Shutting the doors on Blacks

April 22, 2009

WHEN IS a mall closing early a "slap in the face" to Austin's black community? When that closing is in reaction to the annual Texas Relays, a track-and-field event in Austin which brings thousands of African-American athletes into the city to compete.

On April 4, the Saturday of the Relays, Highland Mall closed its doors early, citing security concerns. Highland Mall has long been one of the few social outlets for the Black community in Austin, and the early closing was justifiably seen as racially motivated.

And Highland Mall wasn't the only business that closed its doors during the Relays. A few bars closed for the weekend because of the "craziness downtown." The owner of Flamingo Cantina claimed, "It seems like it's a big gun party in the streets."

A protest was called by the NAACP for the following Saturday to challenge the implicit racism of the mall's owners. More than 300 people, mostly African Americans, showed up early in the morning to hold signs and demand respect from Highland Mall and Austin at large.

Many signs were passed out, reading "Shame on Austin." Gary Bledsoe, state president of the NAACP, said that the message sent by Highland Mall to African Americans was, "You're a second class citizen. We will judge you by fear, and not reality." One man carried a sign that said, "Jim Crow Still Lives."

Amber Turner, a graduate student at the University of Texas, pointed out the larger underlying current of racism:

If the protest and boycott [of Highland Mall] are economically impactful for the mall and the long-term consequences are to contribute to the closing of one of few social settings and entertainment outlets for Blacks in Austin...then where is the alternative, readily accessible place for people of color in Austin to shop and hang out?

This begs the question: Why are there so few places for blacks to socialize in Austin? And when there is a place, like Highland Mall, why does it view its patrons so poorly?

In a mass exodus, many of Highland's stores have been leaving the mall, describing it as a "ghost town." Dillard's has threatened to sue Highland Mall over what it describes as a "poor tenant mix" that is inconsistent with a first-class shopping center. The mall's "demographics changed significantly," states Dillard's, obviously unconcerned that its language smacks of racism when it implies that Black shoppers are undeserving of the "first-class shopping" that can be found at its store.

After the historic election of the nation's first Black president, the type of racism exhibited in Austin is seen as even more disgraceful than it used to be. The protest against Highland Mall was a good first step, but an anti-racist movement must be built to keep up the pressure against racist businesses, and to show that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated.

Wishing to show what she was fighting for, one woman at the Highland Mall protest pointed out two girls--one white, one Black--coloring together on a large poster. "This is the future," she said. "This is why we're out here."
Nate Hensley, Austin, Texas

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