Growing up in Roxbury, Feliciano Tavares’ family shuffled in and out of shelters and subsidized housing, seeking stability amid the turbulence of poverty. But Tavares’ precarious home life was a secret to his classmates and most of his teachers in Weston, an affluent, mostly white suburb west of Boston, where he went to school through Metco, the state’s voluntary integration program for students of color.
Those years going to school in Weston, Tavares said, exposed him to the “full spectrum of the American experience,” one divided along unrelenting racial and economic lines, where white children in Weston have access to every resource and opportunity imaginable, and Black children like himself can’t walk to a well-funded school in their own neighborhood.
“When I hear ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I really want to focus on the ‘lives’ part of that statement,” said Tavares, who is now 42 and raising his own son and daughter with his wife in Roslindale. “How Black people are treated when they are actually walking around, when they’re breathing, when they’re trying to take care of their children and pursue their dreams, and buy a home and do those things everybody else wants.”
Galvanized by the protests over the killings of Black Americans, community advocates like Tavares are anxious to see the national conversation on racism and police brutality broaden to include the persistent racial inequities rampant in nearly every facet of American society, which scholars and historians point out, are the result of decades of systemic neglect in Black and brown communities.
Not only are Black Americans aggressively policed and, consequently, overrepresented at every level of the criminal justice system, they are more like to face poverty and joblessness. Racist housing policies, such as redlining, have blocked Black citizens’ paths to home ownership and wealth-building. And more than 65 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, studies show Black children still largely attend segregated and underfunded public schools.
“Some people are really focusing narrowly on police and on the criminal punishment system, but really, the problem is so much bigger than that,” said Megan Ming Francis, a visiting associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I think people willfully choose to ignore the long history of racism in this country because it’s complicated and once you know about it, it demands something from you.”
Tavares for years observed the gaping divide between his predominantly Black, struggling neighborhood and the wealthy white one where he went to school. Each morning, Monday through Friday, Tavares took a school bus an hour and 45 minutes each way from Roxbury to Weston. No one, with the exception of one teacher, knew his family was homeless. For Tavares, his “big secret” was both embarrassing and exhausting, especially in a place like Weston, where students would complain “about what kind of car they got for their birthday.” It was clear to Tavares that, compared with most of his white classmates, the odds were stacked against him.
“It’s kind of like starting a race and the person is 50 feet in front of you and you have to catch up, just to make it an even race,” he said. “I just ran extra hard.”
Tavares went to Northeastern University on a full scholarship. In 2003, he became the first in his family to graduate from college. He has dedicated the bulk of his career to local government and nonprofit work, focusing on violence prevention among youths and adults in Boston’s communities of color. Now Tavares is the chief program officer of the Boston-based nonprofit InnerCity Weightlifting, where he helps his clients — mostly young Black and Latino men — break the cycle of generational poverty, violence, and trauma through case management and career development.
It’s not easy work. Tavares has spent more time than anyone should in hospitals, at the bedsides of men who have been shot and injured, and at funerals, too. The trauma he has witnessed prompted him to adopt a puppy — a steel-gray bullypit named KG, after Kevin Garnett, his favorite Celtics basketball player — as an emotional support pet, at the urging of his co-workers and family. He says the detrimental effects of systemic racism on the lives of the Black men and women in Boston are clearer now than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately sickened and killed people of color.
“It just feels like Black people’s lives have been one big preexisting condition leading up to this situation and creating the perfect storm where now this virus is so deadly to us because we do have asthma, we do have hypertension, we do have diabetes and high blood pressure, and that’s based off years of chronic disinvestment and chronic disenfranchisement,” Tavares said. “That’s not an accident.”
As calls to defund police budgets reach a fever pitch, so too have demands to redirect public money into habitually disinvested communities of color. In Boston, activists have beseeched the city to reduce the $414 million a year police budget by 10 percent and invest those dollars into school and community initiatives, like youth jobs and violence prevention programs. Organizers, city councilors, and community advocates have criticized Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s proposal to reallocate 20 percent — about $12 million — of the police department’s ballooning overtime budget to a variety of social services as woefully inadequate.
“If you took the entire police budget, it wouldn’t be enough of an investment in terms of what we need,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School. He pointed to a detail from the 2017 Globe Spotlight series on race in Boston, which cited a jaw-dropping statistic: According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New School, the median net worth for nonimmigrant Black households in the Greater Boston region is $8, compared with $247,500 for white families.
“That is the reality of life in Boston,” Harris added. “It speaks to the scale of what we face.”
The questions now are whether white people who have joined the movement to end systemic racism will confront their own culpability in creating an inequitable society, and if they will relinquish some of their own power, wealth, and resources to achieve those ends, according to Jamila Michener, an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies poverty and inequality. Will they support the construction of affordable housing developments in their own neighborhoods? Will they lobby to change their state’s school funding formula so children of color in poorer neighborhoods can have access to high quality education, too?
“I do think there’s no getting around the reality that real progress with respect to racial equity in the United States will require sacrifice on the part of white Americans, in terms of tangible, material sacrifice,” Michener said. “Resources that otherwise would have accrued to you, the people who live in the neighborhoods you live in, the people in your family, will now accrue to people in other neighborhoods and other families.”
And that’s where Tavares fears roadblocks in the quest for racial justice.
“My question is, will white people fight with the same amount of fervor that they give to this police brutality issue? Will you give that same amount of energy, effort, and passion when it comes to guaranteeing that everyone has access to health care or guaranteeing that everybody has a livable wage or guaranteeing that people have access to proper housing?” Tavares said.
“Those issues are more nuanced,” he added. “Those issues come a little closer to white people’s homes.”