Racial insults at Fenway open old wounds in Boston’s black community

Baltimore Orioles Adam Jones at a press conference Tuesday.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Baltimore Orioles Adam Jones at a press conference Tuesday.

The racial insults hurled at a professional baseball player Monday at Fenway Park have opened up old wounds in Boston’s black community

Although the city has come a long way since people pelted yellow buses carrying black children to schools, the Fenway slurs targeting Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones triggered painful memories for some of the city’s civil rights leaders who are trying to move past Boston’s sordid history.

“I got sick in the pit of my stomach, because we are in a different place’’ and a different time, said Hubie Jones, a longtime advocate for social change. “We are certainly nowhere where we were in 1974,’’ when court-ordered desegregation of schools tore the city apart along racial lines.


Jones, who is black, told reporters after his team’s 5-2 victory over the Red Sox that a bag of peanuts was thrown at him from the stands during the game and he was called the “n-word a handful of times.”

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The insults came several weeks after “Saturday Night Live” comedian Michael Che called Boston “the most racist city” he’s ever visited. It also dredged up memories from a 2012 incident in which angry Bruins fans took to Twitter to spew racial insults at Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward, whose winning goal eliminated the Bruins from the playoffs.

The Fenway incident was quickly condemned by leaders of the Red Sox, Major League Baseball, and local politicians, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, called it “a shame on the city” and said Jones experienced “the worst of Boston.”

Both Walsh and his main mayoral challenger, Councilor Tito Jackson, said the insults and behavior were “unacceptable.’


“We are better than this,’’ said Jackson, who is seeking to be the city’s first black mayor. “But we must be deliberate about dealing with these issues.”

Walsh, who launched a citywide conversation on race last year, said the incident puts a dark cloud over the city and he hopes authorities will quickly determine who is responsible.

“I’m saddened by the fact that here we are working in the city to do what we need to do to have a great city . . . and one person makes this statement,’’ Walsh said. “It’s clearly racist making statements like that. Enjoy the game. If you can’t enjoy the game, then don’t come.”

But the incident has brought fresh focus to Boston, a city unable to shake the perception that it is not welcoming to people of color.

“It’s Boston,’’ said Segun Idowu, a 28-year-old Hyde Park activist who helped push for city police to wear body cameras. “The underlying racial animosity is here. On the surface we are one Boston. But clearly this shows that all of the remnants [from the past] have not been washed away.”


It is still not known whether the insults came from Boston residents or fans from other communities.

Peniel Joseph, founding director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, said the incident brought focus to racial disparities in Boston. A recent study found that Boston is among the worst US cities for income inequality. Boston remains largely segregated; its building boom has not trickled into predominantly black neighborhoods; and schools heavily populated with students of color face an achievement gap, Joseph and others said.

The Jones incident is “tapping to a deep reservoir of structural racism, historic discrimination in the city of Boston, but also active and continuous biases and institutional racism,’’ said Joseph, who is now a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Boston is an awful place for blacks,’’ he said.

Barbara Lewis, who is director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which studies black culture, said the insults should not be viewed as typical vulgar remarks directed at opposing teams that frequently can be heard in the stands at ball games. Such remarks are “verbally violent,’’ she said.

Still, she said, they have a particular resonance in Boston, a highly educated city whose residents believe they have moved beyond their racial past.

“Boston doesn’t like to think of itself as a racist city. That is not how it sees itself,’’ Lewis said. “But more often than not, that is not how it is seen by folks of color in Boston and folks who come from other cities.”

She pointed to the remarks from Che, and to an incident several years ago at a Theater District nightclub, where Harvard and Yale black alumni at a celebration were told to leave. The club later issued a public apology, paid a $30,000 fine, and had antidiscrimination training for its staff.

Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who intervened and advocated on behalf of the graduates, said the punishment did not stop racial profiling at nightclubs and other venues, but it showed that Boston will not tolerate such actions.

She noted the many people of all races through the years who have fought for a more inclusive and respectful city. Many of the city’s beloved and celebrated athletes — including Isaiah Thomas and David “Big Papi” Ortiz — are people of color. But Pressley and others say more work needs to be done. Blacks and other people of color remain underrepresented in powerful leadership positions at big corporations, institutions, and even City Hall.

“Racism is not just a pervasive cultural phenomenon,’’ Pressley said. “Racism is something that is perpetuated through policy. And that is why we need people to pay attention to criminal justice reform, the achievement gap, and the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a political consultant from Roxbury, acknowledged that some city polices and practices are exclusionary and can be viewed as racist. But she said racial discrimination and intolerance have been built into every fabric of every city in the country “where blacks and other people of color are kept down and lack access to opportunity.”

“A quandary for me, and a disappointment, is why Boston continues to maintain that [negative] image, when many places in the South where discrimination and racism led to outright lynchings of our people have not,’’ she said in an e-mail.

Jones, the civil rights leader, said one of the reasons the Fenway incident hit him so hard was because he believed times had changed. He said that three years ago, he approached the Boston Celtics about holding a moment of silence in honor of the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

They have obliged every year since. In January, Celtics player Jaylen Brown addressed the audience about the impact of King’s legacy.

The audience applauded, Jones said.

“I thought we had moved past that, and then I picked up the paper,’’ he said. “It took me back.“

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.