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Black History Month: Texas Southern University Revisits "Invisible Houston" Three Decades Later

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The Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University kicks off Invisible Houston Revisited, an initiative that follows up Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust, a book I wrote nearly three decades ago that critically examined the major demographic, social, economic, and political factors that helped make Houston the "golden buckle" of the Sunbelt.

Call for Papers -- Summit and Book Project

The School of Public Affairs is now soliciting authors for commissioned papers for Invisible Houston Revisited, Three Decades Later Policy Summit to be held at Texas Southern University on November 7, 2013.  The one--day Summit is an interdisciplinary forum for scholars, researchers, practitioners, planners, educators, policy analysts, health professionals, elected officials, faith leaders and others from a wide array of professional fields who share an interest in policy actions needed to address social inequality in a holistic cross-disciplinary way. The Summit is co-sponsored by the Mickey Leland Center and the Barbara Jordan Institute for Policy Research.    

Houston is a different city today than it was three decades ago. The city's demographics and neighborhoods have undergone dramatic change.  Nowhere is this change more striking than in Houston historic Freedmen's Town-Fourth Ward, a neighborhood settled by newly freed slaves and their families.  Today, time is running out on the last full block of ten row houses in Freedmen's Town. The neighborhood is quickly being converted into lofts and condos.

The Summit seeks to shed light on a number of questions.  What is the state of Black Houston today? To what extent has Black Houston closed the economic and well-being gap with its white counterpart over the past three decades? How has Black-White inequality in Houston trended during boom and bust cycles? Now that Houston has regained its boom town status, the question remains, is Black Houston booming? Are Black Houstonians reaping comparable benefits from the city's economic growth? Are there structural impediments that block opportunity? What policy changes are needed to address current and emerging challenges facing Black Houston?  

Houston Then and Now

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States, and the largest city in the state of Texas. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city had a population of 2.09 million people of which 23.7 percent were African Americans. With 514,217 African Americans in 2010, Houston's black population was the largest of any city in the South and ranked fifth in size of all U.S. cities, behind New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

The city was described as "Boomtown USA" and the " Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt" in the 1970s, growing through tremendous in-migration of people and frequent annexation of outlying areas, and always boasting from city hall and the Houston Chamber of Commerce of its low-cost no-zoning, pro-business methods of operation. But in the shadow of the high-rise "petropolis" was another city, ignored by and invisible to Houston municipal boosters and the national media. Black Houston, the largest black community in the South, remained largely untouched by the benefits of the boom but bore many of the burdens. The economic downturn and oil bust era of the 1980s hit Black Houston especially hard.  

Invisible Houston chronicled the rise of Houston's black neighborhoods, the first of these being the settlement of emancipated slaves in Freedmen's Town, an area which later became the Fourth Ward. It tracked the expansion of the city's mostly African American neighborhoods in the 1950s, 1960s and during boom era of the 1970s and the dwindling economy and diminished government commitment to affirmative action in the 1980s.  It presented data on and discussed a wide range of social indicators of well-being such as health, education, employment, business and economic development and wealth creation, housing and home ownership, environmental quality, law enforcement, leadership, relating these issues to the larger ones of institutional racism, poverty, and politics. The book reported on the 1979 Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp. case, the nation's first lawsuit to use civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination and one of the earliest environmental racism case studies in the United States.

Over the past several decades, Black Enterprise has consistently tagged Houston as one of its "Top 10 Cities for African Americans," coming in first in 2001, fifth in 2004 and fourth in 2007 (the last year ranking compiled), just behind Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Raleigh. Houston largely escaped the Great Recession of 2010. In 2011, Forbes declared Houston a boom town again. The city chalked up an impressive list of number one ratings and rankings on economic development in 2012, including cities where a paycheck stretches the farthest (Forbes ), cities with fastest growing wages in the U.S. ( Business Insiders), top U.S. manufacturing cities (Houston Business Journal), top destination city (U-Haul International), fastest growing millionaires city in the U.S. (Forbes).  

A recent Manhattan Institute for Policy Research report found racial segregation in the U.S. has declined over the past century.   Of the top 10 metropolitan areas, Houston and Dallas were the least segregated in 2010.   However, a 2012 Pew Research Center study found residential segregation by income increased over the past three decades in the nation's 27 largest metropolitan areas, with the greatest increase occurring in Houston. These increases are linked to long-term rise in income inequality and the shrinkage in the share of predominately middle-class neighborhoods.  For example, 37 percent of the lower-income households in the Houston metropolitan area are situated in a majority lower--income census tract, compared with 26 percent of the households in the Atlanta area. Only New York and Philadelphia metro areas have a larger share of its poor households concentrated in low-income census tracts.

The Houston metro area led the nation in its share of upper-income households residing in majority upper-income census tract at 24 percent.   Overall, the Houston metro area Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) of 61 topped the nation's ten largest metro areas, compares with a score of 60 in Dallas, 57 in New York, and 51 in Philadelphia. The RISI for a metropolitan region is computed by adding the share of low-income residents of that area who live in a majority low-income census tract to the share of upper-income residents who live in a majority upper-income census tract. Houston also experienced the greatest residential income inequality over the past three decades, with a RISI of 31 in 1980 and 61 in 2010, a 29 point change.

For more information on the "Call for Papers," Policy Summit and Book Project click HERE.

Robert D. Bullard is Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers (more...)
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