OPINION
03/16/2018 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2018

Package Bombings Reveal The Racist Underbelly Of Austin

Sergio Flores / Reuters
Interim police Chief Brian Manley speaks during a news conference near the scene where a woman was injured in a package bomb explosion in Austin, Texas, on March 12.

When people think about March in Austin, Texas, they probably think about tacos, brisket, listening to music in the park, South By Southwest and drinking craft beer from a local brewery. This March has been different.

News broke on Monday that two package bombs had exploded in our community. One killed Draylen Mason, 17, and critically injured his mother. The second struck 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. Even more terrifying: It quickly became apparent that these bombings were connected to the package bombing that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, in northeast Austin on March 2.

Amidst heated debates on gun control and terrorism on U.S. soil, the Austin package bombings feel like one more chapter of violence in the story of our increasingly dangerous country. They also invoke another aspect of our national history that too many Americans are hesitant to acknowledge: our history of racial terrorism. 

In a city with a black population that hovers around just 6 percent, two black residents killed by package bombs feels like much more than coincidence.

All four victims of this month’s bombings were people of color. Mason and House were both African-American. Mason’s mother is African-American, and Herrera is Latina. The families of Mason and House are prominent in the black community, and they both attend the historic Wesley United Methodist Church, which was founded by freed slaves in 1866. In a city with a black population that hovers around just 6 percent, two black residents killed by package bombs feels like much more than coincidence.

For many people of color in Austin, particularly black people, the recent attacks have been an alarming reminder of the city’s deep-seated racial tensions. Although Austin is known for festivals, hipster culture and “keeping it weird,” racial tension has always been a prominent part of the city’s identity.

Austin is deeply segregated. The physical and cultural dividing line is Interstate 35, which separates the East Side and the West Side. The East Side is the district where African-Americans and Latinos have traditionally lived; it is also where both of us live, and where all three bombings occurred. Austin’s geographic and cultural layout was designed to segregate and marginalize people of color.

In 1928, the city of Austin created a master plan that detailed the creation of a “Negro District,” where all black residents were to live. This displaced the Freedman Towns once located west of Interstate 35, the highly coveted part of the city. In this area, black residents were forced to move east and their land was purchased by white residents. As the city grew, land close to downtown became an even more precious commodity, and land speculation expanded into the East Side.

The East Side is now one of the most intensely gentrified areas of the city, and African-American residents are being pushed out ― again.

Research from University of Texas professor Eric Tang reveals that although Austin has grown by leaps and bounds over the past eight years, its black population has been on the decline — a trend that only recently began slow down. Austin’s recent growth has made it extremely difficult for working-class people of color to find housing in the city. Coupled with tensions with the police and economic degradation, the lack of affordable housing leads people of color to feel increasingly unwelcome in their own city. 

Sergio Flores / Reuters
An agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives watches as Manley speaks during a news conference in Austin on March 12. 

The history of Austin’s racism against black residents mirrors its historic treatment of Mexican-Americans. This brings us back to the events on Monday: The third package bomb struck a Latino neighborhood.

Starting in the 1940s, “most ‘Mexican American’ families arriving in Austin moved into the Hispanic/Latino neighborhood east of downtown – just south of the black neighborhood,” states the city of Austin’s “Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequalities report. The current Latino population in Austin is not dwindling; it is approximately 35 percent and steady. But even for the Latino population, Austin is no oasis. Gentrification, racism, cultural appropriation, erasure and marginalization affect both black and Latino people systematically across the city. 

Racial tension is one reason why families like Mason’s and House’s have been involved in fighting for racial justice for generations. And people of color fighting for racial justice in areas of racial tension have traditionally been the preferred targets of domestic racial terrorism in our country.

Historically, bombings have often been directed at the families and communities of prominent and outspoken community members.

Civil rights activists Harry T. and Henriette Moore were killed from a blast at their Florida home on Christmas night in 1951, just after they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. The bomb left their two daughters without parents. The Moores were active in the fight against racism and were instrumental in voter registration drives through the NAACP. But historically, bombings have often been directed at the families and communities of prominent and outspoken community members, not just the leaders themselves.

On Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair. That bombing — one of the ugliest moments of domestic terrorism in United States history — was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Although racial violence had become a familiar weapon against civil rights leaders, the deaths of four little girls pulled at the heartstrings of the nation and won new sympathy for the movement. But that new sympathy did not stop white supremacists from using racial terrorism as intimidation. White extremist groups targeted the families of figureheads like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, planting bombs at their homes and setting fire to their houses. And, of course, racial terrorism did not disappear once the civil rights movement ended. White extremist Dylann Roof killing nine Bible study attendees at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is still very fresh on many of our minds.

We do not know yet who is responsible for this month’s atrocities in Austin. Local and federal investigations are ongoing; there are over 300 federal agents and support working on the case, according to interim police Chief Brian Manley. But the emerging pattern gives us pause, and people of color and our community allies are deeply concerned.

Bombs being left on the doorsteps of black and Latino residents whose families play an important role in the community is an all-too-familiar scenario for black people in America. And no matter the outcome of the investigation, these incidents remind many of us that the United States is still haunted by racial ghosts. Until we exorcise these demons, our experience of the present will be shadowed by the traumas of our past. As we seek to find peace in Austin, we must also reckon with the underbelly of our liberal city, and the larger history of racial tension present in the United States.

UPDATE: March 19 ― Two more men were injured by a device in Austin on Sunday. Police suspect this latest bomb was detonated with a trip wire. Investigators are “working on the belief that they are connected” to the previous explosions.

Christen A. Smith is an anthropologist at The University of Texas at Austin. She researches gendered anti-black state violence and black community responses to it in Brazil and the Americas. She is the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness Violence and Performance in Brazil. Daina Ramey Berry is an historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books including The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.