The City of Austin just announced that it has hired a new Equity Officer. There has been a great push for equity in our city by community organizations such as Undoing Racism Austin and Communities of Color United in recent years; however, the city has not responded with any substantive recognition of equitable policy nor shown a clear understanding of what equity really means. Austin has suffered greatly over the years with a major loss of communities of color due to gentrification-induced displacement along racial lines. This leaves many in the community skeptical of the new position, so it is important for us all to ensure we will hold the new equity officer, Brion Oaks, and the whole city government, accountable for equitable policy and governance.
You may have heard a lot about equity lately – in particular reminded about the difference between equity and equality. At the very least, you may have seen this meme:
So instead of giving everyone the same thing (Equality), we ensure everyone has the same outcome (Equity). Sounds easy enough, but who is going to take the box away from the big White guy on the left? If this isn’t happening, equity isn’t happening.
It is easy in liberal society to say, “The poor should be less poor.” That is the message that keeps appearing after the release of the disparity studies that happen every two years. However, to say “The rich should be less rich,” is still left out of the conversation. When we complete the equity equation, we are left with a trickier set of politics than if we only go half way. So far, Mayor Adler and City Hall have completed exactly half of the equation. The equity officer position appears to be responding to a lack of city service to the less fortunate, and not focused on the Austin’s prioritization of elite interests.
There have been countless studies about poverty in Eat Austin and an embarrassing amount of LBJ policy school projects aimed at analyzing the disadvantaged in this city. But how many studies have been aimed at the culture of greed emanating out of West Austin? How many studies have focused on the exploitation of East Austin perpetuated by those in West Austin? How many studies have looked at the gentry displacing POC throughout East Austin or the culture that excuses their naiveté? What about the narrative consistently pushed by the mayor and others that sells Austin as a great place to make money if you are already rich? As long as these issues are not dealt with, we are not doing equity work – we remain, at best, focusing on equality.
Power and Oppression
Racism describes a structure of oppression – it is also a very popular framework because it fits in well with the Liberal ideology. White Supremacy describes a structure of power – it is an unpopular framework because it confronts the powers that be. The difference between the two is that one focuses on the oppressed group, and the other focuses on the oppressor; one focuses on equality, the other equity. This country needs a severe shift in talking about race in terms of being oppressed. We need to talk about how race is a structure of power that benefits white people and allows them to systematically dominate other people, and that capitalism is the vehicle for this domination.
As long as Austin is promoted as a tourist destination for spoiled kids on vacation, investment opportunity for venture capitalists, a tech-city, or just a nice place to build your mansion – we will not be working towards equity. “Privilege” is not a happenstance; it is an actively desired status achieved through the policies driving development in Austin and the culture that justifies such privileges.
An equity officer should take a hard look at capitalism before suggesting policy recommendations. Austin is unequal and inequitable economically, politically and culturally. The people of this city deserve justice. To merely focus on “access” to city programs without challenging the culture of the city and it’s history of systemic racism, this position unlikely to do any good. Mr. Oaks – we are here if you need any advice on how to proceed.