Is it getting any easier to live as an African-American in Boston?
I was prompted to ponder that question upon realizing that exactly one year has passed since the Boston Globe Spotlight Team reported on the issue. The seven-part series “Boston. Race. Image. Reality,” explored the many ways that the city’s reputation for racism plays out in the lives of people who live in the city. I was one of the reporters on the series, along with Akilah Johnson, Andrew Ryan, Nicole Dungca, Todd Wallack, Liz Kowalczyk, and Spotlight editor Patty Wen.
We hoped the series would prompt a robust conversation, and it certainly did that. We gave dozens of talks to civic groups, companies, law firms, and college classes. Everyone wanted to talk about it.
But now what?
One change we suggested happened quickly. The city renamed Yawkey Way (over the strong objections of the Yawkey Foundation). It has reverted to its old name of Jersey Street, and I don’t think anyone misses the old moniker.
One day of the series explored at length the way that power is concentrated in the hands of a nearly all-white old guard, which we found to be true both of the political world and the equally insular business community.
This, of course, is the area that has seen tangible change that even the biggest optimists wouldn’t have predicted a year ago. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley will become Congresswoman Pressley in a couple of weeks, following her resounding defeat of 20-year incumbent Michael Capuano. Rachael Rollins was elected Suffolk County district attorney, and will become the first African-American woman to hold the job.
When I met candidate Nika Elugardo at a panel on the Race series last winter, I thought her chances of ousting House Ways and Means chairman Jeffrey Sanchez were slim. Well, I was wrong about her prospects and Representative-elect Elugardo was entirely right about the progressive groundswell that she said would carry her to victory.
All of these impressive wins came despite the tacit opposition of the traditional political infrastructure. Most — not all — of the incumbent power brokers in town instinctively backed the same people they had supported for years. But voters are moving to the left and demanding more inclusive leadership, even as traditional politicians cling to their old alliances.
Leaving electoral politics aside, on other issues it would be hard to argue that the needle has moved much.
The single most memorable fact in the series, the one that everyone noted repeatedly, was financial: the net worth of white families in the area was $247,500, compared with $8 for African-American families. That number was so shocking that we had to do a second story explaining that it wasn’t a typo or a math error.
Here’s the significance of that number to me. The economic inequality it reflects was a huge factor in nearly every ill the series talked about. That wealth gap drives housing segregation, social isolation, unequal educational opportunity, and so much more.
Obviously, this is far more complicated than renaming a street. But not nearly enough is being done to address the huge disparity in economic opportunity. Massport, surprisingly, is the agency that has made the greatest effort, insisting on opening up development in the Seaport to real estate teams that include people of color in meaningful roles.
The city has leverage over developers and others who need approvals that it could use as well, but seems unwilling to address the issue of inequality as forthrightly as its peers at the state. Mayor Marty Walsh has said the right things, but where’s the boldness?
Boston is eager to do more than just talk about issues of race. But truly moving the city where it wants to go will take more than declarations of solidarity. This is the moment to begin to tackle thorny issues of racial equality, and missing it would be a tragedy.