Those Who Left

“Those Who Left:” On Austin’s Declining African-American Population

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Surveying Those Who Left

This report presents the results of surveys conducted with 100 African Americans respondents who moved out of the city of Austin between 1999 (the year the 2000 census was taken) and the present. These respondents relocated to nearby cities, specifically to Round Rock, Pflugerville, Del Valle, Bastrop, Elgin and Manor, yet all of them maintain close ties to family, friends, businesses and places of worship located within the city of Austin. Indeed, the majority of the surveys were conducted at one of three historic African American churches located within Austin’s erstwhile “Negro District.” These included Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church; St. James Missionary Baptist Church; and David Chapel. Approximately 10 percent of the surveys were conducted at St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Pflugerville. 

With the assistance of leaders from each of these churches, the survey team was able to identify respondents among congregants who now live outside the city limits yet return to East Austin to attend services. 

Key Findings

-    ‘Black flight” is a myth. The data reveal that African Americans did not choose to move out of Austin to take advantage of new opportunities that awaited them in the suburbs. They left because of growing inequalities they faced within the city of Austin. 

-    The majority of all respondents—56 percent—stated that they moved out of Austin because the cost of living within the city limits, particularly residential housing prices, was unaffordable. “Unaffordable housing” was the leading reason respondents gave for why they moved out of Austin. 

-    Twenty-four percent of all respondents claimed that they moved out of Austin because they were dissatisfied with the quality of education their children were receiving in East Austin public schools, which are among the most segregated in the city. These respondents believed their children would receive a better education if they went to school districts outside of Austin. “Better schools” was the second leading reason respondents gave for why they moved out of Austin.

-    Compounding the discrimination they faced in the housing market and schools, and additional 16 percent of all respondents claimed that they also moved out because of the institutional racism they experienced in Austin.  They described Austin as “unwelcoming” to African Americans.

-    On average, respondents claimed that they had better access to health clinics, grocery stores and quality restaurants, as well as public amenities such as parks and swimming pools, when they lived within the city of Austin compared to their access to these things within their current residential areas. However, their answers skewed sharply depending on whether they moved north or east of the city. 

-    The majority of all respondents claimed that their relationships with neighbors were stronger when they lived in the city of Austin compared to their relationships with their current neighbors in residential areas outside of Austin. 

-    The majority of respondents claimed that their relationship with the police is more positive in their current residencies outside of Austin compared to their past relationships with Austin police. 

-    On average, 43 percent of all respondents said they would move back to Austin under the right conditions. Thirty-seven percent said they would not move back under any circumstances. (Those who answered “maybe” account for the balance). 

-    On average 45 percent of all respondents identified strongly with the statement “I was pushed out of Austin.” However, this percentage climbed to 57 percent for those who moved out between 1999 and 2009—the decade in which Austin experienced an absolute numerical decline in African Americans. 

Summary Analysis

The majority of African Americans who left the city were “pushed out” by structural inequalities they faced in Austin. They were not “pulled away” by new opportunities and the prospects of a better quality of life in the suburbs. Once in the suburbs, they had diminished access to health services, supermarkets and public amenities—this is especially true for those who moved east where the suburbanization of poverty is more prevalent. Those who moved away also experienced the loss of vital community networks which had sustained them for generations in Austin. In sum, African Americans “moved out, but not up.” Their experiences in the suburbs runs completely contrary to “white flight:” the mass migration of white middle-class families from the cities to the suburbs during the mid-twentieth century. “Black flight” is a myth. 

When asked if they would return to live in Austin if it were affordable, more respondent answered “yes” than answered “no.” However, the prospects of their return appear unlikely as housing prices in Austin continue to soar, particularly in East Austin. As gentrification draws higher incomes and new wealth into East Austin it simultaneously pushes out poverty and lower incomes to the suburbs, thus contributing to Austin’s status as the most economically segregated metro area in the country. The outmigration of African Americans illustrates the profound racial dimensions of this economic segregation.