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When it comes to race, Boston is a work in progress

The problem runs deep.

Kim Janey’s ascension to acting mayor gives the city a fresh perspective. But there's a lot of hard work to do.
Kim Janey’s ascension to acting mayor gives the city a fresh perspective. But there's a lot of hard work to do.Steven Senne/Associated Press

It will take more than an ad campaign to change Boston’s image as a racist city. The problem runs deep.

As recent events show, it goes beyond one fan allegedly throwing a water bottle at Nets star Kyrie Irving. Over time, the problem has evolved from the horror of a white man assaulting a Black man with an American flag on City Hall Plaza to something more insidious. And it’s not one-sided. The hate directed by some Bostonians toward people of color generated understandable distrust and anger, and that’s now part of the overall problem.


Today, Boston’s race problem is not a school committee chair who leads a bitter charge against busing to achieve school integration, as Louise Day Hicks did back in the 1960s. Instead, it’s a school committee chair like Michael Loconto who was caught on a hot microphone mocking Asian names during a meeting that ultimately approved a change in admissions policy to increase diversity in the city’s exam schools. Ironically, Loconto was embracing equity at the same time he was making fun of the city’s diversity. He apologized during the meeting, saying he knew what was in his heart and mind. But it was not enough, because people heard what came out of his mouth, and he resigned.

This month, it was also revealed by my colleague Marcela García that during that same meeting, school committee members Alexandra Oliver-Dávila and Lorna Rivera exchanged disparaging texts about West Roxbury residents who were labeled by Rivera as “white racists.” First Rivera resigned; then Oliver-Dávila, who had replaced Loconto as chair, followed. As they stepped down, they explained they were expressing sentiments that reflected their lived experience as Bostonians. As searing as those experiences might be, they chose the wrong time and venue to address them. You can’t be a school committee chair after expressing hatred for one neighborhood as Oliver-Dávila did when she texted “I hate WR (West Roxbury)”; to which Rivera replied, “Sick of Westie Whites.” Of course, the racist backlash they suffered is despicable.


Boston’s race problem is also ripe for exploitation. Consider the case of Dennis White, the city’s second Black police commissioner, who was fired this week by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the first woman and the first Black Bostonian to serve in that position. White’s lawyer chose to cast the firing in racial terms, describing his client as “a Black man, falsely accused of crimes, not given a fair trial or hearing, and then convicted, or terminated, which is the equivalent here.” To her credit, Janey stood up to this racially charged framework. She said White was unfit for the job, not just because of decades-old allegations of domestic violence, but because of the way he dealt with the allegations. Now the case will probably play out in court.

Is Boston’s race problem worse than other cities? In the court of public opinion, the verdict has been “yes,” from “Saturday Night Live” to Irving’s recent taunts. Whether that “worst” rating is deserved doesn’t matter. To move beyond it, it must be confronted, and Boston is trying to do that. The fan who allegedly threw the water bottle at Irving was charged with assault and battery. Those school committee members stepped down, even though on the whole, they contributed to the city’s progress on race and equity.


Janey’s ascension to acting mayor also gives the city a fresh perspective. The new tourism campaign, unveiled after she was sworn in, was also supposed to help Boston get past its old image. It showcased Boston’s diverse neighborhoods and small businesses, going beyond the usual tourist attractions like Faneuil Hall and the Freedom Trail, and was narrated by Porsha Olayiwola, a Black woman who is Boston’s poet laureate. “Boston, it’s the city you know ... it’s the city of history and the city of champions, but we are also a city of people,” she says. “This is a city where new voices are emerging, determined to work harder, dream bigger, and become stronger.”

That’s all true. But it’s going to take unwavering commitment from everyone to get people to believe it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.