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OPINION

The effort to unite Black voters behind Kim Janey

With three Black mayoral candidates in Boston, some community leaders believe victory requires backing only one of them.

Acting Mayor Kim Janey at GospelFest in Franklin Park last month.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey at GospelFest in Franklin Park last month.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Dianne Wilkerson insists everyone misconstrues the mission of Wakanda II, her political initiative.

“There’s a distinct goal: to come up with a candidate that would best represent the interests of Black people,” the former state senator told me. “That’s different than saying our goal was to pick a Black candidate. I constantly have to correct people when they say it.”

When I asked Wilkerson what would have happened if her group had found that Michelle Wu, a city councilor at large, would best represent issues pertinent to Black Bostonians, she said she “would have been gnashing my teeth and gritting them, but I would have had to go along with it. I wouldn’t have had any choice.”

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There was no need for teeth gnashing or gritting — Wakanda II endorsed Acting Mayor Kim Janey, one of three Black candidates vying to lead the city. In less than two weeks, we’ll know if this effort swayed enough votes toward Janey.

“I am hoping to earn the endorsement of a number of community organizations, labor unions, and individuals whether they be elected officials or community leaders,” Janey told me. “I hope to earn as many as I can and ultimately earn the votes of residents all across our city.”

Wilkerson said she isn’t trying to “tell” Black voters which candidate to back, but “I like to think we did a service to folks” by providing a vetting process and endorsement.

Janey wants to become the first person of color and the first woman elected to lead Boston. So do city councilors Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi George. John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, is also in the race.

This mayoral election is the city’s first since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and the ensuing worldwide protests demanding reform and an end to police violence, especially against Black and brown people. It also comes as COVID-19 continues to rage and amplify racial inequities that existed long before the most urgent public health crisis in modern history.

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The moment demands that, as Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts often says, “The people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.” And in Boston, the pain of its Black population is generational, deep, and largely unaddressed.

For that reason, it seems a stretch for Wilkerson to suggest that an initiative named for the fictional African kingdom in the blockbuster film “Black Panther” would have considered endorsing anyone other than a Black candidate.

“The questionnaire was absolutely and clearly created and based from a Black lens, and we are unapologetic about that,” Wilkerson said. “The fact is we are in undocumented territory. We are in a worse position than we were in March [2020] when the state shut down in terms of education, police relations haven’t gotten better, and the economics. Our health status made COVID worse — asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and our access to health care.

“So we get to say out loud in the post-George Floyd era that Black people are concerned about who the next mayor is going to be and what that will mean,” she said. “We’re very loud about it.”

In 2018, Wakanda I interviewed only Rachael Rollins, Linda Champion, and Evandro Carvalho, the three Black candidates for Suffolk district attorney. Ultimately, the group endorsed Rollins, who won easily though she has downplayed Wakanda’s impact on her victory.

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This time, Wilkerson’s group engaged with all of the mayoral candidates. In a race as close as this contest, the right endorsement could yield the desired result.

“I wish it was me,” Barros said, “but I’m not going to cry about that.” Neither is Campbell. “I am not taking any voter for granted. Black voters are not a monolith, and so it’s essential that I get out there like any other candidate and engage the conversation about why I’m the best candidate at this time,” she said. “My job is to get out there and connect with [Black] voters where they are and I’m confident I will continue to earn their support as I will other voters across the city of Boston.”

Of course, Wakanda II’s strategizing isn’t any different from that of all the other wheeler-dealers and would-be tastemakers who drive politics in Boston. In this historic moment, everyone wants to have their say in the city’s unfinished story. But as usual, the voters will have the only voice that matters.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.