Mayor Adler announces task force to attack institutional racism in Austin

Sarah Philips

Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced a task force on Wednesday that will explore ways the city can combat institutional racism within criminal justice, health, education, finance and housing. 

The task force will be lead by Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnett and Paul Cruz, Austin Independent School District superintendent. Adler said the land plan instituted in 1928 is an example of how city planning and institutions have supported institutional racism.

“We are responsible for remediating the enduring legacy of inequities that continue to flow from what was a pretty horrific plan,” Adler said. “That lives with us today as we are the most geographically segregated city in the country. We cannot add our power to past prejudice even if we are well-intentioned.”

Adler said the task force’s intention is not to discuss racism, but to provide an “action plan” for Austin by March 2017. Adler said he wants the task force to address more than the criminal justice system, which is at the center of the national debate. He wants discussion about how institutional racism affects opportunities in education, health, industry and finance, among others.

“We’re talking about institutional racism that is bigger than any one sector, it is all of those sectors,” Adler said. “It is our society.”

Pierce Burnette said the plan’s ability to create actual change will depend on people being willing to put in work. 

“This happens from individuals having the will to do the heavy lifting and hard work,” Pierce said. “Everyone in that room has the will. The timing is perfect in the nation. Whatever the catalysts are, the timing is perfect in the nation to move forward.”

Cruz said his school district is already implementing programs to examine the differentiation for students of color when it comes to issues like dropout rates, college graduation rates and suspensions. Cruz said reflecting on issues for people of color in the city helps AISD students even after they leave their public education.

“We have to take a look at our own system, making sure that we are providing these great opportunities for our kids,” Cruz said. “But after that, when they leave AISD I want to make sure those opportunities are still there for them.”

Adler said the creation of the task force has already created a “dust-up” because people are uncomfortable talking about race. 

“We’re talking about concepts that may be new to people and language that may be new to people,” Adler said. “Quite frankly, I hope that after this task force, those words will not cause the same kind of defensiveness.”

Adler said he wants the task force to create ideas that will shake up the community and the surprise the city. 

“I’m not interested in turning up the dial on the status quo,” Adler said. “I want to be shaken up. Don’t be afraid to make me uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to make the community uncomfortable. I’m not looking for easy here.”

Allie Runas, a spokesperson for the City Relations Agency of Student Government and electrical engineering sophomore, said officers believe the “mayor’s actions towards institutional racism will benefit Austin.” The task force will present their ideas to the mayor in March, after which the task force will be disbanded.