AUSTIN, Texas — Ora Houston, an African-American councilwoman here, stood as a proclamation was read inside City Hall on Thursday.
It had nothing to do with the Austin serial bomber, Mark Conditt. It had to do with a deeper, older and far more invisible hurt — the 90th anniversary of a 1928 city plan that created a “Negro district” on the east side of town.
“The Negro district was intentionally created by the Austin City Council to force Negros and Mexicans who lived in other parts of Austin to move to the Negro district,” Mayor Steve Adler said as Houston, a longtime East Austin resident, looked on at his side. “And the effects are apparent in the racial and economic disparities found in East Austin today.”
Three of the five bombs that terrorized Central Texas this month went off in East Austin, where the majority of the city’s black and Hispanic residents live, prompting the police to investigate them as possible hate crimes. When the fourth bomb was planted in an upscale gated and largely white community west of Interstate 35, the issue of race disappeared from most official statements — a fact that has stirred deep resentment among many black residents. The only two people killed, many have been quick to point out, came from two of the city’s most prominent black families.
The debate over how to characterize the bomber’s nearly three-week campaign of violence has been a reminder, for many, of the ways in which race, geography and class continue to play out in a city that prides itself on tolerance and diversity.
Though Austin is widely seen as a liberal island in a conservative state, the attacks have stoked the raw racial, economic, political and geographical divisions that continue to shape life here, 90 years after the city was segregated by decree. Austin and its suburbs remain divided by class, race and even religion. Like Houston, it is an urban, diverse and Democratic hub surrounded by largely white, Republican suburbs, including Pflugerville, Conditt’s hometown.
“Austin has gradually started to become aware and conversant about its race issues over the past five years, so the initial suggestion that these bombings could be race-related made people deeply nervous that the problem could be that bad,” said Cecilia Ballí, a writer and cultural anthropologist who lived in Austin from 2008 to 2014 and who now lives in Houston. “Whether or not the bomber’s motive ends up being race, this brought to the forefront one of the city’s challenges and worst fears.”
The police have said that Conditt, who was white, gave no indication in a 25-minute confession left on his phone that he was driven by racial hatred. News emerged Thursday that one of the explosive packages he sent at a FedEx store was addressed to a spa employee who is white. His past statements, including the views he expressed on a community college blog opposed to same-sex marriage, have added to speculation that he was anti-gay.
In East Austin on Thursday, Daniel Arriaga, 51, a furniture mover, said he still believed the bomber had a hatred for blacks and Hispanics. He had harmed the two white victims, Arriaga theorized, “just to throw it off.”
Alejandro Caceres, 30, an organizer for Grassroots Leadership, a prison reform and immigrant rights group, who lives and works in East Austin, said he believed the police were dismissing the concerns of black and Hispanic residents that the bombings were, at least in part, racially motivated.
“We’re being told that all of our feelings and our realities are not true, that this person was not targeting black and brown people, that this person was not a terrorist,” Caceres said.
Conditt’s world was, like the Austin region itself, multifaceted and defied easy categorization. In his hometown Pflugerville, about 20 miles northeast of Austin, the mayor, Victor Gonzales, is Hispanic. One of the candidates who ran against him was Philip Emiabata, who was born in Nigeria. One of Conditt’s roommates was black. And one of his friends was Sierra Davis, a transgender woman and Marine veteran who is part Hispanic.
“Honestly, Mark was a lot like I was,” said Davis, 23, who got to know Conditt when they were teenagers. “He was a home schooler, Christian, and I was the same. I mean, we were all awkward at the time. Growing up, Pflugerville had a small-town feel to it. It was a lot more conservative than Austin, a lot more home-school friendly.”
Davis said that Conditt told her she was “going to hell” when she was transitioning. “But I wasn’t surprised by what he said,” she said. “We were raised like that and I was tied to those beliefs, too.”
In Austin, I-35 has long been recognized as the dividing line separating most of the city’s minority residents from its white population, and much of its have-nots from the haves. That dividing line has an ugly, decades-old history. In an online examination of the city’s racial and economic divide by The Austin American-Statesman, a real estate ad circa 1915 reads: “Hyde Park is exclusively for white people.”
Jesse E. Washington, 68, a retired city inspector who is black and was born and raised in Austin, lives in a small ranch house his parents built in the 1960s in East Austin. He graduated from a segregated high school in 1967.
“If you wanted to buy a home and own property in Austin, you could only get your utilities turned on if you were in East Austin,” Washington said.
Now, of course, East Austin is far different.
“If you walk up and down here you see the white kids walking their dogs and riding bicycles,” he said. Many of his black neighbors, he said, “have sold off.”
Washington lives next door to the scene of one of the explosions, the one that killed Draylen Mason, 17, an African-American classical musician whose grandfather was a well-known dentist. The blast woke Washington around 6:45 a.m. that morning. At first he thought it was a falling tree limb.
Washington listened with interest to the police chief’s description of Conditt’s confession. But he said he still wonders if race had something to do with it.
“You know, the possibilities are endless,” he said. “These mental conditions that are in our minds growing up, the influences people have from the older generations.”
Black leaders and residents have accused the police of failing to take the first bombing seriously because the victim was black, an accusation that police officials have denied. At the time of the first bombing on March 2, authorities believed it was in retaliation for a drug raid the police had conducted on a similar-looking house on the same street three days beforehand.
“We had a pretty strong working theory that day that led us to believe it was an isolated incident that day,” the Austin police chief, Brian Manley, told reporters recently. “It was very unique. We had no information to believe it was related to a larger plan at that time.”
The bombings have come at a critical time for the city’s black population. A 2014 University of Texas report highlighted the drastic decline in the number of black residents in Austin, even as the city has grown. Austin’s overall population growth rate was more than 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it the third-fastest growing city in the country. But the number of African-American residents declined by 5.4 percent — making it the only one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the United States to experience a loss in black population.
It was the result, the researchers wrote, of “persistent structural inequalities.” The emerging tech industry was not hiring black and Latino residents. People of color were losing trust in the public schools on the traditionally black east side.
Houston, the city councilwoman, said she now occasionally feels unwelcome in restaurants in the east side neighborhoods where she grew up, and which are becoming whiter.
“As a black female they look at me like, ‘Why is she here?’” she said.
Race has played out here in the backdrop of the case in other ways. KVUE, an ABC-affiliated TV station in Austin, issued an apology after the words “this monkey” appeared in a sentence about Mason during its breaking-news coverage of the bombings. KVUE’s closed-captioning provider, VITAC, issued its own apology and said the error was “not intentional.”
KVUE said it had severed ties with VITAC “due to the terrible mistake.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.