After bombings, uncomfortable truths emerge about racial divides in Austin
People often use a shorthand to describe Austin: It's weird; it’s a progressive city; it’s a blueberry in a sea of tomato soup. But a sort of alternate reality exists for many residents of color. There have been moments over the past month that have highlighted this racial divide.
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In the days after the Austin bombings, Jesus Valles couldn’t stop thoughts from buzzing around like bees in his head. He made sense of his feelings the best way he knew how: He sat down at his computer and began to write a public Facebook post about Austin.
“Austin is an exhausting place where racism smiles at you and does yoga and is a kind teacher and is such a good actor and is just trying to help you and just wants to know why you’re so upset,” Valles wrote.
Valles is a teacher by day. He’s also a writer and a performer. His Facebook post has been liked by more than 8,000 users and shared by more than 4,000. The comments are filled with people saying things like “You could be describing my city” and “I’m so sorry you feel this way.”
Valles says he has also been getting hateful responses from white supremacists, which he was expecting. But more than anything, his words have touched on certain truths for many Austin residents of color.
“What’s been fascinating is that the people who’ve been most viscerally responsive to it in a negative way have almost entirely been people who I think would see themselves as left-leaning or liberal,” Valles says. “And I think it’s because the idea is that a specific political orientation absolves you from racism, and that is not the case.”
When we talk about Austin, there’s a sort of shorthand that often gets used: It’s weird; it’s a progressive city; it’s a blueberry in a sea of tomato soup. But Valles’ words gave shape to a sort of alternate reality that exists for many residents of color – and it made some people angry.
There have been moments over the past month that have highlighted this racial divide. The first package bomb exploded on March 2, killing Anthony Stephan House, a 39-year-old African-American man. At the time, police were working with a theory that the attack was related to a drug raid they’d conducted at a house down the street. They also questioned whether House may have in some way been responsible for his own death, an idea that offended many residents of color.
Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley later offered an explanation for those theories at a press conference.
“What we had was a singular event that had taken place in this community that was very unique,” he said. “We had no information to believe that it was related to a larger plan at that time.”
The first three package bombings all took place east of I-35, injuring and killing people of color. The attacker’s approach changed with the fourth bombing, which didn’t appear to have a specific target. It was set off by a tripwire in a residential neighborhood in Southwest Austin and injured two white men. Two more package bombs were shipped through FedEx facilities. Some observers took that change to conclude the attacks weren't racist; they were random.
“There’s a sense that this really isn’t part of who we are,” says Eric Tang, associate professor of African American and Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “This isn’t really part of our history, and that comes across at times as a disavowal of history or a kind of evasion of historical truth.”
For years, Tang has been studying why many African-American residents are leaving Austin, either by choice or because of financial pressures. He has also looked at why some East Austin residents choose to stay.
“They stayed because they were resilient, and they want to continue to hold on to that sense of community despite having been segregated there to begin with, followed by rapid displacement of their communities owing to gentrification," Tang says. "And what they feel is that very few people in this city acknowledge that history. So this is the context in which three package bombs go off in East Austin.”
Tang says the public shouldn’t ignore why the attacks have felt like terror for many people of color.
“For those who have more than just a passing sense of U.S. history, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear a bomb has gone off in a Southern city?” he says. “The first four victims were all people of color. Again, if you have more than a passing knowledge of U.S. history, you understand that this resonates with a history of racial terror.”
That feeling of terror didn’t dissipate when the confessed bomber killed himself or when authorities said his recorded confession didn’t identify race as a motive.
Austin native Sheldon Lamey has called Pflugerville home for almost 11 years. The 41-year-old says he was drawn to the city in part by a lower cost of living. He also says he appreciates the community he’s found there.
“Better schools and also more black businesses I could patronize out here,” says Lamey, the president of Pflugerville Black Business Builders. “Don’t get me wrong – I patronize all businesses, but I’m just saying, more community involvement, more cultural awareness and everything out here in Pflugerville.”
In the wake of the bombings, Lamey says people feel unnerved, especially after learning the attacker lived in Pflugerville. He says the language used to talk about these attacks – in particular, not officially labeling the bomber a terrorist – has been frustrating.
“When you terrorize the whole city, there’s no other word but to call it terrorism, because everybody was scared,” Lamey says. “I had one friend that said her son was scared to go to school because he was scared that a package bomb might show up to the school and everything. That was here in Pflugerville, so it was a terrorist act.”
Lamey says he and other residents are trying to focus on keeping their communities safe. They’re banding together neighborhood watch groups and holding self-defense classes.
“We can’t take it for granted that this won’t happen again,” he says, “so we’ve got to be proactive instead of reactive.”
In Central East Austin, Jane Rivera and her husband, Gilbert, have been trying to process some of the same feelings.
“It appeared that these were very personal attacks directed to people’s homes in communities of color,” Jane Rivera says. “We’re very outspoken in support of the community. Who knows? We might be next, and that’s how all of us were feeling – very threatened.”
The Riveras have owned their home in Rosewood since the 1980s. Gilbert Rivera is president of the local neighborhood association. He says the bombings no longer dominate their conversations, but the attacks have heightened another kind of pressure that’s a constant part of their life in Austin.
“Every single day, we get phone calls,” he says. “We get letters in the mail. We get people knocking on our doors, telling us it is time for us to move out, and we are in constant fear of losing our home because of gentrification.”
Rivera says having a bomber appear to target his community adds to the feeling of not being welcome in Austin. These days, he keeps coming back to the same question: Where will he go if he has to leave?
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