Today, five of its seven members, including the mayor, live downtown or in West or Central Austin. The question is how increasing diversity in political representation will eventually make Austin a more genuinely multicultural city. Yet still I was dragging my feet, which many Austinites found offensive ever tried arguing with one about the superiority of any other place?
The west side of I was mostly white.
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Finally in November, 60 percent of voters approved a plan known asfor the ten districts it will create citywide. As for Latinos, when the plan goes into effect inthey will probably net one or two more seats.
Austin had tried and failed six times to pass a single-member-district ballot initiative. Those other Texas cities had their own racial and class problems, sure, but they all had vibrant Latino communities, and they were cities where I could experience myself as both a Tejana and a Texan, an American who was Latina.
The roots of this system are shameful. This legal remedy emerged throughout the country in the seventies. For years Austin has held the dubious distinction of being the only major city in the country clinging to an outmoded model of elective representation that all but ensured its racial exclusivity would persist. Bymost black Austinites were living between Seventh and Twelfth streets, while the growing Mexican American population was consolidating just south of that. The few have been governing the many. Not until twenty years later, inwas an African American elected to the council, followed by the first Latino in Though nothing prevented minority candidates from running for another place, they generally complied with the rule, since to do otherwise would disrupt the system, making victory unlikely.
I had to ask myself, In a city where Hispanics made up over a third of the residents, why were they so hard to find? I also felt persistently overdressed. Single-member districts have been especially effective at overcoming historic segregation in cities with similarities to Austin, where the system was specifically deed to weaken the voting strength of minorities.
Because levels of voter participation, not to mention money, are unequal from neighborhood to neighborhood, this has perpetuated a serious imbalance in who holds and influences power. A long-standing east-west geographic rift shapes race and class relations in the capital to this day. Not suffering the same segregationist legacies as blacks and Latinos, they are more spread out across the city, making it difficult to guarantee direct representation.
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Once, I showed up at a beautiful Hill Country ranch wedding in a long summer dress and stilettos when all the women were in knee-length frocks and sandals or wedge shoes they could manage the rocky grounds in. Austin prides itself on its cultural liberalism and sophistication, but given the invisibility of Latinos, it irked me that the city was obsessed with Latin American culture. For forty years, local activists have pushed to fix the disparity by moving to a system of single-member districts. The country? It was from them I learned about the great Austin divide and began to understand why I rarely saw any Latinos or blacks.
But maybe things are changing. Perhaps the biggest case to make for single-member districts in Austin is that they will lead to geographic diversity on the council.
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Politics is one thing; the next step is getting citizens from different backgrounds to know one another, to eat in the same restaurants, to move through the same spaces. Racial zoning was unconstitutional, but this policy accomplished the same thing. This was where they came to work, and they literally kept their he down while they did so.
A series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions compelled city and state governments to draw up districts with non-white majorities, which would ensure they could elect to office one of their own. A different problem affects Asian Americans, who now make up 6 percent of residents.
She seemed as out of place there as a gal in stilettos at a Hill Country wedding, but she was beaming, unencumbered, and she made me smile. Untilthe system was straightforward: the top five vote-getters on a single ballot would become council members and select the mayor themselves. For some reason, the area felt to me closer in spirit to the rest of Texas.
But whether single-member districts are fully the answer remains to be seen. I bought a condo in southwest Austin, in a neighborhood with a nice mix of natives and newcomers. I sorely missed this sight when I moved to Austin, this visibility and celebration of cultural difference. The development was still under construction when I moved in, and a crew of strictly Mexican workers was a ubiquitous presence during the first months I lived there. They have far less impact in cities where ethnic groups are dispersed or where they represent a sizable portion of overall voters. By and large this fix has worked.
When I moved to Austin in the fall of to teach at the University of Texas, I was the envy of nearly everyone I knew. By contrast, sometimes when I had lunch with my editor in downtown Austin I noticed I was the only non-white patron in the restaurant.
African Americans face a special challenge: they have been moving out of Austin entirely, making it harder to carve out an electoral district that will guarantee their representation. Sincemembers of the city council have been elected on an at-large basis, which means that residents vote for individuals to represent the city as a whole, not their own neighborhoods. Quite possibly the earth?!