Equity Doesnt Mean Extra

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February 11, 2020

Critical Commentary

The top image in this combination is the “go to” slide for the City when they introduce their conception of equity. I brought this image up during an interview with Kenneth Thompson, one of my interlocutors. Kenneth associated it with the national, hegemonic discourse of the city that excludes the vernacular discourses taking place in the homes of black families. “Right, like I need help, right, and so who does that really make feel better about that, right? … when they put that thing together, they probably thought, it looks good and it probably gave them the responses they thought they was gonna get. But if they did go out and add more people and add some deliberative thought to those things, right, then perhaps someone’d say, ‘Hey man, wait a minute, you’re makin me feel like I’m in need all the time.’”

In Kenneth’s words, Austin is a very “liberal” place, but not a “progressive” place. The distinction here is that a “liberal” place can utilize control over the public discourse to rationalize and get away with whatever agenda they have. A “progressive” place, by contrast, considers the consequences of development and policy actions for all involved parties, including the meanings and the values communicated through those actions. In Austin, the City’s actions continually do not align with its national discourse. Furthermore, the discourse does not align with the lived experiences of many of Austin’s black and brown residents. This is one way of saying that, although Austin’s white and non-white populations simultaneously inhabit the same “space,” they live in and experience the city as very different "places."

Austin’s white population relates to the relationship between the ontological and discursive space of Austin in a way that does not upset the hegemonic discourse about the city. That is, it does not cause or incite Third Order Learning, or a change in their expectations for the way their city is or should be structured (Bateson 1987). Even the self-referential critique of Austin’s history, which is included in the text embedded in the image, feeds into this hegemonic perception of Austin as a socially just and progressive place.

Being born and raised in a poor neighborhood in East Austin, Kenneth was in one of the first groups of Austin’s black residents to be relocated to the “projects” in North Austin. In his words, this effectively deprived him and other low-income children of access to numerous resources, including local black teachers and role models. “See there was no longer no teachers there, there was no longer no doctors there, there was no longer no one that you could go and talk to that can give you a different perspective on life. … That’s part of the economic injustice, and part of the environmental injustice that you have to deal with also. And so, to some degree, what that also caused was early death. I mean, I’m 58 years old and I bet I can name you 30 people that I grew up with, that died before 30 years old. That’s not something that everybody can do, and that’s not something that everybody should be able to do. But when you think about the disparities, that’s what disparities lead to.”

Listening to stories like Kenneth’s helps to illustrate how this sort of superficially progressive image actually participates in the erasure and exclusion of black experiences. It does so in the following ways: 1) this visualization seems to suggest that black people need “more” assistance to create an even playing field, rather than simply taking away or offsetting the present and historical structural barriers to self-determination; 2) the metaphor of height (a “natural” difference in ability) is unfit to represent these structural disparities in the quality of life between Austin’s black and white population; and 3) it is simply inappropriate to represent disparities that result from life-course changing, structural violence with primary colored boxes, apples, and stick figures.

The second image, by contrast, suggests that the City has and continues to actively participate in preventing racial equity. Thus, it gets at some of the difference between Austin’s progressive discourse and it’s liberal reality. It also gets rid of “height” as a metaphor for inequality and replaces it with symbols of physical (arm restraints) and legal (“Whites Only”) barriers imposed by the City.

What becomes apparent when you talk with Austin’s local black and brown populations is that they do have a dissonant relation to the relationship between Austin’s discursive and ontological space, and this has caused a change in their expectations (i.e. Third Order learning). As with all Third-Order learning, this change in expectation has the potential to be beneficial or deleterious, tonic or toxic.

This attempt to make Austin residents feel good and maintain the city’s progressive reputation may seem quite reasonable, but the dissonance between that representation and the situation of its black population has detrimental effects on the psycho-social dynamics of local black families. It presents young black folk with a double bind. They are being excluded from a conversation about inclusivity. “Two things happen, we start to feel like, first of all, that our voice doesn’t exist, right? And then you start trying to figure out, to some degree, why should you get involved? Why should you get involved when it appears that those who should be the architects of fairness, right, are still imbalanced with their media and with their messages?”

Kenneth went on to argue that it takes a special skill to survive in Austin as a black person, one that reflects a certain positive form of Third Order learning. You have to become good at taking in the bullshit, digesting it, and making it into something you can use to improve the situation for yourself and your family. In other words, you have to be able to record and describe your experiences of the differential between Austin’s discursive and the ontological space and use it to convince the city that your input will be an essential factor in the redefinition of Austin as an inclusive cultural place. Which is obviously a very difficult skill to cultivate. 

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