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People of the Year 2015 | Dr. Eric Tang

Growing up as an Asian-American kid in Jamaica, Queens, Dr. Eric Tang learned to keep his head down. “I grew up in the ‘80s. The ‘80s and early ‘90s in New York was a crucible of racial tension,” says Tang. “I grew up during [racially-charged incidents like] Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, Crown Heights … I think if anything, I’ve been ever since then on a journey to understand that.”

It’s a journey that began as a community organizer. Though he experienced racial tensions growing up in New York City, Tang says it wasn’t until college that he first began to understand systemic inequality. “That compels you to commit your life to addressing it in some way. You’ve got the social capital to do so: the college education and you’re passionate about those issues. At the time, I thought community organizing was the best way to do it.” After graduating from New York University, Tang spent a decade going door to door in the Bronx, working with marginalized populations and trying to better understand the effect of unjust policies and systems.

A decade into his work as a community organizer, Tang found out he and his partner were expecting a child. “I had been taking grad classes at [NYU], but I wasn’t committed,” says Tang. “When I realized we were having a kid, I just got it done.” He returned to school, finished his Ph.D. and took a job teaching at the City University of New York.

Heading into the second phase of his career as an academic, Tang knew that what would differentiate him from his peers was his decade spent working in the community. “I never shied away from my organizing past, I’ve always invoked it as part of what gave me motivation.” After landing a visiting professorship at Harvard University, he took a tenure track position at the University of Illinois at Chicago before being offered a position at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009.

Though he was teaching courses on urban unrest, black studies and social movements at UT’s College of Liberal Arts, Tang said it was what he experienced outside the classroom that ultimately inspired him to conduct his now influential research. “Austin is so different from New York, yet it’s still a major city. I was really intrigued,” he says. What intrigued the professor wasn’t just the he could spend his lunch break in Barton Springs, it was that for the first time ever, he wasn’t just researching racial segregation, he was living it.

“Walking through neighborhoods, driving through neighborhoods, moving in and out of public spaces and seeing just so how homogeneously white, black, Mexican the public spaces are here, on the one hand, it shouldn’t take me totally by surprise as a person who studies cities, but it also didn’t square with Austin’s reputation with itself.”

Intrigued, Tang looked for answers only to find there weren’t any. “I am being honest, this is not false modesty, I thought someone must have studied this question.”Along with a team of graduate students, Tang began analyzing the data and quickly clued into the key question: Why was the third fastest growing city in the U.S. losing its black population?

At first, it appeared that what was happening in Austin was similar to trends in cities like Washington, DC, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles — cities becoming more service-based in industry and attracting college grads with higher wages who were pushing out minority residents. Says Tang, “Something didn’t sit right with me in that easy comparison.” Six months into his research, he realized the key difference between us and those other cities was Austin was growing at a rapid rate — the fastest in the nation behind Charlotte, North Carolina and Fort Worth. Of the top ten fastest growing cities (those with more than a half million people and at least 10 percent growth in population between 2000-2010), Austin was the only one to lose part of its African-American population. Austin was the outlier.

Tang’s resulting study, which was released in 2014, made national headlines, and was covered in almost every major paper including the Washington Post and the New York Times. It set off a firestorm of debate both locally and nationally, and forced Austinites to meditate on how a city with such a liberal reputation can be so deeply rooted in segregation.

Following its release, the study, and by extension Tang, was the focal point of criticism from outlets like Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight, which argued that by redrawing the boundaries of the city, the African-American population actually showed a net increase. “That was a remarkable thing to see,” says Tang. “[Of course] one could argue, ‘Well if you draw the map differently and you include Del Valle and Round Rock and Pflugerville, then we would actually see some small growth in African Americans.’ But Austin’s city limits are Austin’s city limits.”

The other key criticism Tang heard was from people who wondered why it was even an issue at all. “A lot of people asked me, ‘How do you know people weren’t taking advantage of these bedroom communities? Why are you making this a story of woe and hardship?’ And I’m like, ‘Why don’t we ask them?’” And so, that’s what he’s doing. Over the next six months, Tang will release three additional studies based on his interviews with multi-generational African-American families who have left Austin over the past decade. In addition to those studies, Tang is also writing a book for University of Texas Press, which is slated to hit shelves in 2017.

Despite the criticism, Tang is proud of his work, and the questions of identity and history that it has Austinites pondering. But more than that he’s seeing the research, the very thing he left community organizing for, making a change. “When you get to answer burning questions for a living, you are privileged, you are very lucky. I see that as motivation. And if you get to produce data that’s actually relevant to people who are feeling marginalized, forgotten about and misrepresented, that’s even more fulfilling. That’s good work if you can get it.”

CREDITS

Photography by Chad Wadsworth | Hair by Jessica Casarez of Lip Service | Makeup by Dolce - Ivy Kim

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