Boston has in its hands an opportunity to choose its first non-white mayor ever. Six of the 12 candidates can lay claim to that description, a number of them strong, credible, and eminently electable. At-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo Jr.; John Barros, former head of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative; and Charlotte Golar Richie, once a senior official in the Menino administration, are particular standouts.
It is an opportunity that could be undone, however, by an upcoming event that is breathtakingly wrongheaded: a planned mayoral debate permitting only non-white candidates to speak. But what stuns is the acquiescence of almost all of those who would be mayor. Perhaps short-sighted, perhaps seeing just another opportunity to make their case to a few more voters in a fiercely competitive race, they fail to understand how their participation is not only a moral transgression but a political misstep as well.
The forum itself, scheduled for Sept. 10 at the nonprofit Freedom House in Dorchester, is promoted as “For the Community by the Community.” Some worry Freedom House risks its nonprofit 501(c)(3) designation, but in truth, private entities can do what they want (just ask the gay-excluding organizers of South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade). But legal is far different from wise. The tenor of the mayoral campaign so far has been remarkably inclusionary and issues-focused, almost as if each candidate understands that no matter the heat of the battle, it is better to bring people together than to push them apart. And indeed, for a minority candidate, that need is critical.
Boston is what is known in the shorthand as a “majority-minority city,” a self-contradictory term meant to indicate that non-whites make up a majority of the population — 53 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. A simple read on this would be to conclude that Boston is about to have its first non-white mayor.
That read would be incorrect. The lower number for whites excludes a dubious category of so-called “white Latinos.” Add them back in and the white population climbs to almost 54 percent. Then too, the argument about electing a non-white candidate assumes an unswerving solidarity among voters of color. African-Americans are but a quarter of the city’s population. Do the residents of the city whose heritage is Latino, Asian, Native American, or — increasingly common (at 4 percent) — two or more races all think alike? Probably not. And on top of that, elections aren’t about population, they are about turnout. Pollsters’ projections for the vote later this September are that the electorate itself will be around 64 percent white.
In short, if the next mayor of Boston is to come from the minority community, that person will require white votes. A lot of them.
That’s hardly impossible and history makes the case. In 1994, African-American (and Republican!) Ralph Martin won a stunning victory in a race for district attorney, handily defeating a white candidate that saw him raking up large margins in white neighborhoods. His win was correctly hailed as a seminal event, a harbinger of Boston turning a page from a race-plagued past to a post-racial future.
That’s not to say race never matters. It clearly does and in profound ways. Yet to a large degree, victories such as Ralph Martin’s require us to pretend that it doesn’t matter, or at least that it doesn’t matter all that much. Yes, past and present animosities and injustices may plague us, but in order to win, minority candidates need to persuade voters that, notwithstanding differences of color or heritage, they care about them and want to make their lives better. A debate that excludes some candidates merely on the basis of race, however, implicitly rejects that notion. It makes identity transcendent. It says that one side can never truly understand or empathize with the other. And it cuts away at any effort to build a diverse coalition. Yet so far, only one candidate — Golar-Richie — has repudiated the debate. (Rebuffed in a plea late last week to open the event to all, she now says she won’t participate.) For their sake — as well as for the good of the city they seek to lead — the candidates in this race need to repudiate it as well.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.