On Wednesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced a new anti-racism task force that he said will take an action-oriented and holistic approach to racial inequality. Composed of community leaders divided into five working groups — criminal justice, education, health, finance and housing — the task force is expected to turn in an “action plan” by March 2017.
“Don’t be afraid to break some eggs,” Mayor Adler instructed task force leaders during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “And don’t be afraid to make me or the community uncomfortable; I’m not looking for easy solutions.”
Adler added that the task force will focus on institutional racism, which he defined as structural racial barriers, rather than individual attitudes. As an example, he cited Austin’s 1928 City Plan, which forcefully segregated the population by denying utility services to residents of color in certain neighborhoods, a history tied to Austin’s current status as the most economically segregated city in America and the only rapidly growing U.S. city with a declining black population.
To address those inequalities, the task force will unite representatives from a wide array of educational, activist and financial organizations, to be led by co-chairs Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Austin’s historically black Huston-Tillotson University, and Paul Cruz, superintendent of Austin Independent School District.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Mayor Adler and the task force’s co-chairs sidestepped questions about what their proposed “action plan” might actually include.
“Mayor Adler has given us a whiteboard,” Burnette said “If we had something predetermined, the process would be limited.” Cruz added only that Austin schools have already done relevant work, such as developing reform-minded “community schools” and examining disparities in suspension rates.
In a release announcing the initiative, the mayor also mentioned two recent cases of police misconduct in Austin: the violent arrest of Breaion King, a kindergarten teacher, by officer Bryan Richter in June 2015; and the killing of 17-year-old David Joseph in February by former APD officer Geoffrey Freeman. King’s lawsuit against Richter is ongoing, and while Freeman was fired in March, the Austin police union continues to push for his reinstatement.
Meme Styles, an activist with the police reform group Measure Austin, said her role on the task force will be advocating for changes to police training. “Honestly, Officer Freeman needs to stay fired,” she added. “But I don’t know if this task force will address that in particular.”
Asked if the presidential election had motivated the task force, Adler said, “This wasn’t planned to coincide with that. But I think it’s true the campaign has sensitized people to some of these issues.”