LOWELL — Political leaders who proudly promote this city’s rich diversity with annual festivals celebrating cultures of origin from Southeast Asia to Africa were taken aback last month when their “listening session” on race elicited residents’ painful experiences with racism right here in Lowell.
Sovanna Pouv, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, described how police officers once pulled a gun on him and surrounded and searched his car full of pajama-clad friends; his teenage movie night had coincided with a search for a drive-by shooter. Lowell High alumnus Anye Nkimbeng, who is Black, spoke of the backlash he faced after he was elected class president in 2015; one student “joked” about lynching him. Thaddeus Miles, a Black resident who has won recognition for his community leadership from former President Barack Obama, revealed that his fellow residents have called him the N-word and a monkey. He urged Lowell’s politicians to seize this national moment of awakening on race relations to take decisive action at home.
“I want you to be accountable,” Miles said. “I firmly declare it is not time to straddle the fence.”
But less than three weeks later, the predominantly white Lowell City Council straddled — rejecting the forceful language embraced by a growing number of municipalities across the country, including Boston, that would have declared racism a local public health crisis. Instead, a majority of the nine councilors embraced a milder resolution that says the city rejects all forms of racism and will strive for improvements in a number of areas, such as housing and health.
The mayor, who had sponsored the unsuccessful declaration, noted that the council was rebuffing a proposal sought by 100 local businesses and 1,500 residents in a petition.
“We had a listening session, and it doesn’t seem like we heard what they said,” Mayor John J. Leahy said at a virtual meeting that stretched for nearly five hours Tuesday night. “We have a great city. But at the listening session, people asked us to admit that there’s a problem and stand with us.”
The national reckoning that is leading many cities to reconsider social inequities as an outgrowth of systemic racism is causing an identity crisis here in Massachusetts’ fifth-largest municipality. This old mill city — home to the nation’s second-largest enclave of Cambodian refugees — prides itself on its capacity for reinvention. Yet Latino and Asian-American activists say that for years they have unsuccessfully tried to break into a political establishment that is predominantly white, resistant to change, and unable to accept their perspective. At last Tuesday’s meeting, several councilors took umbrage at the request for a declaration on racism, insisting that Lowell is not Alabama. Several pointed to the Lowell Folk Festival and other cultural festivals as evidence they welcome diversity. One noted that, just the night before, the Zoning Board had been especially helpful to a Cambodian woman looking to open a business.
“I will not be a party to anyone trying to make or label my city into something it is not,” Councilor Rita Mercier said. “If there exists a crisis in Lowell, why do Asians and Africans and 62 other nationalities come to Lowell, one of the most diverse communities, to make a better life?”
According to census data and American Community Survey estimates, Lowell’s population of nearly 111,000 is roughly 49 percent white, 23 percent Asian, 19 percent Latino, and 7 percent Black. But the seven members of the Lowell School Committee are all white. Seven of the nine city councilors are white, and five of them live in a single neighborhood — the city’s highest-income, majority-white neighborhood. The other two councilors are Cambodian-American.
In a 2017 federal lawsuit, a dozen Lowell residents made the case that the lack of diversity was a direct result of the voting system, which elects every candidate citywide. Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represented the plaintiffs, noted that at-large voting is viewed as the least representative of voting methods and has been replaced in all but a few Massachusetts cities, including Everett and Haverhill.
The lawyers also pointed to a pattern of racially polarized voting. In the 2013 election, for instance, the first- and second-choice candidates of Latino and Asian-American voters were the 17th and 18th choice of white voters.
“It was clear the majority vote was essentially canceling out the vote of communities of color for every seat in every election and resulting in elected bodies that look nothing like the rich diversity of Lowell,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights.
The city tried unsuccessfully to get the suit dismissed, but settled before the case headed to trial. In June 2019, the city agreed to overhaul its electoral system. Beginning next year, some councilors will be elected to represent districts of the city, rather than run citywide.
Vesna Nuon, one of the Asian-Americans now on the council, told his fellow councilors that a declaration of racism as a public health crisis was not an indictment of the city.
“What it means is that our system and our power structure — like those of thousands of others in our country — produce worse outcomes for people of color,” he said.
As evidence, Councilor John Drinkwater points to data on life expectancy. In the Acre, Lowell’s immigrant neighborhood since the 1800s, life expectancy is just over 76. In predominantly white Upper Belvidere, it’s 81.5 to 83.4.
But some councilors took the critique personally. They backed Councilor Rodney M. Elliott’s alternative proposal, which called for the city to “strive to support health services free from all forms of prejudice and inequalities,” “work towards creating safe and healthy housing opportunities for members of our multi-cultural community,” and “continue outreach by our public safety officials into our communities of color to listen and learn.”
It also pledged to “endeavor to appoint members of our minority communities to positions in both City and School administration.”
To Sophy Theam, a diversity specialist who helped draft the public health crisis petition, Elliott’s measure featured the language of good intentions.
“Those words that he was using — we ‘strive for,' we ‘endeavor,' " Theam said. “They’re all about ‘we want to,' ‘we will try to.' But will we do it?”
Councilor David Conway rebuked critics by noting that Lowell High was the nation’s first integrated high school in 1831. He also recalled how he was among the volunteers who rode school buses to protect children during school integration — in 1987.
“In Lowell, we made change when it wasn’t easy, when it wasn’t popular, and when it wasn’t the cause celebre,” Conway said.
But the city was reluctant to create the busing plan he described to re-integrate schools that had become segregated and overcrowded after an influx of refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. It wasn’t until the state threatened to withhold aid that the city took action, and even then, the plan was only narrowly approved.
Still, Conway concluded that racism “is not a crisis in Lowell. Lowell is a family, and like every family, we’re not perfect.”
The petition, written by the Lowell Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consortium, calls for creating an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and recruiting people of color to serve in City Hall, schools, and on boards and committees.
A 2018 audit found that 91 percent of Lowell teachers are white, while nearly 70 percent of students are nonwhite. Residents have likewise been seeking an audit of city employees.
When the petition circulated in June, some white signers said their white neighbors or colleagues discouraged them from publicly calling out their political leaders, saying they should instead collaborate.
“I personally was encouraged not to sign this letter, not to have this call to action,” Sue West Levine, who is white and is the CEO of the Lowell Community Health Center, told a crowd of more than 200 people at a rally before the council meeting. “Well, I have one thing to say to that: Racism is a public health crisis.”
In an interview, Levine said those who frowned on the petition found its approach confrontational.
“I get it — in other situations, you sit down and you talk first,” Levine said. “My colleagues of color remind me that they’ve tried forever.”
Miles, who spoke at the listening session, said Lowell residents need to have “hard, honest, open discussions” about race. He’s not sure they’re ready.
“I can see how they’ve been blind for so many years and don’t really want to pull those blinders off. Because it says so much about them,” Miles said. “What they’re not realizing is it says more about them that they won’t take the blinders off.”