understand our city, and our place therein.
What has the recent election taught us about our city? I think we have learned a great deal about what has been previously concealed through the oversimplified cultural identity of Austin as “liberal” or progressive.” Specifically issues of money, party politics, race, class and the culture of the city have risen to the surface to engage by our movements on the ground and in the new council stage.
I address the overarching themes of money, party politics, race, class and the culture of the city with the intention of overcoming the structural problems that our society faces at the local level. The institutional racism that is rearing its ugly head in our mainstream political discourse, the recent legislative takeover by Republicans, and the widespread move to privatize public services all affect our city, but are most often digested as national issues. The facebookosphere is loaded with articles upon articles about things people should know or think about race and racism, but there is little information that aids in addressing racism in our cities and in Austin in particular. The same is true with discussions on neoliberal policy and capitalist driven inequality. I believe that we can and should address larger social issues by working through them in our city from the ground up.
In the mayoral race, Adler trounced Martinez – I think this surprised a lot of people. While Adler seems nice enough, the two decisive factors that he brought to the political races were money and experience (having lots of one and not much of the other). We would be wise to pay close attention to how money influences city politics – not only addressing rich candidates running, or how campaigns are funded, but also addressing the types of economic development that are being promoted and those that remain in the margins. There is money behind the money, and behind that money is power. Big players in the Austin economy fought to win in this election – they gave money, endorsements and reassured their bases. The economic direction we take as a city has the chance to change now and while this scares those who financially gain from the previous system, the status quo, again, has cracked.
Adler was not shy about hitching on to the national trend of rejecting incumbent politicians, which was a leading Right-Wing tactic this year. Republicans have stepped up in Austin, as they have all over the country in taking power through reiteration of the dominant political ideology of the USA – capitalism, meritocracy, xenophobia, and the impotence of government. Austin for years has voted solidly Democrat and is considered a blue island in a sea of red. This smokescreen has done well to obscure city trends towards regressive economics, racism and exploitative development. This is perhaps the greatest gift we have received from our single member districts; the area of the city that had the highest percentage of candidates and voters in the at-large system is solidly Republican in the 10-1.
An interesting exposition of party politics appeared in attacks calling Steve Adler a “Republican”. Adler is a Democrat – a rich, white, male Democrat millionaire turned politician. There are tons of them in the Democrat party. Let’s not pretend this is otherwise by mislabeling Adler as GOP. Instead, why don’t we eschew the mainstream two-party system and instead look to build coalition based in the values we share. The difference between West Austin and the rest is not dissimilar from Adler and the rest of us – it’s about money. I hope we can find ways to reach out to our new mayor, and push him to represent our whole city and not just the class he belongs to. This may be the first step in doing something similar on the state and national levels. An open challenge to the dominant political system is in order – this is not an attack on a politician or on a political party – it is an attack on an economic system of inequality. We are unlikely to have such an opportunity again; I say we make the most of it.
Another key structure that we cannot ignore is that this city is divided along class and race lines (who knew?). The initial electoral map of the three primary mayoral candidates grafting upon a veritable identical map our ridiculously segregated city was quite impressive. This was not so neatly affirmed in the run-off; although the city is roughly 30% Latino, which is about the percentage of votes that Martinez received. I don’t mean to suggest uniform political ideology fits neatly into racial categories, but because race and racism are such tense and visible matters in the public sphere, we are wise to consider how racism operates in Austin, and the opportunity we have to undo it.
Historically Austin has been legally, politically and economically segregated in a colonial pattern of White privilege and Black and Indian genocide. In more recent years, the longstanding Black and Latino communities in East Austin have been displaced through gentrification. The displacement of working-class East Side residents has been subsidized by the city to the advantage of upper-class developers, and middle-class homeowners. Efforts to revitalize the existing East Side communities have not received the same support from the city. Racism does not drive gentrification, capitalism does; but racism is the outcome of gentrification, it is the effect.
Anti-racist practice, as opposed to anti-racist ideas, is when privilege is subverted and subjugated people rise. Anti-racist practice has been stifled and silenced in the mainstream political mouthpieces of this city and in the actions of the previous council. I sincerely hope that the incoming council does more than confront the abstract idea of racism, and instead move to confront the structures that keep racism in place – namely gentrification and exploitative development.
I encourage the new city council to take the Undoing Racism Austin training, and mandate it for all city staff and public servants. People of Color should be encouraged to defend their territory and right to exist. White folks in Austin, especially the newly arrived, should be willing to forfeit their privilege, and understand that anti-racism begins with justice. Anti-racist work is not just for People of Color, however; it speaks to the larger culture that drives these politics.
What values are produced through gentrification and new urbanism: white-privilege, hipster cynicism, free-market capitalism, apathy? What can our justice-based movements offer to the lost people who are moving to this city in droves? How can we present the cultures of this city, in ways that will allow them to survive, and allow us to survive materially, in this place? People of Color on the East Side are willing to share their land with new comers who respect where they have landed. Sadly, most newcomers resemble the colonial spirit of manifest destiny, where the pilgrims who arrive are interested in only promoting the economic system that privileges their existence; in the contemporary case this is mainstream capitalist consumerism.
Development should be structured towards justice, not exploitation. Justice means that communities come before individuals, poor before rich, women before men, children before adults, elderly before the young, disabled before abled. We have invested in the opposite expression of this value – the unending unsustainable growth of condos, trendy festivals and elite services instead promote individualism, capitalism, and the subsidization of young, rich yuppies from the Coasts who move to Austin, while poor people of color are forced to leave. This trend is not the inevitable result of the invisible hand of the market – it is tied directly to city policies and a cultural silencing of those negatively affected.
The tendency to represent Austin, as an open, artistic, tourist destination is in desperate need of change. An economy rooted in justice will lead to a city that is equitable and prosperous. Key to how we produce our overall culture in Austin will be directly linked to the survival of the East Side as a cultural territory of historically rooted People of Color.
When our movements on the ground meet with the structures of power that exist in this city, we will have the potential to move forward. This goal is reason enough to celebrate. The New Year renders constant change and growth – the forces that allow us to continue.
Onward to justice
Peace to the East Side
Peace to the people of Loston
Happy New Year
-Dr. Tane Ward
*The Austin Chronicle has repeated the omission of the title “Dr.” from my name three times. In a recent article when my name was mentioned, the title was missing, even though the reporter contacted me earlier that same week for a quote and apologized for not addressing me properly – so, they know it should be there. Personally, the omission of my title is of little consequence, I prefer the informal. However, the Chronicle has consistently disrespected people of color from East Austin that the elders here have encouraged professional Chicanos like myself, to speak up and be heard. My initial letters to the Chronicle were intended to defend the legacies of some of these very same elders. It feels offensive to them, and to the larger community for the omissions of my title and organization.