When the 2020 NAACP Convention was awarded to Boston last summer, it was hailed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh as a high-profile opportunity to show off the city’s progress in battling its image of troubled race relations.
Convention delegates from across the country — many of them leaders in their communities — would see what Boston has to offer, would discover that a city that has often been described as inhospitable to people of color has turned a corner.
The convention — scheduled for July 25-29 — is still months away, but there is growing anxiety in some quarters that the city isn’t prepared for the attention coming its way. Beneath the talk of great opportunity, there are whispers — particularly within the business community — that the city isn’t far enough along in planning how to present its best face to a skeptical national audience.
To be sure, the planning for the convention itself falls to the NAACP. Boston branch president Tanisha Sullivan said that process is well underway, with a host committee to be announced in the coming weeks.
But Sullivan, and others as well, have been emphatic that the convention needs to be more than just a party — and that the Walsh administration needs to play a significant role. She says she views it as an opportunity for the city to show that it is serious about addressing the issues the NAACP is committed to — economic inequality, affordable housing, and educational opportunity.
“We’re really excited about the convention coming to Boston and working with the city to leverage this moment,” Sullivan said. “I think the mayor should take this as an opportunity to really put a stake in the ground as it relates to addressing economic inequality in the city.”
It’s an opportunity, but also a fraught moment for the city, and for Walsh. As reported in a 2017 Spotlight Team series on race in Boston, this city is consistently ranked as the least hospitable for African-Americans to visit. That image didn’t get any better with last year’s high-profile racist incident at the Museum of Fine Arts, where a group of black and brown middle-school students said they were mistreated on a field trip. (Imagine the headlines around the country were something like that to happen to a group of NAACP delegates.) And the Seaport itself — where the convention center and its affiliated hotels are located — is an area notorious for its lack of diversity.
John Barros, the city’s chief economic development officer, said the administration sees the convention as an important moment. “When we made the pitch we made it clear that we would be ready to help them with anything they needed from a logistical standpoint, of anything else they needed to make sure it was a successful convention and Boston was a great host city,” he said Tuesday.
Some specific ideas have been floated as a means of ensuring that the city makes a good impression. The makeup of the host committee itself is key, obviously. It has to be diverse, it needs a healthy mix of powerful players and community activists, and it has to be able to both raise cash and reflect the city. (Former state senator Linda Dorcena Forry, now an executive at Suffolk Construction, has been mentioned as an ideal chair.)
There needs to be a robust presence of minority-owned businesses. This is one place where City Hall can work on two goals at once, since the percentage of minority-owned businesses getting city contracts has been stuck at an abysmal 1 percent. Recruiting minority vendors to work in and around the convention could be an important step in finding vendors to work with the city, in general.
Barros said the administration hoped the delegates will leave the Seaport, and explore the city’s neighborhoods. “You don’t really get a feel for Boston from downtown,” he said. “And we want to make sure our businesses are part of this as well.”
That’s a nice sentiment. But — as with many of the administration’s race-related initiatives — it’s a work in progress. Years of pledging to promote the cause of minority-owned businesses has resulted in little so far besides a still-uncompleted “disparity study.” A series of “race dialogues’’ kicked off to great fanfare a couple of years ago faded from view quickly and unceremoniously.
At one level, the NAACP convention is just a few days in the life of the city. But from another perspective, it’s a test of Boston’s ability to show its commitment to racial equity in a tangible way — a test the city has famously failed in the past.
The clock is ticking. And people will be watching.