By: Samantha Grasso, Kristen Hubby, Ashley Lopez and Ashlyn Warblow
History of discrimination repeats itself at Texas Relays
Story by Samantha Grasso
Texas Relays weekend is an annual three-day-long track and field competition that hosts meets for high schools, colleges, and invitational participants. Beginning in 1925, Relays has become a large community spring event that attracts 80,000 people each year, an attendance on par with events such as Mardi Gras weekend, Republic of Texas motorcycle rally, Halloween weekend, and others.
On the night of Saturday, April 2 during the 2016 Texas Relays weekend, Kyle Clark was standing alone in a 6th street bar, behind a setup of tables, wires, and a DJ turntable. Looking intently at the screen of his Macbook Pro, Clark was working the crowd as “DJ Motivate,” throwing down hip-hop and Top 40 hits as the night went on.
Getting closer to midnight, the bar became packed with people laughing, dancing along, and sipping on drinks. Despite the electric, welcoming atmosphere Clark was creating, just down the street other bars were completely dead, lights off and doors locked.
“Even though it was Texas Relays weekend, I saw people representing many different races at the place that I was DJ-ing,” Clark said. “People spent money at the bar… I think if it’s a revenue-generating opportunity, why not be open?”
Earlier that evening around 9pm, Ben Carrington, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, took the 20 minute stroll from his downtown apartment to survey the scene. He knew establishments on 6th street closed every year during Texas Relays, and since he was in town, he wanted to check the area out for himself.
Carrington’s prediction was right. As he walked along the street affectionately called “Dirty Sixth,” Carrington snapped pictures of the closed bars: The Blind Pig Pub, Shakespeare’s Pub, Dirty Dog, Palm Door on Sixth, The Four Horseman, and Iron Cactus.
Later posting his findings to Twitter, Carrington posed an observation that the bar closures were an act of racial discrimination and refusal to serve black visitors: “Texas Relays = More Black Folks in Austin = Racist Bars on 6th Street Closing for the Weekend #KeepAustinWhite?”
— Ben Carrington (@BenHCarrington) April 3, 2016
— Ben Carrington (@BenHCarrington) April 3, 2016
While Carrington’s tweets received substantial attention in hundreds of likes and retweets, major news organizations in Austin failed to report on the closures. It wasn’t until the following week that Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon tackled the issue in a blog post that questioned why all these bars chose to close during a weekend that historically brings in $8 million in revenue each year.
Bars gave different reasons for why they were closed. For example, Palm Door is a rental venue that is not open to the public in general. Dirty Dog manager Ben Davis told Texas Monthly the bar was originally scheduled closed for floor renovations. The vendor cancelled on them last minute, but Dirty Dog remained closed since the employees had already made vacation plans for the anticipated closure.
The Blind Pig Pub claimed to be closed for South by Southwest “recovery” for the staff, while Shakespeare’s Pub offered no explanation.
Some people speculated that bars closed to avoid underage drinking fine, as the weekend attracts many young competitors and spectators. Others said they closed because Texas Relays attendees congregate on Sixth Street, but do not go inside the bars and spend money.
In reply to the Texas Monthly article, one reader who claimed to work at Iron Cactus commented that the restaurant is rented out to a private Texas Relays event each year, denying any claim of racial discrimination.
Owners of the Blind Pig Pub, Shakespeare’s Pub, and the Four Horseman did not reply to requests for comment.
“I think [those reasons for closing] are highly dubious, if not just outright lies,” Carrington said.
Where the Shift Began
Over the 91 years Relays has operated in Austin, the event has attracted a largely African-American crowd, from participating athletes, to family members, and even patrons who come to attend events that have sprouted out of the popular weekend, such as car shows and the Austin Urban Music Festival.
But despite the massive successes and positive economic impacts brought by annual events including the South by Southwest Conference, Austin City Limits Music Festival, and Republic of Texas rally, Texas Relays weekend is one of the few events that bring an onslaught of bar, mall, and highway closures.
In 2009, Highland Mall closed early during Texas Relays weekend, and the city of Austin decided to shut down downtown exit ramps on IH-35 in an effort to alleviate traffic.
In 2011, bars owned by self-proclaimed “Mayor of Sixth Street” Bob Woody The Blind Pig and Shakespeare’s Pub notoriously boarded up for the weekend. The same two bars closed for the weekend in 2012.
Brenda Burt, who has spent 28 years at the University of Texas at Austin, is an adjunct assistant professor for African and African Diaspora Studies and an advisor for the Big XII Council on Black Student Government. Burt recalls when the city’s general reaction to Texas Relays began changing, saying she remembers discussions about revenue that the weekend generates, and the closures at Highland Mall.
“I began to realize that we [the black community] was congregating at Highland Mall as well, but also, [myself] raising a teenage son [back then] he and his friends…were out at all those malls [in Round Rock],” Burt said. “I just remember a difference in the way people were beginning to be treated, and it was like, ‘C’mon Austin, what is this?’”
The seemingly racially-motivated reactions to black attendees at festivals is not isolated to Texas Relays. In early April, Austin Chronicle writer Kevin Curtin anonymously quoted a reaction by a “local businessman who co-owns multiple bars on Sixth” to the crowds at South by Southwest. “Too many n******,” the businessman replied, not knowing Curtin was a reporter. The bar owner then threatened to sue Curtin if he was quoted.
According to the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance, five of the TBNA board members own two or more bars in Austin, Houston, and College Station. One of them is Blind Pig and Shakespeare’s owner Bob Woody, who also owns The Ranch, Buckshot, Pecan St. Café, and Micheladas. None of the other listed board members own any of the bars that Carrington found closed during this year’s Texas Relays.
Burt states that though UT Austin attracts many successful black students, Austin’s negative reaction to Texas Relays audiences is one of the many turnoffs that cause graduating students to leave the city.
While many students enact change at the university, Burt argued that the treatment of the black community in East Austin, compounded with tangible closures seen during Texas Relays and similar micro-aggressions toward black students at UT Austin, cause students to take their talents and passions for resolving social issues elsewhere.
“Austin is losing a reputation, and the black community, in particular… It doesn’t bid well,” Burt said. “You [students] are leaving because of things like this, or the community not providing cultural outlets for people of color.”
Looking toward the finish line
Carrington said he feels the general lack of reaction to the bar closures and the racial slur thrown around by the local businessman in Austin Chronicle is indicative of Austin’s general feelings toward the black population as a whole. However, he hopes he has helped to shed light on the issue.
“Part of the reason why I went was because there hadn’t been any discussion [about Austin’s attitude toward Texas Relays],” Carrington said. “If I hadn’t done those Tweets… then you wouldn’t be speaking to me right now. I think now at least there’s a chance we can organize… and put the spotlight back on an issue.”
Despite the general lack of mobilization, the city may be able to look forward to increased accountability and transparency over Texas Relays bar closures in the future. In reply to a request for comment on Mayor Steve Adler’s reaction to these closures, Jason Stanford, communications director for Adler’s office, released this statement:
“The Texas Relays are an important event on Austin’s calendar, and we love having them here and want the participants and visitors who come here for the relays to feel welcome,” Adler said. “Reports that bars are closing during the Texas Relays are troubling, and we’re looking into it.”