Spotlight Team: Patricia Wen (editor), Akilah Johnson, Todd Wallack, Nicole Dungca, Liz Kowalczyk, Andrew Ryan, and Adrian Walker
“I always say it’s the only Spotlight project that ever began as a joke on Saturday Night Live,” says Globe columnist and associate editor Adrian Walker, one of six authors on the series.
It was 2017, and SNL’s Michael Che was riffing about the upcoming Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. “I just want to relax, turn my brain off,” Che said, “and watch the Blackest city in America beat the most racist city I’ve ever been to.”
In 2017, the Spotlight Team decided to address a set of enormous questions related to the city’s decades-long history of brutal racist incidents: Does Boston still deserve its reputation as a place racist and unwelcoming to Black people? If so, why — and how can the situation be improved?
The series, which ran in seven parts and became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, focuses on racism related to institutions that Boston is most famous for, including hospitals, sports teams, and universities. The team wanted to know whether “Black people feel like they belong in these spaces that Boston is so proud of and constantly celebrating itself for,” says then-Spotlight reporter Nicole Dungca.
The series relied heavily on data: Reporters counted faces of color at legendary Boston sites, including Fenway, to show just how white those spaces are. The Globe also commissioned a survey that showed of eight major US cities, Black people felt Boston was the least welcoming to people of color. Then there was the lack of progress. In 1983, when the Globe reported a major series on race, an estimated 4.5 percent of Black workers in the region were public officials or business managers. By 2015, the number was only 4.6 percent.
The Globe also ran an experiment in housing discrimination, reaching out to the owners of Craigslist listings, using either Black- or white-sounding names. “Overall, landlords ignored nearly 45 percent of e-mails from prospective tenants with black-sounding names, like Darnell Washington or Keisha Jackson, versus 36 percent of e-mails from people with white-sounding names, like Brendan Weber or Meredith McCarthy,” the series reported.
But perhaps the most jarring figure came from a 2015 report called “The Color of Wealth in Boston,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and other researchers. According to the report, the median net worth of white families in Greater Boston was $247,500. The median for nonimmigrant Black families was $8. The Globe had to run a follow-up story clarifying that the number eight was not a typo.
The emphasis on figures was strategic — “because it’s one thing to use a bunch of anecdotes and say that that is the reality,” Dungca says. “But when you lay the data out, and you see how few Black people are at these major universities, how few Black people get their health care at places like Massachusetts General Hospital, and how few Black people are going to these Red Sox games, it’s kind of impossible to ignore.”
The team anticipated hate mail from defensive readers, says Patricia Wen, the Spotlight Team editor. But the response was overwhelmingly positive. One of the series’s lasting legacies is the Facebook group that grew out of it. “Discussing Race in Boston” has more than 4,700 members and their discussions continue to this day.
The conversations the series sparked in 2017 were “critically important,” says Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch.
But, Sullivan adds, reporting on racism is only effective if it is constant: “The moment you stop doing that type of work, like the Spotlight series, [is] the moment people think that the problem no longer exists.”
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