I had to kneel to tighten my shoelace before beginning my long-distance run from 120th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue toward Central Park North. From the sidewalk, I looked up at yet another new, partially completed high-rise apartment building sitting on top of the local bodega. The store’s yellow awning sheltered a group of men and women who routinely congregated to discuss the latest neighborhood news. Their home had always been Harlem, but new luxury apartments and increased rents were threatening their residency.
While running, I was encouraged by occasional chants from Black men and women who had just woken up on the metal benches they’d used as beds the night before.
“Get it, sista!”
“Go on, Black girl.”
I smiled and nodded, taking care to acknowledge their existence while building up a steady pace.
Gentrification loomed in Harlem’s air. The neighborhood was at war with the city’s new innovation plans, but its history and conglomeration of ethnicities was grounded in a strong and unmovable Black spirit. Harlem’s native residents’ roots were firmly planted. Public housing towered over the city while the Apollo Theater’s bright red lights pierced the crowds.
In a single day, I turned down hair-braiding requests from persistent West African women who stood on street corners, heard reggaetón blaring from apartment windows, saw local Blacks and Latinos walking to and from school in the latest sneakers, witnessed Senegalese men break from selling oils and incense to lay out mats that faced east in preparation for daily prayer, and watched white women hurry down the streets, eyes darting side to side, with rolled yoga mats strung across their backs. Young professional Black and Brown millennials like me were sprinkled among the bustling crowd, too.
The scene was beautiful, lively. Harlem was where I felt a sense of belonging.
Pondering a westward move
Three years into living and working in New York City, I learned I had been accepted into The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education Doctoral Program, which aligned with my professional goals. It was early February, and I had months to ponder the move.
“I’m thinking about moving to Austin,” I told my coworker Adam, who had lived there before relocating to New York as an adult.
Adam shared that he had grown up in East Austin as one of the few white people in a predominantly Black neighborhood and school. “Austin’s a cool place,” he said. “Weird, but cool.”
I was nervous; I had never lived in the south. Adam seemed to pick up on it.
“I’ve seen it change over the years,” he continued. “It’s not like most of Texas. It’s a — ” He paused to search for words. “It’s a blue dot in a red state.”
He went on to tell me that Austin was like no other city in Texas. He described it as “liberal.” My nervousness subsided.
It was the first time I had seen signs supporting Trump in person, and I was troubled by their ubiquity in this supposedly liberal place.
I spent the next few weeks researching the city online. It was 2016, and the thought of living and studying in Texas didn’t sit well with me given the racial and political tension arising around Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. I grew up in predominantly Black cities, with people whose experiences and beliefs mirrored mine. I had visited Houston, a reassuringly multicultural city, but I had never been to Austin. I wondered just how liberal a southern city could be.
My aunt sent me several articles to ease my worries. Their headlines included phrases like “Fastest-Growing City,” “Great Music,” and “Best Food.” My own search results, however, turned up different stories. I showed her pieces that contained the words “Black Exodus,” “African-American Declining Population,” and “Where are the Blacks in Austin?”
Blacks leaving a city? I was baffled.
“Does it matter?” my aunt asked. “You’ve lived around Black people your entire life. You Black and can’t nobody take that away from you! Your Black family will come and visit you.” She was convinced the racial makeup of a city should not be a determining factor in my decision.
So I moved.
‘Move out of the way, nigger!’
Seven months later, at the peak of the 2016 presidential campaign, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. My daily commute down congested Interstate 35 was jammed with pickup trucks plastered with Trump bumper stickers. It was the first time I had seen signs supporting Trump in person, and I was troubled by their ubiquity in this supposedly liberal place. I got chills as they zoomed by.
At 6:47 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9, I learned that Trump won the election. With eyes glued to my bedroom ceiling, my body lay motionless. I kept waiting to feel a sense of comfort in the softness of my bed. What would a Trump presidency mean for me, a Black woman in the south? What would it mean for my graduate studies? My teaching? Several of my students were Trump supporters. I was lucky enough to be enrolled in a program that took a critical stance on education and politics. I tried to find a sense of security in that.
Too mentally exhausted to work, I drove to the nearest fast-food restaurant. After parking in the adjacent lot, I walked along the sidewalk and prepared to cross the street. I stopped at an intersection before a long line of cars waiting to exit the strip mall parking lot. People were chanting and honking in celebration of Trump’s victory.
Several of my Black friends and colleagues agree that Austin does not feel like a blue dot in a red state. Instead, we are Blacks dots in a white sea.
I felt light-headed. I looked away and once I noticed the traffic had cleared, I crossed the street. As I was walking, a vehicle stopped at the intersection.
“Move out of the way, nigger!”
I looked to my right and saw a white man leaning out of the driver’s side of his black pickup truck. He was smiling. I pretended not to hear what he’d said. I thought blocking out his voice would help me make sure I wasn’t emotionally moved by his words. Also, was I hearing him correctly? Nigger? I am not naïve and I know racism exists everywhere, but I was dumbfounded that I had become the victim of flagrantly racist verbal hostility so soon after moving to my new, so-called liberal, home.
He waved in a forward motion, hurrying me across the street. Once I reached the other side — feeling somewhat safe in my proximity to the restaurant — he waved in a more triumphant fashion and shouted, “Woo-hoo! Trump! Trump! Woo!”
My heart dropped into my stomach.
This was the first of many racist experiences I would endure while living in Austin.
A brief racial history of Austin
Unlike gentrification in Harlem, the structure of Austin has historically kept racial groups segregated. In 1928, the Koch and Fowler city plan created the Negro District, the only area where Blacks could live, attend school, and receive public services. In the 1930s, with the launch of the New Deal, policymakers created more racial boundaries. Although generally designed to restore and increase household wealth during the Great Depression, programs like the National Housing Act of 1934 excluded minorities through a process known as redlining. In Austin, mortgages were not offered to redlined areas, such as the Negro District.
In 1940, the construction of Interstate 35—the same highway I use to commute to and from work—pushed Black and Latino populations to the east side of Austin. Deep-seated cultural and educational segregation followed. Today, gentrification threatens to move the small remaining Black population outside the city altogether.
Liberalism from the vantage point of Blackness
All of Austin’s luxuries — concerts, festivals, food trucks, artwork, and the tech scene—are tailored to (and mostly enjoyed by) its vast white population. Residents take pride in wearing a “liberal” badge. The label blinds them to the ways in which they enact racism, whether outright or covertly.
I spend most of my time studying and reading in Austin’s various coffee shops. The walls are covered in hipster art and the speakers issue hip-hop and ’90s R&B music, details that match the city’s progressive reputation. As I watch white people bop their beanie-wearing heads to the music while fervently typing on their MacBooks, I sense that something’s not right. The liberal vibe is disingenuous.
I wonder how a city can be defined as “liberal” when its gentrification practices strategically keep Black and Brown people on the outskirts.
It didn’t take long for me to discover the disconnect between other people’s descriptions of Austin and my own experience, particularly as a Black woman. The constant stares I’ve encountered when I’m the only Black person to walk into a coffee shop. The white women who quickly zip their bags when I walk past. The elderly white woman who rubbed what she termed my “beautiful black skin” while I stood in line to purchase groceries. Another white woman who, uninvited, ran her fingers through my braids. The gasps I heard when people discovered I was pursuing my doctorate. The white man who backed his SUV into my Black body while pulling out of a parking space and laughed instead of apologizing. (He later followed me around for 10 minutes before I finally went into the nearest store and called the police.)
I often wonder why my Black body shocks some Austinites. Shouldn’t they expect someone like me in this liberal space? Shouldn’t my presence be the norm? Yet my experiences are not unique. Several of my Black friends and colleagues agree that Austin does not feel like the blue dot in a red state that Adam described. Instead, we are Blacks dots in a white sea.
Our shared experience contrasts with that of the white millennials who navigate the city with ease and nonchalance while insisting they never want to leave. They grab drinks at the local bar, listen to live music, and enjoy Austin to the fullest. When Blacks enter the same spaces, we often endure stares that silently question our existence.
Who benefits from Austin’s liberal reputation?
During my first two years in Austin, I received frequent phone calls from family and friends who stayed abreast of the local news: affirmative action bake sales, campus protests, package bombings, and a white man shooting 19-year-old Devonte Ortiz after an argument about fireworks.
“How much longer, Lakeya? Could you have studied somewhere else?” My mother’s voice matched her concerned look during our FaceTime calls. Her persistent questions added to the weight I was already bearing. How could I explain that I had little time to grapple with the racial tension? Every day I was torn between addressing microaggressions and shoving them aside for the sake of keeping up with my rigorous academic schedule. I mostly chose the latter.
I wonder how a city can be defined as “liberal” when its history and policies strategically keep Black and Brown people on the outskirts — and its gentrification patterns exacerbate that reality. Austin’s design and structure do not allow people from various racial backgrounds to rub shoulders.
Liberalism goes beyond making verbal pronouncements and planting yard signs to showcase political stances. It manifests itself through political action. The blinding nature of white privilege allows some to believe Austin is progressive without considering how Blacks actually experience the city.
Our country is being led by an administration that uses fear-mongering and vicious propaganda to create and sustain racist ideologies. Although U.S. history shows that none of this is new, it is crucial to examine the dangers associated with calling a place “liberal.” These labels play a role in sustaining racial and economic oppression while extending bragging rights to the people who already benefit from white privilege.
Instead, we should ask ourselves: Is this city really liberal? If so, for whom?