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All-black mayoral debate is short-sighted

Boston’s candidates for mayor have participated in dozens of forums, sponsored by a plethora of community organizations, with more to come — including one billed as “the first mayoral forum for candidates of color.”

It is scheduled to be held on Sept. 10 at Freedom House, a Dorchester-based non-profit. The incentive, said community activist Jamarhl Crawford, who is promoting the event, is to let non-white mayoral candidates address the specific concerns of Boston’s non-white voters.

According to a promotional flyer posted on Crawford’s blog, Blackstonian, the event is “free and open to all” — so the audience is not restricted. But forum participants are. The flyer features the photos of six candidates expected to participate — John F. Barros, Charlotte Golar Richie, Felix G. Arroyo, Charles C. Yancey, Charles C. Clemons Jr., and David J. Wyatt.


The event raises one obvious question: What would the forum organizer and candidates think about a political event that excluded any of them on the basis of skin color?

In response, Crawford said that is often the argument raised by “racists and right-wingers.” As he sees it, white culture is so pervasive in American society that “it leaves blacks and other minorities out of the loop.” An event like this is a way to offset that outcome, he explains.

As Crawford correctly points out, political candidates, in general, are often excluded from debates and media coverage on the basis of polling data and how much money they have raised. When that happens, no one — except the excluded candidate — usually questions those judgments.

That’s a valid point, but it bypasses the reality of what’s happening here. As the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, a community activist and Richie supporter, candidly acknowledges, “there’s a double standard” when it comes to matters of reverse discrimination.

Specifically excluding black candidates from any forum would elicit howls of protest; so would excluding a woman. Excluding white men does not generate similar outrage.

Given all the forums, there has been plenty of opportunity for all the candidates. However, from a strictly political perspective, the plan for this Freedom House forum seems short-sighted.


Boston may yet elect its first mayor of color from the candidates invited to participate in it. But there’s still a strong chance the next mayor will come from the pool of white male candidates who were not invited to participate.

Why let them any one of them off the hook? Why not press each for commitments to Boston’s assorted communities of color? Why give up the leverage that comes with hosting a candidate in your community?

Non-white residents now represent the majority of the city’s population. Yet so much of Boston’s economic development has passed them by. Non-white residents are most affected by neighborhood crime and sub-par schools. Yet they have had to settle for years of lip service and unfulfilled promises to deliver excellent schools and a police force that is more reflective of the community it safeguards.

Non-white residents should be able to expect more diversity in City Hall hiring, no matter what the next mayor’s gender or ethnic heritage. One way to set expectations is to invite every candidate and press everyone who shows up for answers to longstanding issues of inequity. Voters are then better able to hold the winner accountable for all the promises made on the campaign trail.

A forum sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Boston NAACP is also scheduled to be held on Sept. 10 — beginning at 6:30, after the Freedom House forum.


It will feature all 12 candidates. Michael Curry, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said the Freedom House forum is specifically limited to candidates of color and “what they think is the vision for the citizens of Boston. We want a broader conversation.”

Boston needs more broad conversations about serious subjects like the achievement gap in Boston schools, the high unemployment in non-white neighborhoods, and the connection between dropout rates and joblessness to crime. There shouldn’t be one Boston worried about happy hour and another Boston worried about drive-by shootings.

For too long, Boston’s non-white population has demanded too little of City Hall. Now is the time to invite in all who would be mayor — the better to demand more.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

Clarification: An earlier version of this column incorrectly listed Jamarhl Crawford’s role in the forum. He is promoting the event. The event is being organized by Maggie Brown and Jocelyn Choate of “For the Community by the Community.” Freedom House is providing space for the Sept. 10 event but is not a host or sponsor.