CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Why the ruling in the Fisher case is a win for Texas

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against the University of Texas, prepares to speak at a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
FILE — Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against the University of Texas, prepares to speak at a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 10, 2012. On Thursday, the court issued its second ruling in the case, upholding the University of Texas admissions policy.

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is likely rolling over in his grave at the news that his esteemed colleagues decided 4-3 to uphold the University of Texas position in its fight to keep its race-conscious admissions policy.

Had Scalia been alive (or a similarly inclined justice appointed in his place), the chances of a definitive win for UT would have been slim. However, despite Scalia’s and others’ attempts to portray the university’s policy to diversify its student body as a mechanism for letting in unqualified minority students at the expense of qualified white students, the majority of the court on Thursday recognized the inherent value of a diverse university environment and the narrow role race plays in UT’s admissions process. At the same time, the majority acknowledged the great impracticality of creating a college admissions system that relies solely on class rank as has been suggested by Fisher’s lawyers.

READ: Supreme Court upholds UT’s race-conscious admissions in Fisher case

It’s important to note that Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin was never an affirmative action case in the classical sense.

“Affirmative action”  conjures images of quotas and admissions officials stamping applications until they have enough black and brown faces to fill out their classes. That is a practice that has been deemed unconstitutional in higher education since 1978. Since then, the court has continued to deem constitutional the idea of using race and ethnicity  as one among many factors in admissions, a practice that the UT policy followed when it denied admission to Abigail Fisher and a practice that it continues to use today.

EXPLORE: The history of the UT affirmative action admissions case: Fisher v. University of Texas

This is probably where I should disclose two facts. First, I worked at the university for two years and helped craft its media response to the last Supreme Court decision in the Fisher case in 2013. Second, I have long personally objected to affirmative action as a matter of public policy, which is notorious for causing as much harm as good — casting a pernicious shadow of doubt on the abilities of minority students and professionals and, in some cases, setting up students who have been failed by our public education system for greater failure.

It’s the false suggestion of enduring quotas that feed narratives like the one being pushed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in response to Thursday’s ruling: “The University of Texas is one of the finest educational institutions in the world. The opportunities it offers should be available to all students based on their merit, not the color of their skin.”

Exclusion or acceptance based on race alone is inappropriate in government. But recognition of institutional inequities in access to education and placing a value on a multicultural and heterogeneous enrollment is not only constitutionally valid, but essential to the future of higher education and this state.

As  I found myself at the age of 17 unwillingly defending affirmative action saying in a classroom of mostly white high school seniors: “What do we replace it with? The playing field is far from level.”

The answer is policies like the one used at UT Austin — policies that give value to our differences, whether they be race, socio-economic status, language of origin, family responsibilities, work experience and relative SAT score compared to others at their school. Taken holistically, there is value in having a student body that is heterogeneous and not allow the fact that one semester of having to work to support a family or discrimination that kept a student from being placed in an honors class for a semester would keep a student out of the University of Texas.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’….Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

Interestingly, Kennedy used the arguments of Fisher’s lawyers against them. Led by her attorney Edward Blum, the team had suggested that if greater numbers of minority students were the university’s aim, then UT should just extend the Top 10 percent rule to the entire student body. (At UT, the top 10 percent is really the top 7 percent, but that’s a whole different discussion.) Of course the upshot for the University of Texas whose enrollment would quickly be 100 percent filled to Top 10 percenters would mean the university would have to decline admission to immensely talented musicians, dancers, athletes, scientists and academics, who in their devotion to a single area of accomplishment would be denied admission if they were in the Top 10.5 percent of their class rather than the Top 10 percent.

Kennedy wrote:

“Class rank is a single metric, and like any single metric, it will capture certain types of people and miss others. This does not imply that students admitted through holistic review are necessarily more capable or more desirable than those admitted through the Top Ten Percent Plan. It merely reflects the fact that privileging one characteristic above all others does not lead to a diverse student body.”

Yes, there are universities like Texas A & M University who say they do not consider race in admissions. They recruit heavily in areas that UT doesn’t not, and they have had some success. However, A & M also is not bursting at the seams with Top 10 percent students and so they have the flexibility to make offers.

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While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may thrash in his dissent, accusing the university of deception and railing that Thursday decision is “affirmative action gone berserk,” the reality is that a university charged with training leaders is not well-served  by using a single measuring stick for access and the value of diversity is greater than simply measuring melanin.

Studies abound about how black and Hispanic children are less likely to be evaluated for gifted and talented programming, more likely to receive harsher punishments for classroom behavior, less likely to be recommended for honors classes, are less likely to participate in summer enrichment programming, are less likely to be steered by teachers to math and science. I could go on.

Abigail Fisher has spent the better part of the last eight years arguing that her spot had essentially been taken by an unqualified minority. In fact, court documents show that one African-American and four Hispanic applicants with academic and personal achievement index scores lower than Fisher’s were accepted into a provisional admission program, but so too were 42 white students with scores equal to or lower than Fisher’s. Meanwhile, 168 black and Hispanic applicants who had scores equal to or higher than Fisher’s were denied admission.

READ: Fisher v. UT, the affirmative action case the Supreme Court can’t quit

The Supreme Court landed on the right side of this case, which should have never gotten this far. Although with the failure to replace Scalia one wonders if this ruling will become an asterisk, or if his fiery, anti-affirmative action rhetoric would have compelled Kennedy to come down on the opposing side.

But I can accept UT’s admissions policy as a constitutional bridge for affirmative action until the day we don’t have to have this conversation about the role of race in educational and economic opportunity. Unfortunately, I fear that will be a while.

 

 

Haruka Weiser’s death and the right to know

A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

As we at the American-Statesman have reported on the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, we’ve received some pushback on social media and in story comments from readers who think we’re going too far.

Last night, Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was the first to report that Weiser had been strangled and sexually assaulted. The report, based on carefully vetted sources whom we did not identify because they were not authorized to publicly disclose these details, answered one of the basic questions surrounding the case a week after Weiser’s death. It also raised the possibility of additional charges related to sexual assault, pending DNA results.

To us in the Statesman newsroom, this was a newsworthy development. Some readers weren’t so sure, as this story commenter put it:

I hope at some point in time the press and media will stop sniffing for yet more and more information about this woman’s demise to blab to the purient public.  If necessary, pls put all such information in supermarket rags or TMZ and not in legitimate press.  It is no one’s business other than officials and family about the grisly details of how she died.

We understand such concerns, of course. We have those very same discussions in the newsroom. We take the public’s right to know seriously, and we’re not just talking about a “prurient public” interested in horrific details. We’re talking about public safety, university security, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability and, yes, even ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected. Manner of death in a high-profile homicide is the most basic of questions — one that had been asked by our readers for a week.

We understand that reading about any case will be difficult for the victim’s family. Like you, we feel for their loss. But we also have a responsibility and a mission to inform, and, unfortunately, that sometimes means reporting information that the victim’s family will not want to read. In a case like this, that will happen countless times as the case goes through the legal system. We took that into account with Tuesday’s story, making sure that law enforcement had a chance to notify Weiser’s family before our story published. We also exercised restraint in which crime-scene details to publish and which to omit at this time.

Today, some on Facebook took offense to our posting of an interactive timeline tracing the events outlined in Meechaiel Khalil Criner’s arrest affidavit. Others have requested that we not run Criner’s mugshot. Of course, those are the basics of a story that will continue to be reported out and followed by media not just here in Austin but around the world.

We understand that the details are not pleasant, but we believe that pursuit of those details is vitally important.

— John Bridges, managing editor

Homicide at UT should shake us all

dyc weiser presser 08
University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves, right, speaks during a news conference about the death of UT student Haruka Weiser on Thursday, April 7, 2016. The freshman from Portland, OR., was found in murdered in Waller Creek on the UT campus on Tuesday, April, 5. APD is seeking a suspect shown on video in the area. At left is Associate V.P. of Campus Safety and Security, Bob Harkins. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN

The message was clear the minute University of Texas President Gregory Fenves returned home on a plane Tuesday from a trip in Amarillo to personally address reports that the university was investigating a possible campus homicide.

Whatever happened near Waller Creek on Sunday night to the female victim was likely to rock the feeling of safety and security on the Austin campus and in this city for some time to come. The university, with its community of more than 70,000 students, faculty and staff,  represents the physical center of our city and for many it is the emotional heart as well. So when tragedy strikes there, we all ache.

After turning over the investigation to the Austin Police Department on Wednesday and notifying the victim’s family, the university and investigators were ready Thursday to publicly name the victim. Haruka Weiser, an 18-year-old dance major from Portland, Ore., was murdered on her way home from  the . Investigators are still looking for the suspect and have asked for the public’s help identifying a man on a bike in a video taken nearby.

Investigators were sparing with the details Thursday, though more is surely known to university administrators. What information they do have led Fenves to call for an overall security evaluation of the campus by the Department of Public Safety. The university has also increased patrols and is offering escorts for anyone on campus who feels unsafe moving around on campus.

Our hearts go out Weiser’s family, friends and the UT community. Having a child going off to college is a time of excitement and trepidation for any family. As Fenves accurately put it, the events of this week are a parent’s “worst nightmare.”

He went on to say, “The unthinkable brutality against Haruka is an attack on our entire family. Law enforcement is fully engaged to do everything to bring the perpetrator who committed this crime to justice.”

The video shown by Austin police at Thursday’s press conference shows an active street scene with pedestrians, buses and cyclists moving through the streets not far from where Weiser’s body was found.

To think that a life could be snuffed out in the midst of all that activity is sobering. We’ve written before about the distressing lot of women, who must look over their shoulder’s in dark places. Although this particular incident represents a first for the University of Texas campus, it only punctuates the grim reality that women, in particular must always be on their guard.

Fenves read a particularly poignant statement from the Weiser family at Thursday’s press conference.

Although Haruka loved to perform on stage she never sought the spotlight in her daily life. Perhaps the last thing she would want it to be the poster child for any cause. And yet, as we struggle to understand why she was killed, if her death can somehow make it safer for a young woman to walk home, if it will prevent another assault or murder, then at least we could find some meaning behind an otherwise senseless and tragic death. … No parent, brother, sister or friend should have to face this kind of sadness, this kind of loss.

The Weiser’s family’s grief should be our own. Rest in peace, Haruka Juliana Tsunemine Weiser. Rest in peace.