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From The Archives | March 9, 1987

Racial climate improved, Hub residents say 41 percent in poll see more tolerance

This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on Monday, March 9, 1987.

Many residents of Boston believe race relations in the city have improved in the last five years, a Boston Globe poll shows.

Although most city residents still live in neighborhoods in which one race predominates and half oppose court-ordered busing to achieve racial integration in public schools, 41 percent of the respondents said race relations in Boston had improved in recent years and 37 percent said race relations had stayed the same. Only 16 percent felt the situation had grown worse.

Racial tensions in the city were pushed to a dangerous point when court- ordered school busing began in 1974.

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Today, however, according to the poll, Boston is enjoying an era of better feelings between the races. At the same time, it showed that black and white city residents tend to be isolated from one another and have different experiences and views on race relations and the quality of city services. The attitudes of Asian and Hispanic residents generally fell between black and white attitudes.

White respondents were more likely than black to say that race relations had improved. A total of 44 percent of the white residents said the situation had improved compared to only 30 percent of black residents. Peter Power, 39, a white building contractor who lives in Fields Corner, described the racial climate as “more tolerable.”

“In my neighborhood of Fields Corner, I don’t pick up as much of the slurs, the out-and-out kinds of bigotry, I saw four or five years ago,” he said. “People are dealing with one another in a milder kind of manner. There is still hostility but it’s not an overt kind of thing.”

In the absence of a major racial incident such as the recent death of a black man chased by whites at Howard Beach in New York, a spirit of optimism buoyed by a strong economy pervades the city.

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The poll revealed signs of growing tolerance. When asked whether housing units for low-income families should be reserved for families in that neighborhood or open to all city residents, 68 percent said totally open in contrast to 22 percent who said neighborhood families only.

Not all agreed that the racial situation has improved. Among those who believed the situation has worsened, 23 percent were black and 14 percent white. Black concerns about the racial climate and city services led to the unsuccessful Mandela campaign to secede from the city last year.

Residents of neighborhoods where opposition to court-ordered busing remains strongest were most likely to view the racial situation as better.

In South Boston, where buses carrying black children were attacked in the first years of busing, 64 percent of the respondents believed race relations have improved in the past five years, followed by Charlestown and East Boston at 51 percent, Hyde Park at 49 percent and Roslindale at 47 percent.

However, 65 percent of the Charlestown residents polled and 55 percent of the South Boston residents said black people would not feel comfortable walking in their neighborhoods.

Eleanor Boudreau, 67, a resident of a Charlestown public housing project for the past 48 years, said, “We don’t have too many colored here anyway, not as yet. I don’t think they like to move in here. I think they like their own section. They like to be with their own people.”

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The poll, conducted for the Globe by Gary R. Orren, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Peter H. Lemieux, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was based on 1,306 telephone interviews -- approximately 100 in each of 13 Boston neighborhoods -- conducted from Feb. 22 to March 1.

Views on court-ordered busing have changed since the federal court order took effect in 1974. A total of 50 percent of the poll respondents oppose busing and 42 percent support it -- which puts Boston residents in line with national views. In April 1974, a Globe poll conducted by Decision Research Corp. showed that 63 percent of Bostonians were against busing and 29 percent supported it.

Sentiment against busing remains strongest in largely white neighborhoods. In South Boston, 85 percent of those polled oppose busing; in Hyde Park, 74 percent; Charlestown, 71 percent; Roslindale, 67 percent; West Roxbury, 65 percent, and East Boston, 64 percent.

Support for busing was strongest in black, racially mixed and liberal neighborhoods including Beacon Hill/Back Bay/South End, 56 percent; Roxbury, 54 percent; Jamaica Plain, 52 percent; Allston/Brighton, 51 percent, and Mattapan, 50 percent.

Younger residents were more likely to support busing than older residents. Indeed, support for busing grows steadily as one moves from older to younger respondents.

The largely black neighborhoods had the highest number of residents who felt the racial situation had grown worse. In Roxbury, 26 percent said relations were worse. In Dorchester, it was 25 percent, and in Mattapan, 19 percent.

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Richard Pugh, 18, a black resident of Roxbury and a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering technology at Northeastern University, said he believed the racial climate has grown worse.

When he rides the trolley to his part-time job as a security guard, he said he senses hostility from white passengers. “The racial climate is worse now,” he said. “You go anywhere and you get hassled. It’s getting worse and worse. People are teaching their kids to be racist.”

Yet a clear majority of residents of both races agreed that a person of the opposite race would feel comfortable walking in their neighborhoods. A total of 76 percent of white residents said that a black person would feel comfortable walking in their neighborhoods while 58 percent of black residents said a white person would feel comfortable walking in their neighborhood.

A similar poll of New York City residents conducted in January for the New York Times and CBS News found that 84 percent of the white residents and 59 percent of the black residents thought a person of another race would feel comfortable walking in their neighborhoods.

The Globe poll suggested that black and white Bostonians have less contact with members of another race than their counterparts in New York City. Only 29 percent of black New Yorkers said they had not walked through a white neighborhood in the past year in contrast to 42 percent of black Bostonians.

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Yet white Bostonians said they walked through black neighborhoods even less than black residents walk through white neighborhoods. Harry Friedman, 34, a white lawyer in Brighton, thought the racial climate has improved but admitted, “There are still parts of town where I would never walk before and would never walk in now.” Younger black residents shared his hesitation about walking through white neighborhoods.

On the other hand, a 50-year-old white woman in West Roxbury who asked that her name not be used said she thought the racial climate has stayed about the same. She works at a nursing home in a largely black section of Jamaica Plain. ‘‘I work in a black area. I’m not nervous myself in that area,” she said.

Cheryl Wingate, 25, a black student at Boston University Medical School, was among those black residents who believed that racial tensions have become ‘‘a little bit worse.” Violence against Vietnamese and Cambodian residents has become “a lot more prevalent,” she said.

Black residents -- particularly those with children in the schools -- were more dissatisfied than white residents with the quality of the public schools, which serve an overwhelmingly minority student population. One-third of the black residents polled want to move out of the metropolitan Boston area within the next five years.

The growing drug problem in certain black neighborhoods has taken a toll on attitudes towards the police. Blacks were less satisfied with the quality of police protection than whites. Mabel Truley, 66, a black presser in Roxbury, said the police have failed to stop drug dealing in her neighborhood. “I’m not satisfied with the police. There are boys selling dope around here. I call the hot line and the police don’t come,” she said.

Affordable housing, a problem in many neighborhoods, is also a subject of more acute dissatisfaction among black residents.

Despite the high level of dissatisfaction with some city services, black residents highly approved of Mayor Flynn and did not hold him responsible for inadequate services. Indeed, while residents of Roxbury and Mattapan said the amount of attention the city has paid to their neighbborhoods has not increased over the last few years, they were the most likely to say that Flynn

himself has given their neighborhoods more of a voice in running the city.

This poll was conducted for The Boston Globe by Prof. Gary R. Orren of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and Peter H. Lemieux, a lecturer in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is based on 1,306 telephone interviews with adult residents of Boston.

Telephone interviews were chosen randomly by computer in order to yield a representative sample of households. Interviews were conducted from Feb. 22 to March 1, with about 100 adults in each of 13 neighborhoods. For citywide analysis, the interviews were weighted by the adult population of each neighborhood to represent the entire city of Boston.

In theory, 95 times out of 100, the results from the overall sample should differ no more than three percentage points from what would have been found by surveying the entire population. The sampling error from smaller subgroups such as the individual neighborhoods is larger, depending on the size of these groups. Other errors can result from the usual practical problems of conducting a public opinion survey.