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Staying Power: DDCE faculty fellow seeks community support for East Austin’s longtime African American residents

Eric Tang
Dr. Eric Tang presents his research at a community dialogue.
Dr. Eric Tang presents his research at a community dialogue.

Austin, one of our nation’s fastest growing cities, is losing its African American population – decreasing from approximately 15 percent to less than 10 percent from 2000 to 2010. This data sets Austin apart from its growth-city peers as it is the only city with general population growth and African American population decline.

This was not the conclusion, Dr. Eric Tang, DDCE faculty fellow and professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, expected when he began his groundbreaking research, which was published in a 2014 Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis policy report.

Intrigued by the data, Tang wanted to know the reasons why the predominantly Black communities in Austin had changed so rapidly, but quickly discovered there was no qualitative data available to answer his questions. Over the past two years, he has conducted more than 150 surveys with current and former East Austin residents to find answers.

Findings from the first phase of his research shows that as gentrification continues in East Austin, residents who have stayed have faced higher property taxes without any tangible benefits such as improved infrastructure or lower crime rates.

So why did they stay? According to Tang, it is because their sense of belonging to the community can’t be calculated.

“Rootedness doesn’t conform to what economists call rationality,” Tang said at a Longhorn Center for Community Engagement event late last year.

Since September, Tang has been working on the second phase of his study, conducting surveys with those East Austin residents, mostly African American, who have left and relocated to outlying Austin suburbs such as Pflugerville, Round Rock, Manor and Elgin. He seeks answers to whether their quality of life has improved, worsened or remained the same since leaving Austin.

Tang hopes his work will lead to greater community involvement and support for those who have stayed.

“We can’t stop the market from doing what it’s doing,” says Tang, who directs the Social Justice Institute in the Community Engagement Center, which brings together faculty, staff, students and community members on social justice-oriented projects and dialogues. “But those who stay are alone to figure out how to survive their situation and no one else is thinking about it with them, and I find this to be the tragic element revealed by the research.”