Four years have passed since Mayor Martin J. Walsh implored the business community to confront the issue of racial inequity in the city. Since then, the issue has become only more urgent, the scale of the challenge almost unimaginable.
Walsh made his initial push in 2016, at his annual speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Walsh returned to the issue again in his latest annual speech to the chamber on Tuesday, an issue that has become much more of a focus this year in Boston and in cities around the country.
This speech was unusual for several reasons, some due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Instead of presenting to a well-dressed crowd in a fancy hotel, Walsh filmed his speech in advance at the Guild, a social enterprise in Dorchester that helps people of color; Walsh took questions from chamber president Jim Rooney after his speech, but via Zoom; Walsh also didn’t make any major policy announcements, like he usually does at this event.
Instead, the mayor touched on the various ways his administration has confronted the pandemic to help the city’s residents and businesses endure the economic crisis. He touted the Boston Resiliency Fund, which has drawn more than $33 million in donations, to help hundreds of charitable organizations across the city.
He added that Blacks and Latinos, proportionately, were much harder hit in terms of total cases of COVID-19 in Boston.
But systemic racism, he said, isn’t just about public health. It affects “every aspect of our society.”
Walsh said George Floyd’s murder in May underscored how much more work needs to be done here in Boston, and around the country. The conversations “we had with the chamber in 2016 didn’t get us there,” Walsh said. “This time must be different.”
“I don’t want to be back with chamber, three years from now, having the same conversation again,” Walsh said. “We must do more, all of us.”
Walsh said a final report from a task force charged with improving policing in the city will be released soon. He touched on the draft recommendations that have already been made public: changing “use of force” policies by having a clearer code of consequences for violators, for example, and improving diversity hiring, not just among officers, but also in police administration.
He also highlighted his decision to appoint Karilyn Crockett in June as his chief of equity, a new cabinet-level position. Understanding inequity, Walsh said, has to be a top priority for every member of his cabinet. Crockett, he said, will work to make sure that happens.
Rooney asked Walsh about what the city can do to address the demonstrated wealth gap between white residents and Black households. Among other things, Walsh said he wants more data about people of color in the business community, similar to information his administration has used to track the earning power among women in the city.
The inevitable question about the mayor’s political future also came up: He faces challenges from two women of color on the City Council, Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell. Both recently have announced their plans to run for mayor. Walsh again demurred when asked about running for a third term, implying that he will not directly answer the question until 2021. (Walsh has also been discussed as a possible candidate to join Joe Biden’s administration, if Biden wins the presidential race in November.)
“Quite honestly, right now, in September 2020, it’s time to focus on what’s in front of us,” Walsh said. “It’s time to make sure we reopen our city safely [after COVID-19 shutdowns], that we reopen our schools safely. . . . There will be plenty of conversation, plenty of time to have debates and all that stuff, early next year.”
Walsh’s comment about not wanting to have the same conversation with the chamber three years from now suggests he’s at least thinking about being around to give more of these annual speeches.
While Rooney agreed the business community can do more, he said in an interview that Corporate Boston has come a long way since 2016, when racial equity was a much less frequent topic of conversation in the city’s C-suites.
“If one thing has moved in a significant way that gives me hope and optimism, at the seats of business power, there’s a recognition and embrace of the responsibilities that the business community has,” Rooney said. “That has definitely changed.”