It was a statement that made some recoil and others nod in recognition: Racism exists in Boston.
Mayoral candidates John R. Connolly and Martin J. Walsh said it during televised debates, not once, but twice. And it appeared to undercut what the outgoing mayor has proclaimed as his greatest achievement: the healing of Boston’s festering racial wounds.
For black, Latino, and Asian activists fighting to ensure that Boston’s disenfranchised communities have a seat at the table, racism and its structural and institutional vestiges are a very real fact of life.
“It’s the elephant in the room that none of us want to talk about,” said Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.
Most everyone agrees that the bitter, racially divided Boston of the past is no more.
But inequity and disparity persist in health care, housing, economic development, education, criminal justice, arts and culture, civic engagement, and media.
Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said racism remains the “big dividing factor in how white people and non-white people see the world. A lot of whites don’t think racism is a problem anymore.”
Lowe and Gloribell Mota, a leader in the Latino community in East Boston, said having the mayoral candidates, white men of Irish descent, acknowledge racial and ethnic disparities gives name to something that too many people want to pretend no longer exists.
But, Lowe said, the question becomes: “What exactly are we going to do about systemic racism?”
Said Mota: “What will they be doing to dismantle it?”
Walsh, a state representative, and Connolly, a city councilor, began talking about racism in major public forums in the last two weeks, first at a debate broadcast by Boston Neighborhood Network Television. Both pledged to build administrations that look more like the city, with about half of appointees being people of color. They also promised to bring jobs to struggling neighborhoods and move aggressively to close the academic achievement gap between students.
Then, they said it again.
This time, their sentiments reverberated across a much larger audience, during the fourth and final face-off in the race for mayor. That debate aired Tuesday on four television channels and four radio stations.
When asked if racism exists within the Police Department, Connolly answered: “There’s racism in all of Boston, systemic, institutional, and structural.”
Walsh later responded in kind: “We have racism in the city of Boston that we have to deal with. We talk about one Boston, but we don’t see one Boston in the city of Boston right now.”
Political observers said by reiterating these statements before a wider audience, the candidates shifted the conversation away from attitudes about race to entrenched institutional disparities. Too often, conversations about race, they said, become solely focused on asking whether the city, and country, are more or less prejudiced than they once were.
“They uttered a word that has not been part of the public discourse around the social, economic, and demographic challenges facing the city of Boston,” said James Jennings, a specialist in race and politics at Tufts University.
Peniel Joseph, a history professor and director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, credits Boston’s activists for injecting race into the conversation.
In a city in which more than half of the residents are people of color, political leaders must talk about race, Joseph said. Public policy, he said, can exacerbate or ameliorate racial and ethnic disparities.
“One of the things, historically, about campaigns is if you’re in front of a local constituency group — labor, gender, religious, gay and lesbian — you can say certain things there that the constituency wants to hear,” Joseph said. “But when you say it in a mainstream or in a predominantly white audience, it carries a lot of teeth.”
The 2011 State of Black Boston report found that black and Latino infants are more likely to die than white babies. People working in black communities earn on average $10,000 less than other employees. Blacks with the same income as whites were denied home loans at a rate nearly twice as high, according to the report, commissioned by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and NAACP.
“The bottom line is that in the last 20 to 30 years, in spite of the progress, there has not been an open-door policy to deal with these discrepancies,” said Urban League president Darnell Williams, referring to the city of Boston. “I have to applaud both candidates who have the courage to address an issue that lies beneath the surface.”
Sometime in the 1980s and 1990s, Curry said, racism became too controversial to talk about. “It requires some risk to say we don’t have enough diversity at the Police Department and risk losing your job. Or say we don’t have enough diversity here at XYZ company and be labeled as kind of a militant,” he said.
Too often, people equate racism only with the horrors of the Jim Crow South, segregation, and slavery, and the fight to right these wrongs.
“Racism is not just about dragging someone behind a truck or hanging someone from a tree,” Curry said.
It is found, he said, in students of color being suspended or expelled at rates higher than their white counterparts, and when apartments available over the phone become mysteriously rented once the potential tenant, a person of color, arrives. There are doctors who withhold treatment based on cultural assumptions and nightclubs that will not host events for young professionals of color because they don’t want to play hip-hop, rhythm and blues, or reggae, all music popular in black communities.
“These are modern manifestations of racism, and we just decide they’re something else,” Curry said. “They happen every day in every corner of the state.”
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which enforces civil rights laws, received 3,186 complaints last year. And Curry said the NAACP office is “backlogged” with discrimination complaints.
Economic development, say civil rights activists, continues to create a huge gulf between people of color and whites. Many point to development along Boston’s waterfront and the two midpriced hotels to be built across from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, as part of the first phase of a $2 billion expansion project.
The hotels are not owned by minorities nor are they being developed by minority-owned businesses. A minority consultant was brought in only after the development contracts were awarded, according to civil rights leaders.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority said developers have promised to fulfill contract goals for ensuring that women and minority-owned business are involved in the design and construction of the hotels.
Activists called the goals “very weak.”
State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, wants to ensure that women- and minority-owned businesses are involved from the start during the second phase of the expansion project.
She is pushing legislation cosponsored by state Representative Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat, that requires a supplier diversity program to ensure that Boston residents and businesses owned by women and people of color are included in the management, design, and construction of the expansion project.
The legislation also includes a workforce diversity program to make sure the “boots on the ground” reflect the city’s diversity. And Dorcena Forry wants quarterly reports scrutinizing whether contracts goals are fulfilled.
This is an example of the meaningful reform civil rights leaders said they want to see come from City Hall.
“Black people and brown people are an afterthought when the deals are being made as opposed to, ‘How about us being at the table when the when the opportunities are being created?’ ” the Urban League’s Williams said. “There’s an opportunity to push the envelope.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.