Commentary: Why East Austin article inflamed, hurt Latinos and African Americans

For more than 50 years, East Austin was a neighborhood, home to the overwhelming majority of Austin’s African American and Latino families. Schools, community newspaper offices, barbecue and taco joints, beauty and barber shops, clubs, Mexican restaurants and storefronts that sold everything from hair supplies to groceries, filled out neighborhoods with brick and wood-frame homes, libraries, public housing and shot-gun shacks. And goodness knows, there were churches on nearly every other corner.

East Austin had its problems with crack houses, drug markets and other crime as the city and police department looked the other way and steered resources west to prevent crime and vice from crossing Interstate 35. Nonetheless East Austin was home to vibrant neighborhoods with people who looked out for one another, held block parties and crowded into churches and parks on weekends.

I know because I moved there in the late 1980s as a single parent with my children. Though I have moved north, I still attend church in East Austin.

But you wouldn’t know that East Austin, given the description in a advertorial neighborhood profile appearing in the Homes supplemental advertising sections in Saturday’s print Austin American-Statesman:

“A decade ago Austinites would rarely dare to venture to the east side of the I H 35 corridor. Though the city has never been home to truly seedy or sinister areas, going east of the highway prior to the mass gentrification of downtown was not advised. However, now that the neighborhood has been purchased by California investors and trendy millennial homeowners, East Downtown is one of the city’s most desirable locales.”

With that, another knife was plunged into an open wound. It’s no wonder social media blew up with criticism:

“Dear Austin American-Statesman: You need to do A LOT better than this. I know you’ve had staff reductions but surely someone there knows that following the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, by law Blacks and Mexican-Americans were forced east across what is now the I-35 corridor. There have been families and businesses there long before it was “East Downtown.”

That was posted by A.J. Bingham, founder and principal at The Bingham Group, an Austin-based government and public affairs consultancy.

Such advertorial or “content marketing” articles are commonly published by newspapers in advertising supplements such as the Statesman’s Homes section. In some cases, the articles are paid by a specific advertiser, such as by a subdivision looking to sell homes. In this case, it was one of a series of neighborhood profiles in the Homes section and not tied to a specific advertiser. To keep the editorial and advertising efforts independent, advertising supplements are run by the advertising department, while news and editorial coverage is handled by the editors and reporters in the newsroom.

Regardless of how it came to be, the newspaper apologized for the article via social media on Saturday night and in print on Monday.

I can’t speak to the creation of this particular advertorial, but I can speak to why such words cut so deep.

It starts with understanding the city’s history and its part in displacing people of color with policies, such as the city’s infamous 1928 zoning initiative referenced by Bingham that moved African Americans out of neighborhoods, such as Bouldin Creek, Wheatsville and Clarksville, as well as the Sixth Street business district by essentially forcing them to move east of I-35, mostly north of Lady Bird Lake.

That was enforced by denying black people city services, such as utilities, unless they lived in East Austin, and imposing restrictive covenants to ban them from other neighborhoods.

Redlining and other similar discriminatory policies also led to barrios for Hispanic families.

In the past two decades as Austin’s growth exploded, East Austin suddenly became valuable real estate because of its proximity to downtown, walking distance to the Capitol, downtown hotels, bars, shops and businesses.

So the city and its powerbrokers, helped by local and out-of-state developers, turned their sights on East Austin, moving swiftly to buy out landowners and build new houses, businesses and condos, forcing out out many longtime residents who could no longer afford skyrocketing property taxes.

Many properties that owed back taxes were sold on the courthouse steps for far less than their market value. Other homeowners,  unknowing of the city’s and developers’ plan to create “East Downtown,” sold out — tired of living in an area neglected by the city, Austin school district and business leaders. In selling out, they aimed to give their families a better life in neighborhoods with better schools, parks and city services.

Ironically, the old Johnston High School campus, now Eastside Memorial High School, a predominantly Hispanic and low-income school, is slated to house the mostly white and affluent Liberal Arts and Science Academy if the school district’s $1.04 billion bond election is approved by voters in November.

Gentrification — or the second mass displacement of Austin’s people of color — has been in full swing for about two decades with much success. Many community leaders now are trying to save what little they can of East Austin as mass media continue to erase and rewrite the history of Austin’s black and Hispanic residents.

The Statesman’s advertorial inflamed those conflicts and deepened the hurt of people facing a white-out of their culture and history in this city.

And for the record, it’s not “East Downtown” or “The East End.” It’s East Austin.

 

Note: This blog was updated  to correct the date the advertorial ran in print.

The trouble with Trump’s bragging

*** BESTPIX *** *** BESTPIX *** President Trump Leads a Cabinet Meeting *** BESTPIX ***
President Donald Trump attends a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House June 12. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Some of the worst advice I ever got came from my father.

Sure, he meant well when he told me not to brag; that my deeds and accomplishments would speak for me. But then I got older and I realized much to my surprise and dismay that my peers were strutting around like roosters on steroids. In classrooms, on job applications and resumes, networking, you name it. And this was before Facebook, a time-sucking invention created for taking navel-gazing and self-promotion to extremes.

Anyway, President Trump obviously never got advice from my father.

On Monday, with cameras rolling, Trump preened before his Cabinet and crowed about his record in office, pronouncing that he had achieved, as he put it, tremendous success.

“I will say that never has there been a president — with few exceptions; in the case of FDR, he had a major Depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done, between the executive orders and the job-killing regulations that have been terminated,” Trump said. “Many bills; I guess over 34 bills that Congress signed. A Supreme Court justice who’s going to be a great one.”

The trouble with bragging – never mind that it can betray a bit of insecurity — is that it invites scrutiny. On your performance review at your workplace, for example, you might write, “I’ve achieved tremendous success this year.” Your supervisor might wish to reply, “In what universe?”

In Trump’s case, journalists took on the task of examining the facts. The Associated Press, for example, knocked down the president’s claims with blunt and swift precision, the way a guillotine would slice through a watermelon.

The AP said: “(Trump) has little to show for his first five months in office, in concrete ways, other than the confirmation of a justice.”

The news organization’s fact check went on to note that Presidents Obama and George W. Bush accomplished more in their early months. In his first month, Obama signed a $787 billion stimulus package into law, and by this point in his administration, Bush had signed a major tax cut. Trump’s promised tax overhaul has yet to even reach Congress. Courts have ruled his travel ban doesn’t pass legal muster. And his promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is stalled in a Republican-dominated Congress.

The AP went on to say:

“Trump has achieved no major legislation. The bills he is counting up are little more than housekeeping measures — things like naming a courthouse and a VA health care center, appointing board of regents members, reauthorizing previous legislation. He has indeed been vigorous in signing executive orders, but in the main they have far less consequence than legislation requiring congressional passage.”

The AP fact-checked other Trump claims, including that his recent trip overseas resulted in deals for more than $350 billion in economic investment in the U.S. that will create thousands of jobs in this country. According to the AP, agreements on those deals in large part haven’t been signed yet and could be eliminated, and the president’s claim about new jobs relies on 20- to 30-year projections.

The president, of course, is famous for crying “fake news” when the news is unflattering or when the facts don’t suit his purposes, and he did so again the following day, tweeting: “The Fake News Media has never been so wrong or so dirty. Purposely incorrect stories and phony sources to meet their agenda of hate. Sad!”

Was he reacting to the AP’s fact check? Trump didn’t specify what he was angry about this time, but it’s a safe bet that he galvanized his supporters once more with those two words: fake news.

My father’s advice about never bragging sprang from his wish that I stay humble and stay hungry. It is some of the worst advice I ever got and it is some of the best advice I ever got. (Here’s to you, Papo. Happy Father’s Day.)

The president never heard my father’s lesson about humility. No, clearly he ascribes to the old saying, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.” (By the way, isn’t that exactly what bragging is?)

But what is it when you brag and you haven’t done it?

Trump’s order a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’

President Trump Visits Snap-On Tools In Kenosha, WisconsinCall it a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Harkening back to a cornerstone of his campaign, President Trump this week signed a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that tightens rules under which visas are awarded to skilled foreign workers.

The order also directs the federal government to prioritize buying American-made goods and hiring American firms for federal projects.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure more products are stamped with those wonderful words ‘Made in the USA,’ ” Trump said during a visit to a tool manufacturer in Wisconsin, with wrenches forming a U.S. flag as his backdrop. “For too long we’ve watched as our factories have been closed and our jobs have been sent to faraway lands.”

On the campaign trail, as he did in his Wisconsin stop, Trump made buying American-made goods and hiring American workers a signature theme, one that played very well with blue-collar audiences.

That was Trump, the candidate. Trump, the billionaire businessman, however, was a different story.

As The Washington Post put it, “(Trump’s) business practices often contradicted his political rhetoric. Parts of his clothing line were manufactured abroad and he hired foreign workers at many of his properties.”

Trump may want the federal government and American firms to “buy American” and “hire American,” but he doesn’t always do that himself. Many of his products are made outside the U.S., and the use of undocumented immigrants to build Trump Tower became a flashpoint of one of the presidential debates, an accusation by Hillary Clinton that the Politifact organization rated as “True.” Trump also uses the H-2B visa program to hire foreign workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The order Trump signed this week calls for federal crackdowns on fraud in another visa program, H-1B.

The order is intended to discourage use of foreign labor, which the White House argues puts Americans out of jobs and drives down wages.

That prompted a swift response from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which said H-1B visas have a positive impact on wages because workers earn higher average wages than Americans in similar jobs.

The immigration lawyers group said the H-1B is expensive enough that most American employers use it only when they can’t find qualified U.S. workers to fill jobs.

Trump’s order, AILA said, won’t have an immediate impact on the visa program because it will require legislative rule changes first.