spotlight follow-up

11 takeaways from this month’s Spotlight series on race in Boston

The Spotlight Team recently took on one of the hardest questions facing this city: Does Boston deserve its racist reputation?

The team’s ambitious seven-part series, “Boston.Racism.Image.Reality,” found that the answer is both complicated and sometimes quite discouraging. While the team uncovered signs of progress, it also found striking inequality between blacks and whites in Greater Boston as well as signs of discrimination. Here are 11 takeaways from the stories and the facts behind them:

1) Boston really does have a racist reputation.

It’s not just wisecracks by comedians like Michael Che and John Oliver. A poll commissioned by the Globe found that 54 percent of black people across the country rated Boston as unwelcoming to people of color, far more than other cities included in the poll such as New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco. In addition, a number of Boston employers said they have had trouble recruiting talented black employees from other states because of the city’s reputation.

2) Black families are much poorer than white ones.


By virtually every measure, there is a yawning gap between black and white households in the metro area. Black families are far less likely to own their homes or businesses, have much money in savings, or take home a decent paycheck. One statistic was so startling that some readers thought it was a typo: The median net worth for African-American households, excluding immigrants, was just $8, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. For white households, that figure was $247,500.

3) Greater Boston is whiter than most other major metro areas.

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Nearly three of every four people in metro Boston are white, a higher proportion than any other metro area among the nation’s top 10. And just 7 percent of residents are black. Indeed, more than two dozen towns in Massachusetts — including Manchester-by-the-Sea and Plympton — had no black residents at all, according to recent Census estimates. This helps explain why so many black residents say they feel isolated.

4) It is hard to find prosperous black neighborhoods in metro Boston.

Many black professionals said they feel particularly isolated here. Because of the relatively small black population and stubborn income gap, there are few middle-and-upper-class black neighborhoods in the region. The Globe identified just four enclaves with a significant number of black residents who have a college degree and healthy income, compared with more than 100 each in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta. Put another way, Boston is the 10th largest metro area but is tied for 46th in the number of prosperous black enclaves.

5) Discrimination is real.

In a study of nearly 600 Craigslist ads for apartments in the Boston area, the Spotlight Team found landlords were more likely to ignore e-mails sent by someone with a black-sounding name than a white-sounding name. And a Suffolk University/Boston Globepoll of black Bostonians found almost two-thirds said they had been treated unfairly because of their race in just the past 30 days in some setting, such as their job or shopping.

6) Black enrollment at many colleges remains low.

Colleges often boast about their diversity. But the Spotlight Team found many local universities have increasingly focused on recruiting wealthy foreign students, while neglecting black applicants (who are more likely to qualify for financial aid). At Harvard University, just 5 percent of students are black, less than half the national average for black enrollment for schools offering at least a bachelor’s degree. At Boston University, it’s just 4 percent, little changed from 1980.

7) Boston’s newest neighborhood is also one of the whitest.


Like many cities, Boston has long had segregated neighborhoods. The North End is overwhelmingly white. Mattapan is mostly black. But when the city had an opportunity to build a new neighborhood on the waterfront — built with the help of billions of dollars in public funding — it wound up creating one of the whitest, wealthiest enclaves in the city. Blacks accounted for just three of 660 home purchases in the Seaport over the past decade. That’s partly because housing is so expensive in the Seaport, out of reach for the vast majority of black households.

8) Health care is segregated, too.

Much like neighborhoods, some Boston hospitals show signs of segregation. Just 5 percent of patients at the prestigious Mass. General Hospital are black, compared with 40 percent at Boston Medical Center a few miles away. Much of that is because of geography. Mass. General is in a largely white neighborhood, while Boston Medical is closer to black neighborhoods. But even when the Spotlight Team looked at specific neighborhoods, it found white patients were more likely to go to Mass. General, while black patients were more likely to go to Boston Medical. Partly, that’s because some lower-cost insurance plans often used by blacks don’t pay for care at Mass. General. In addition, some black patients said they felt more comfortable at more diverse hospitals with more black doctors.

9) Boston’s image has been damaged by a few racist sports fans.

Though relatively rare, the Globe found more cases where pro athletes said they faced racist taunts in Boston than any other major city, in a search of news stories over the past 25 years. Eight players in major sports said they faced racist slurs in Boston, compared with five in Chicago and no more than one each in 14 other cities. Moreover, the Boston incidents typically sparked far more media attention than similar incidents in other locations, further wounding the city’s reputation. For instance, when Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said he was called the n-word at Fenway, it spawned more than 21,000 articles. By contrast, similar incidents in three other cities generated one-tenth as much coverage.

10) Few black people hold positions of power.

Unlike most of the 25 biggest US cities, Boston has never had a black mayor. The entire congressional delegation is white. And only one black candidate has won election to statewide office in the past 45 years (former governor Deval Patrick). The power outage is just as stark in the business sector. Fewer than 1 in 50 senior managers at Boston-area companies are black. Another eye-catching statistic: Boston’s top 10 largest law firms collectively have more than 1,000 partners. But just eight are black.

11) There are plenty of potential solutions.

Experts say there’s no single salve to repair Boston’s reputation and erase racial disparities. But more than 3,000 people joined a special Facebook Group to talk about the problem and readers posted more than 1,000 comments. Readers and experts also offered a variety of ideas, such as taking new initiatives to court black tourists and stepping up recruitment of black college students. As part of the series, the Globe also examined itself. Globe editor Brian McGrory vowed to launch additional efforts to increase diversity in the newsroom, such as making sure the Globe includes at least one person of color when interviewing outside job candidates. The Globe is also exploring holding a forum early next year to further the discussion.

To contact the Spotlight Team working on this project, write to, or contact the writer of this story at