The Souls of Austin

By Robert Jensen

Published in The End of Austin · May, 2013

TEOA asked Robert Jensen, “How does a rapidly changing city avoid losing its soul?” Here is his response:

The question presumes that Austin has a soul. I’m skeptical, for several reasons.

First, there is no single “soul” of Austin; we should be talking about the “souls” of Austin. In our segregated city, that should start along racial/ethnic lines. Are the black and brown communities in Austin losing their souls? I have impressions, based on limited information, but I lack standing to speak to that question.

Is white Austin losing its soul? I’m white, and I would question whether Austin has a soul to lose. I’m using the term “soul” in a moral, not a cultural, sense. I’m not much interested in what people think is hip; my focus is on social and economic justice. For white Austin to claim to have a soul, it would have to come to terms with its history of white supremacy and the contemporary manifestations, and then take active, ongoing steps to dismantle that system. In my 21 years in Austin, I have seen no evidence that white Austin, as a community, has any interest in that project. Gentrifying close-in East Austin’s housing stock and venturing over to overpriced restaurants east of the interstate is not resistance to white supremacy but a deepening of it. Token non-white representation in white-defined and -dominated institutions is just that, tokenism.

It’s true that Austin has a vibrant cultural scene, especially in music and film/video. It’s true that Austin’s politics are less reactionary than Dallas’. Austin is no doubt a more environmentally friendly city than Galveston. But if those claims are the best we can do in defending our soulfulness, we are setting the bar a bit too low.

Austin is in many ways a very livable city. I like my job at the University of Texas, and I find meaning by working in progressive/radical political groups, where I meet many soulful people fighting for immigrant rights, economic justice, and ecological sustainability. But those people live on the fringe of white Austin. They don’t fret about keeping Austin weird; they would like to make Austin more just.

Lots of smug, self-indulgent liberals in Austin decry changes in the city as it becomes larger and more business-oriented, with more open flaunting of wealth and depraved events such as Formula One racing. But we should not confuse this critique with a serious commitment to the critical self-reflection that is needed to save our souls.