Share your favorite dad story with us

gissela_dad
Gissela SantaCruz and her dad.

Dads. They don’t get the level of attention mom’s get, but it’s not because we don’t love them. It’s just, well, they’re dads.

But this year, we want to give fathers of Central Texas all the attention they deserve. So, we’re asking you, our readers, to send us your favorite story and photos of dad to views@statesman.com.

Yes, we really do want to hear all about your most memorable moments with the man who you call ‘pops’, ‘big guy’, ‘old man’, ‘daddy’, ‘sir’ or just plain ‘dad’.

Share your colorful anecdote about your father (uncle, grandfather or other father-figure) with us, and we will select the best to run online and in print for Father’s Day.

Please send your submissions and photos to views@statesman.com.

Submissions should be no more than 150 words and received by June 13.

We can’t wait to read your stories.

As Austin’s black population falls, a question of representation rises

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A mural of Martin Luther King Jr., as seen on the wall of Sam’s BBQ in East Austin in January. Jay Janner / American-Statesman

African Americans once represented about 15 percent of Austin’s overall population, but over the past few decades, the city’s black population has decreased steadily as African Americans have moved outside Austin. Today, the African-American share of Austin’s population is 7 percent, according to city estimates.

Eric Tang, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, produced an attention-grabbing report two years ago which found that Austin, despite growing 20.4 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, was the country’s only large, fast-growing city to record a decline in its black population: 5.4 percent, from 64,259 in 2000 to 60,760 in 2010.

With the help of UT doctoral student Bisola Falola, Tang recently produced a new report asking African Americans who have moved to the suburbs why they left Austin. I won’t dwell on Tang and Falola’s results, which the American-Statesman’s Dan Zehr covered last week, other than to note that a majority of African Americans — 56 percent — said they left Austin because they no longer could afford to live in the city. Many said they would move back if they could.

For most of the respondents to Tang and Falola’s survey, leaving Austin “was not an act of social mobility” equivalent to the postwar “white flight” to the suburbs, “but one of social sacrifice,” Tang and Falola wrote. “They moved out, but not necessarily up.”

The significance of this “outmigration”? The report briefly goes over several noteworthy effects on those who have left Austin. Public amenities and services often are harder to access in the suburbs than they are in the city. People feel a loss of community and a sense of social disconnection as they move from neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. Economic segregation worsens, further crippling economic mobility.

These effects frequently are discussed and debated in stories about Austin’s declining African-American population. But there is one effect that often is overlooked. It is worth revisiting, for it will be much discussed in about five years when it becomes clear how the African-American migration from Austin to the suburbs potentially affects the makeup of the Austin City Council.

In November 2012, Austin voters ditched the old City Council, with its six members and the mayor elected at large, in favor of a council whose members are elected from 10 geographical districts, with the mayor still elected citywide. One of the main reasons the City Council has 10 district representatives is because 10 was the minimum number needed at the time to draw a district in which black voters would have an opportunity to elect an African-American council member.

Yet, even with 10 districts, creating an African-American opportunity district was barely possible given the movement of African Americans out of Austin, and the decreasing concentration of black Austinites in East Austin. The best the independent commission that drew the new districts could do was District 1 in East and Northeast Austin. District 1 is — or rather was at the time of the 2010 census — 28.2 percent African American.

If drawing an African-American opportunity district was barely possible for the current council, it might be impossible when new district boundaries are drawn after the 2020 census.

Sure, an African American can be elected in any district; he or she does not have run in District 1. And after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the need to create an African American opportunity district may no longer be felt.

But if the city wants to maintain council diversity and continue to give its remaining African Americans a chance to elect one of their own, it will face some tough choices. Either voters will have to be asked to increase the number of council districts to make it possible to draw an African-American opportunity district, or they will have to be asked to add a couple of at-large seats to the council. Either way, it’s conceivable a version of the so-called gentlemen’s agreement that designated one seat on the old at-large council for an African-American member will have to be revived for the district-based council.

Or, it’s also conceivable Austin’s African-American population will have shrunk so much the city will have to consider a different question: At what low percentage point does a group’s numbers no longer justify gerrymandering a district to give them an opportunity to elect their own council representative?

And deciding the answer to this question will have to occur against a different group’s rapid growth: Asian Americans were 6.8 percent of the city’s population in 2014, according to city estimates. This was just below African Americans’ 7 percent. Given current trends, Austin’s Asian population will be greater than its black population after the 2020 census.

Asians are widely dispersed throughout the city, but they made up 13.3 percent of District 6, in Northwest Austin, in 2010. When new districts are drawn after 2020, shouldn’t the next opportunity first be theirs?

What happens when a reader gets riled up about female coaches?

A few days ago, I wrote a piece for our Insight section about why women are shut out of head coaching positions in men’s sports — even as men are routinely hired to coach women’s sports.

“The dusty arguments hurried out against promoting women to marquee coaching positions — that they lack the requisite experience, or the bearing or psychology, or the backbone to handle a male environment — amount to the same kind of hokum once used to keep women out of the boardroom.”

San Antonio Spurs coach Becky Hammon celebrates with her team after they defeated the Phoenix Suns in an NBA summer league championship basketball game Monday, July 20, 2015, in Las Vegas. Hammon is the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports leagues. (AP Photo/John Locher)
San Antonio Spurs coach Becky Hammon celebrates with her team after they defeated the Phoenix Suns in an NBA summer league championship basketball game Monday, July 20, 2015, in Las Vegas. Hammon is the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports leagues. (AP Photo/John Locher)

(The essay was a follow-up in a way, to a book I wrote last year that got at cultural expectations involving sports, race and gender in America — the book, called “Year of the Dunk: A Modest Defiance of Gravity,” tracked my own, sometimes-comic efforts as a middle-aged white dude trying to dunk.)

Apparently not all readers were sympathetic to the piece. Evidently confused about my gender, one reader who wrote me about it wasn’t so keen on my trying to ask him a few questions. (You might want to read from the bottom up.)

women coaching

Read the full essay at MyStatesman.com.

Retired bishop John McCarthy is still fighting the good fight

 

Austin Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy may be retired, but he can hardly be considered “retiring” at the fine age of 86.

Preparing this week to celebrate his 60th anniversary of being ordained to the priesthood, McCarthy remains a beloved figure in Austin. He can frequently be found at parishes conducting masses as a guest priest, speaking at new church dedication, and just a few years ago was promoting his book “Off the Cuff & Over the Collar: Common Sense Catholicism.” Always gregarious with a wicked sense of humor, even if slowed some by age, McCarthy retains his lack of shyness about sharing his thoughts on developments in the Roman Catholic Church.

His 50th anniversary was celebrated in Houston, but this anniversary mass on Thursday is at my home parish, St. Theresa Catholic Church. (He was first ordained as a bishop at St. Theresa’s in Houston, a parish where he served as pastor.) I spoke to McCarthy a few days ago. Though his voice may not be as strong as it once was, he was quick to assert that he is feeling quite fine and he continues to be excited by the developments in the church under the leadership of Pope Francis.

Being a retired bishop is not easy. McCarthy has long been considered more liberal than his successors, Bishop Gregory Aymond (2001 to 2009) and now Bishop Joe Vasquez. Both men studiously gave McCarthy space and generally avoiding direct criticism of McCarthy’s views  years since his retirement.

While bishop, McCarthy took heat from the Vatican for allowing Brackenridge Hospital, the city-owned hospital run by Seton, to perform tubal ligations, which conflicts with church law on birth control and was eventually discontinued at the behest of the Vatican. He also asked Rome to defrock an abusive priest in 1987.

McCarthy has also taken heat on the issue of priestly celibacy, writing  letters to the Vatican and to his fellow U.S. and Texas bishops, urging them to confront what he saw as a looming crisis and to consider a possible solution: optional celibacy. McCarthy fought the death penalty and racial injustice during his posts in Houston and in Austin, well before it was fashionable to do so.

In 2013, during an interview with American-Statesman’s Joe Gross about his book, he talked a bit more about how he sees the crisis of the priesthood.

“In the Catholic Church, the priesthood is the organizing tool, McCarthy says. “He makes possible the sacraments and they make Jesus Christ present in the material world. Since we are dependent on the sacraments, we are dependent on the priesthood. So to build new, smaller communities, you need more priests. And that might mean married priests. It might mean woman priests.”

So, for McCarthy,  news that Pope Francis is open to female deacons is welcome indeed, as is the pope’s overriding message of mercy. In observance of his anniversary he submitted his own retrospective for publication. You can find the essay in its entirety here, but very telling is this small excerpt.

The Catholic Church today has approximately 3,500 laws, mostly insignificant policies or directives, but their legalism has hurt people by the millions. I see Pope Francis as gradually, painfully trying to change that, which is joyful for me. I think the Holy Father and I share a belief in the utter simplicity and centrality of love in our Catholic faith.

Personally, I count the bishop as one of the instruments in my path to the Catholic faith. Raised a Southern Baptist my interactions with Catholics were few and far between. The bishop would host Christmas parties for journalists and others at his residence and I was struck by his openness to questioning on matters of faith and commitment to social justice.

There would be many years and other men and women of faith that would guide me, before I decided to join the church in 2007, but Bishop McCarthy was among the first.

Peace be with with you, Bishop McCarthy.

Central Texans still need to decide who their candidates will be in several races

(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
(RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Have you noticed those “Vote Here” signs hanging outside a public library, grocery stores or public schools? No, they aren’t simply leftovers from the Uber/Lyft ordinance election that took place earlier this month. They’re evidence that the job of an involved voter is never done.

Those signs are there to remind us that Tuesday’s Runoff Election Day will determine several Republican and Democrat nominees for state and county offices. Those signs are there to remind you that your voice needs to be heard.

Yes, most of Austin is either chattering about the failed Proposition 1 Transportation Network Company ordinance — like most of the tech world, for that matter — or talking of the upcoming presidential election. It’s easy to understand how Tuesday’s runoff election may have slipped some minds.

Never the less, it is important for voters to show up to the polls. After all, there’s still plenty of business to take care of locally – and it’s this business that most directly affects the lives of Texans. Because a larger than usual number of incumbent officeholders locally have chosen not to run for re-election, the there will be plenty of new faces.

The good news is the ballot is short since only a few items from the March primaries went unresolved, including a very tight primary race for Texas Rail Road Commissioner for both parties, the Democratic race for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1 and the Republican race for Williamson County Commissioner Precinct 1.

Today, the surviving candidates in each of those races face off in their party’s runoff. And there is plenty to consider.

In the Railroad Commissioner race, for instance, Texans have the opportunity to elect a moderate candidate. Back in March, seven Republicans and three Democrats ran for an open seat on the three-member Commission. Now, it’s down to the final four: Two in each race. While the Editorial Board has endorsed Gary Gates, one of the two Republicans left standing. The board chose not to endorse either of the Democrats left in the race.

Why, you ask, does the Railroad Commission even matter? Simple. The incorrectly named agency regulates the oil and gas industry, and as such the decisions made here determine the state’s energy and environmental future. That’s a huge responsibility. And yet, the agency is not one with controversies including growing criticism for its close ties to the oil and gas industry.

A progressive candidate, some experts say, would be a welcome change.

Even closer to home are the Travis County Commissioner Pct. 1 and Williamson County Pct. 1 races. The candidates in each position will help shape how their respective county handles transportation, health care, criminal justice and other challenges wrought by explosive population growth in those areas. Experience will go far in these seats.

Earlier this month, the editorial board made the following endorsements in those races:

  • Democrat Jeff Travillion for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1.
  • Republican Landy Warren for Williamson County Commissioner Precinct 1.

Victories in these races will be determined by those who take the time to vote.

A USA Today poll from 2012 showed that 59 percent of nonvoters said they were frustrated because “nothing ever gets done” in government, while 54 percent cited “corruption” and 42 percent pointed to the lack of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties as their reasons for not voting. That same year, voter turnout was lower than in 2008, dropping from 62.3 percent of eligible citizens voting to 57.5 percent in 2012.

Today, voter confidence only deteriorated. Only 2 percent of Americans said they were “very satisfied” with the way things are going in the country, while 71 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the state of the nation, according to a 2015 Quinnipiac poll.

With so much change in leadership coming to Central Texas, this is not the time to be disgruntled and removed from the polls.  People say they don’t vote because they feel elected officials don’t serve their interests. But elected officials can only reflect the interests of those constituents who actually show up to vote.

The solution is simple. If you want change, make yourself heard at the polls.

Yes, eligible and soon-to-be-eligible voters are already looking forward to November’s big show, but pressing matters in our own back yard need your attention.   Don’t miss your opportunity to have your voice heard. Go vote.

Austin has a big population, but is Austin a big city?

Austin skyline
The Austin skyline, as seen on March 23 from the 23rd floor of the Skyhouse Apartments. (Laura Skelding / American-Statesman)

A big city is more than its population.

The Census Bureau released its latest city population estimates Thursday — we learned that Texas was home to five of the 11 fastest-growing cities in the country (all suburbs: Georgetown, New Braunfels, Frisco, Pearland and Pflugerville) between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015 — and I again found myself pondering why Austin, despite its rank as the 11th most populous American city, with 931,830 residents, doesn’t feel like a big city.

Yes, Austin is a wonderful city, and though Austin is a little too full of itself at times, and certainly less affordable than it’s ever been, there’s nowhere else in Texas I’d rather live. Austin has better restaurants than it’s ever had, great festivals and a hike and bike trail I use several times a week. One of my favorite annual events, the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series, starts next week. And to say something doesn’t “feel” like something else is, I admit, pretty intangible.

And yet …

I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1988 to 1991 before I moved to Austin. (Well, I lived just north of the district line in Silver Spring, Maryland, to be precise.) Washington is the 22nd most populous city in the United States, with a July 2015 population of 672,228, but it feels much bigger — much more like a city — than Austin.

The same is true of San Francisco, which Austin passed on the most populous list in 2011. Like Washington, San Francisco — currently the nation’s 13th most populous city, with 864,816 people — has features we associate with large cities, such as major art and science museums, convenient public transportation, multiple vibrant and walk-able neighborhoods, and big-league professional sports teams. Austin lacks many of these kinds of things.

Part of the difference is D.C. and San Francisco are part of metropolitan areas that are significantly more populous than the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area that includes Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays counties. It was front-page news in March when the Census Bureau reported that the population of the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area had surpassed 2 million residents between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015. Even so, the Austin metropolitan area ranks only 33rd in population.

Despite its growth and evolution, despite its transformed skyline and more diverse and energetic downtown, despite its having awakened years ago from its slumber as a sleepy college and government town, Austin remains largely suburban in character. It’s one reason why I don’t think of Austin as a city in the same way I think of D.C. or San Francisco as cities. Or Seattle, Denver and Portland, Oregon, for that matter — three cites with 250,000 to 300,000 fewer people than Austin, but which feel larger than they are, while Austin feels smaller than it is.

Topping Thursday’s census report was the news that Georgetown grew faster between July 2014 and July 2015 than any other city with a population of at least 50,000. New Braunfels was No. 2 on the bureau’s list of fastest-growing cities; Pflugerville was No. 11.

As of July 2015, Georgetown had 63,716 residents — 7.8 percent more people lived in Georgetown last summer than lived there the previous July. New Braunfels grew at a 6.6 percent rate, to 70,543 people. Pflugerville’s growth rate was 4.5 percent; it had an estimated population of 57,122.

Austin, meanwhile, added another 19,117 people between July 2014 and July 2015, bringing its population to 931,830 and keeping the city well on track to reach the 1 million mark by 2020. Only seven cities (Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas among them) added more people, in raw numbers, than Austin did. However, in terms of growth rate — 2.1 percent — it was Austin’s slowest population gain in years.

Strong urban growth, but stronger growth in the suburbs and exurbs. This is the long story of Thursday’s census numbers. Consider that Austin grew by 17.9 percent from 2010 to 2015, but Georgetown grew by 34.4 percent over the same period.

Any discussion about all the traffic this growth causes put aside, clearly many people prefer living outside cities, where more space can be bought for less money. Even millennials, often seen as hipsters solidly committed to city living, are proving to be as attracted to the lower housing costs and family friendliness of the suburbs as their parents and grandparents were before them. Many others in Austin, of course, are forced to leave city neighborhoods that are no longer affordable for suburban ones that are.

As for its place on the list of most populous cities, Austin will remain just outside the top 10 for another dozen years, assuming current trends and city boundaries hold. The 10th most populous city in the country is San Jose, Calif., which had a population of 1,026,908 as of July 1, 2015 — 95,078 residents ahead of Austin’s 931,830. San Jose is growing, too, though at a slower rate than Austin. Austin’s move past San Jose might come in 2028, give or take a year or two.

And that is where Austin will stay for the rest of my lifetime. Dallas is No. 9, with a population of 1,300,092. That’s a 368,262-person lead over Austin, and Dallas is adding a lot of people each year, too —19,642 between 2014 and 2015. In the No. 8 spot is San Diego (pop. 1,394,928), which Dallas might pass around 2030 but which Austin won’t pass, given current trends, for another 70 years or more. By then Austin may be just another cluster in the great Texas Interstate 35 megalopolis. You know, the one without the professional sports team.

Texas GOP agitation over transgender restrooms is a trip back in time

Dan Patrick
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks during the opening of the Texas Republican Convention Thursday, May 12, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

At the time critics called the president’s executive order “revolutionary and politically reckless.” National polls showed that his “civil rights” program was wildly unpopular. State leaders in southern states railed against his executive overreach. They insisted that following the executive order would make Americans fundamentally unsafe.

The year was 1948. The president was Harry S. Truman. His order began the slow and painful process of systematically desegregating the nation’s military and is credited with helping to break down racial segregation in all facets of American life.

In the months prior to issuing his famous orders, known as Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, Truman made a special address to Congress:

“…We must protect our civil rights so that by providing all our people with the maximum enjoyment of personal freedom and personal opportunity we shall be a stronger nation — stronger in our leadership, stronger in our moral position, stronger in the deeper satisfactions of a united citizenry.”

Last Friday’s temper-tantrum by Texas state leaders over President Obama’s instructions to schools about accommodating  transgender students is strikingly reminiscent to the outcry generated in response to the federal government’s march to equality during the Civil Rights Era.

Friday’s federal directive specified that under the Title IX federal civil rights law, schools must treat a student — using proper pronouns and names, for example — consistent with the student’s gender identity. Schools cannot require transgender students to produce a medical diagnosis or a birtGreg Abbotth certificate or other identification document, nor force them to use bathrooms inconsistent with that identity.

Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated that he is interested in introducing a law similar to the one in North Carolina that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates. He told thousands at the GOP convention last week:

“Obama is turning bathrooms into courtroom issues,” Abbott told thousands of delegates at Dallas’ convention center. “I want you to know, I am working with the governor of North Carolina, and we are going to fight back.”

Cries of “blackmail” and labeling the President a “bully” is the best the likes of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton could muster. They  say they would rather do without federal funding — which pays for books, lunches for the state’s poorest children, early childhood education, special education services, tuition-assistance and educational programming for at-risk groups.

Never mind that it is Patrick who chose to meddle in the decisions of the Fort Worth School District, whose superintendent acted to clarify rules that have been part of the district’s policy since 2012. 

Never mind that Patrick’s concern about the “vivid vigor that every 15-year-old boy has” is tantamount to the “boys will be boys” defense for sexual assault of all kinds.

And never mind that sexual assault is not about sexual attraction, it is about power over the victim regardless of gender.

Conservatives would like to draw an imaginary line between the guiding principals of the Civil Rights Era and the extension of rights to the LBGT community. It cannot be done. This country does not discriminate based on inherent traits. And the fact that the country is now agitating for rules that have been in place for years is proof that this is about political gamesmanship, not protecting or education our children.

Truman was not the last president to leverage what authority he had outside of Congress to urge the states to clean up their record on civil rights. Much has been comparing Obama’s performance to Truman’s legacy. This latest chapter on civil rights, will only add to the case.

VIDEO: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discusses transgender restrooms.

 

Austin isn’t the only city with an Uber debate

In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, an Uber decal is displayed in the their window of the car owned by Steve Linnes, a music teacher in State College, Pa., who is also a part-time Uber driver. Gov. Tom Wolf and Pittsburgh-area officials said Tuesday, May 3, 2016, they want Pennsylvania regulators to greatly reduce their record-setting $11.4 million fine against ride-sharing company Uber. The Public Utility Commission fined Uber last month for operating six months in 2014 without the required approval. (Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT
(Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times via AP)

The Editorial Board weighed in against the May 7 ballot that calls for the repeal of existing regulations of Transporation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft. We also hosted a good number of op-eds both in favor and against the ordinance.

Those weren’t the only  voices who had something to say. Here are a few others:

“Uber and Lyft want a playing field heavily tilted to their advantage, so they can eliminate the local competition and monopolize the ride-hailing market – after which they will resume squeezing drivers and riders as they have persistently done elsewhere.”  — Austin Chronicle editorial board: Endorsement against Prop. 1: 

“With Proposition 1, Uber and Lyft have tried to turn a regulatory debate into an argument over ride-hailing itself, knowing that these services are both popular and necessary in Austin. If voters accept that frame, they are being played as unsophisticated. Proposition 1 is Uber and Lyft’s effort to fight back against regulation by undermining local government.” —Kriston Capps, City Lab: From the Atlantic: Austin’s Uber War is dumb

“I voted in favor of Proposition 1 yesterday with no hesitation for the simple reason that if Austin City Council wanted to cast itself as a responsible steward of the ride-hailing market, it shouldn’t have completely failed to do so for decades.” —Erica Grieder, Texas Monthly: A vote for Prop. 1

“Politics in the time of social media and atrophied attention spans depends on narratives, and opponents of Proposition 1 are peddling a doozy, with the able assistance of the Austin American-Statesman editorial board.”– Mark Lisheron, Watchdog.org: An Uber narrative runs amok

Other Texas cities may not have an election but are grappling with an Uber debate:

In Houston, where Uber has made threats to leave if Houston won’t change existing regulation:

“Don’t let them take you on a ride, (Houston) Mayor Turner. Don’t give in to their threats. In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city.” — Houston Chronicle editorial board: Another Uber threat

In Dallas, where Uber plans to expand in an underserved part of the city:

“The new collaboration between Uber and the city should allow more southern Dallas residents to take advantage of a handy option to get around. And putting money in the pockets of more Uber “driver-partners,” who can basically become their own bosses, is nothing but good news all around. That’s especially important in some areas of southern Dallas where people struggle to make ends meet.” — Dallas Morning News editorial board: Expanding Uber makes sense

Opinions on Uber  (and fellow ride-hailing company Lyft) are just about everywhere. In fact, elsewhere across the country, and the world for that matter, cities are at different stages of dealing with the presence of Uber. For example:

In Miami, where Uber has illegally forced its way into the market:

“These ride-hailing services not only should be made legal in Miami-Dade, county officials should consider them a vital component in expanding the transportation options beyond what satisfied customers already have taken advantage of.” — Miami Herald editorial board

In New Jersey, where regulating Uber is still a challenge:

“Regulate Uber, yes — but uniformly. Not by treating it like local taxis.” — Miami Herald Editorial Board wrote:

In Toronto, where the focus is still on creating a level playing field for taxis:

“Some additional tinkering may be required, but on the whole the new rules before council represent the best way forward. The question now is whether politicians will have the fortitude to serve the interests of consumers or bow to the taxi industry.” — Toronto Star editorial board

Black city employees say council dissing black execs

Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Left to right, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Link, Code Compliance Director Carl Smart and Code Compliance Assistant Director Dan Cardenas listen during a meeting of the Building and Standards Commission at City Hall on Wednesday August 28, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the fallout continues over Austin City Manager Marc Ott’s rebuke of Police Chief Art Acevedo, another potential controversy is brewing at City Hall: African American city employees are accusing the City Council of repeatedly disrespecting black executives from the dais.

And if that is not enough, they are pointing out other troubling trends regarding African American employees who work for the city, such as a lack of African Americans in certain city jobs and departments, council members’ insensitivity to diversity initiatives and pay disparities.

To that point, the group says African American men are the lowest paid of all city employees according to data it collected for median salaries of each racial and ethnic group. The 2015 data show the median salary for black men was $21.26 per hour, compared with the median for white men at $37.28, Hispanic men were the next lowest with a median salary of $21.91 per hour. Asian men had the highest median pay, $37.92.

Those allegations were outlined by the African American Heritage Network in an April 13 letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council. The heritage group is one of several so-called city affinity groups organized to support employees who work for the city. Each is organized differently, but they include support groups for Hispanics, Asians, LGBT and women.

“During your tenure as elected officials, we have observed a clear level of disdain in your treatment of African American executives. We have witnessed African American executives being criticized, reprimanded and insulted from the dais,” The group stated in the letter to Council.

“While we understand that this behavior is often demonstrated by the minority of Council, the majority does not speak out against it. To observers, it suggests the behavior is tolerated. We are concerned about the message this sends to the general public.”

It’s telling, says Candice Cooper, vice president of the organization, that the group has received no response from the mayor or other council members. Ott did respond, she said, telling the group he wants to meet with them to better understand complaints and data regarding pay and job disparities.

One example of what the group described as a personal attack on a black executive has to do with a post by Council Member Don Zimmerman to the Facebook page of Dale Flatt, a Zimmerman supporter. Flatt has organized a May 13 protest of the city’s Code department headed by Carl Smart, who is African American. But the protest, at City Hall, also targeted Smart, Cooper’s boss.

DF Protest Post comments - Copy - CopyCooper provided a screen grab capturing Zimmerman’s response to Flatt’s Facebook post: “Friday the 13th, perfect! In case some code compliance inspectors come hoping to write citations, who’s bringing the hockey masks?”

Cooper said flyers for the protests have been prepared that say, “GET SMART FIRE CARL” referring to Smart.

Zimmerman’s post, referring to the Friday the 13th movie character Jason Voorhees, a psycho killer, was seen by some black employees as whipping up anger and by others as a veiled threat against a department headed by an African American.

“I have not seen the Council Member treat any other top city executive that way,” Cooper said.

Recently, the Code department has come under fire for failing to hire staffers with the required certifications, complete investigations in a timely fashion or prioritize the response to violations that pose a danger to the public, the city auditor concluded in a draft report.

In her role with the group, Cooper said she interviewed five African American executives who said they have been singled out and publicly upbraided by some council members in what felt like personal attacks as opposed to professional disagreements. They didn’t want their names revealed, she said, because they feared retaliation.

Along with that, the group has faced a series of internal investigations triggered by anonymous complaints, alleging that the group was conducting professional development training solely for African American city employees, among other race-based claims. The group was cleared on all complaints, she said.

Collectively, those episodes have had a chilling effect on African American employees, she said. It didn’t help matters that no city council members attended the 2016 Black History Month Program in February. Morale has been further eroded, Cooper said, by the city and council’s rapid response in dealing with issues of equal treatment, pay and training regarding women, versus a lack of response to concerns regarding black employees. She noted the City Council’s response to a stereotype-riddled training session in March that led to the forced departure of assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes.

To be fair, there might well be explanations for the aforementioned circumstances. But absent any justification — or even response from the mayor or Council, African American employees are left to fill in the blanks. That is not ideal, as it leaves people to make sense of certain actions through the lens of their own experiences, including cultural perspectives.

And by investigating the group based on anonymous complaints the city undermines a key democratic principle — the right to face one’s accuser.

Neither the mayor nor Zimmerman could be reached for comment Wednesday.

In a city as diverse as Austin, city officials should know their words, actions — and silence — have consequences. At the very least, they owe black employees an explanation.

 

Cinco de Mayo’s American roots

Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman A-List photos from La Condesa's Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman
A-List photos from La Condesa’s Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

This week sombreros, colorful embroidered dresses, Mexican beer ads, as well as green, red and white streamers, will have been prominent in preparation for today: Cinco de Mayo. It’s one of several days of the year that many Americans use as an excuse to eat, drink and celebrate.

What some Americans may not know is that Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May, not only has its roots in Mexican history, but also very much so in Texas history — and by osmosis, its roots in Texas history makes Cinco de Mayo American, too.

To clarify: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That highly celebrated holiday would be 16 de Septiembre. (Yep. Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July is Sept. 16.) What then, you ask, is celebrated on May 5th? This day commemorates an outnumbered — 2,000 to 6,000 — Mexican army’s 1862 victory over French soldiers at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. However, this one successful battle did not end the French intervention in Mexico. Mexican victory over the French would not come until  1866. (Which explains why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t make it onto Mexico’s list of national holidays.)

Where are the American ties in this? Let us count the ways:

  1. Though Texas was once a territory of Mexico, it wasn’t at the time of the Battle of Puebla. By then, the United States had already purchased Louisiana from France in an agreement that also included handing over Texas. Yes, technically, Texas — like other cotton-growing and slave-holding states—had seceded in early 1861 from the Union to join the Confederate States of America at the time of French intervention in Mexico, but it’s still important to note because …
  1. The man credited with leading the Mexican troops to victory at the battle of Puebla was from Texas. As University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora writes, “The celebration of the battle of Puebla also acknowledges the heroic role of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a 32-year officer from Goliad, Texas. Soon after the surrender of Veracruz, Juárez had appointed him minister of war and navy, and assigned him to lead the Army of the East and the defense of Puebla.” So, yeah. A Texan won the battle.
  2. The American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Franco-American war. Yes, the Americans helped Mexico defeat the French. A year after the battle of Puebla and after victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg here at home, President Lincoln turned his attention to the Rio Grande borderlands. In a letter to the Union commander in New Orleans, Nathaniel Banks, Lincoln wrote: “Recent events in Mexico,” he said, “render early action in Texas more important than ever.” Troops were sent and, eventually, the French were forced out of Mexico.
  3.  Cinco de Mayo celebrations have taken place in the U.S.since after both the Franco-Mexico and American Civil Wars. In the beginning, Latinos in California and the other parts of the U.S. celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades where people dressed in Civil War uniforms and give speeches on the Battle of Puebla.
  4. Today, more than 150 years later, the celebrations continue as cities organize official Cinco de Mayo festivities and American schoolchildren perform Mexican folkloric dances and recite Cinco de Mayo-inspired poems and plays to celebrate the occasion.