When I talk about Austin’s mythical liberalism — I don’t mean ‘liberalism so epic it has earned its own myth’, I mean mythical as a synonym for fictitious or fictional, as a word that connotes delusion.
I moved to Austin, Texas in 1997 to attend graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin. After graduation I worked at the university full time for twenty-one years and recently accepted a position working for Austin Community College. I’m a dedicated public servant and most of that service has been for the people of Texas. I’m not a native, but I’ve lived in Austin longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I met my wife here, we got married here, we adopted our son here, we built a house, and bought a house. I’m pretty sure we’ve paid more in property taxes than we have in our retirement accounts. So, Austin is as ‘home’ as we’ve got. And — much like any long-standing relationship — the length of our relationship has led to the kind of intimate knowledge that can threaten to tank relationships of any kind. Austin isn’t honest with herself and that makes it impossible for her to be honest with me.
In the mid-90’s, when my ex-wife and I were deciding where to go to graduate school together, we, like many self-identified liberals, said that ‘Austin is the only city in Texas we’d live in’. The rest of Texas had a reputation of being too culturally and politically conservative for our tastes. We heard it said, over and over, that Austin is the ‘blueberry in the tomato soup’. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how apt that metaphor is. If we think about a blueberry floating in tomato soup and we drill down — right in the middle — what we’ve got is about a quarter-inch of blueberry with three inches of tomato soup under the surface. That’s the truth of Austin that she refuses to acknowledge. She’s a deeply conservative city with a veneer of liberalism. As a matter of fact, that veneer — that inaccurate identity — is part of the reason why she doesn’t live up to her own propounded beliefs. She’s fallen into the trap that if everyone thinks she’s liberal, she doesn’t really have to DO THE WORK. As long as she can maintain the false belief that she’s way-more-liberal than the rest of Texas, she feels self-satisfied and superior. She’s kidding herself, and it’s almost impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone this deep in denial, even when you love them, even when they are home.
Let’s talk first about the most recent crack (or gaping hole) in the veneer — the passing of Proposition B in the special election on May 1, 2021. Amidst all the liberal talk of police reform, the liberal talk of black lives matter, the liberal talk of the ineffectiveness and brutality of incarceration, amidst all this liberal talk… The City of Austin’s residents voted, by a double-digit margin!, to re-criminalize camping and panhandling. Austin would rather arrest the homeless than have to look at them camped out under overpasses or standing on street corners. Out of sight, out of mind is not a strategy for dealing with homelessness. It is, however, a great strategy if your goal is not to BE a liberal city, just to LOOK LIKE ONE. Seeing homelessness under every overpass certainly challenges the liberal identity of the city, but instead of accepting that challenge to live up to the liberal identity we cherish, we’ve decided to sweep that uncomfortable truth under the rug so we don’t have to look at it anymore.
Perhaps instead, you’d prefer to talk about how Austin is the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. that is simultaneously experiencing rapid population growth and a numerical decrease of its black population? That’s right, it’s not even the percentage of black people in our community that is decreasing — it is the actual, raw number of our black neighbors that is on the decline. This trend led Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, to call Austin, “Atlanta for white people”… Do you need a personal example? My adopted son’s birth family decided to move to Dallas — because it is a much more welcoming and fair place for them to raise their black children. Dallas… Texas… reputation=conservative — more friendly to black families than Austin. If you are an Austinite and this reality doesn’t surface feelings of guilt that bring you to tears, then I don’t know what to tell you. Brené Brown says that “guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” If being a liberal city doesn’t mean being a city where all of our siblings feel safe and valued and loved, then I don’t know what it means. If being a liberal city where your black neighbors are all moving away to cities in Texas with more conservative reputations: to Dallas, to Houston, to San Antonio… if that fact in itself isn’t a wake up call, I don’t know what to tell you. Perhaps you’re thinking that this trend must be temporary or short-lived. Think again, the data suggest that it has been going on for over twenty years and that it is continuing to happen. Welcome to White-lanta.
I could go on, but I won’t. What I can say is this: Austin — I’m willing to do my part to heal this relationship. I’m willing to march in the streets, to vote with my ballots, and to vote with my dollars for the city we both know you can be. I’m willing to hold your hand and do the work, together. But if you don’t show up, if you aren’t willing to face your own truth instead of resting on the laurels of your unearned liberal identity, then we are gonna have to break up.
I will be patient. I will do my part. But I will not live a lie.
P.S. To Dallas: Shout Out for TRHT! Way to be the change!; To Houston: MOST diverse city in Texas! Keep up the good work!; To San Antonio: Majority minority, enough said! I’m sorry I prejudged y‘all’, I didn’t really do my homework and you deserved better. I hope you might consider letting me crash on your couch if things don’t work out with Austin…