Boston is racist.
Those with a tendency to discount the personal experiences of others can debate whether Boston is, as “Saturday Night Live” cast member Michael Che claims, “the most racist city I’ve ever been to.” There is, however, no debate on whether people of color, black people in particular, find Boston inhospitable.
At his Boston University stand-up performance last week, Che refused to apologize for the provocative comment he made in February during a “Weekend Update” segment on the late night show. And why should he? He spoke his truth, and its refrain rang familiar to more than a few of us who have lived in the city, spent time here for college, or still call the Hub home. Those who agree with and defend Che, have had to endure, on social media and talk radio, too much whitesplaining that Boston can’t be racist if white people don’t see it.
In his book “Liberty’s Chosen Home: The Politics of Violence in Boston,” the late Globe columnist Alan Lupo wrote, “Perhaps the biggest cliché this city had to bear is that it is a liberal city.” That’s why the tumultuous busing era in the 1970s was so scarring — Boston was thought to be above such rancor. And for many African-Americans, that period has long branded the city as racially hostile.
In fairness, Boston today is not the Boston of Louise Day Hicks, the City Council member who did everything in her power to thwart school desegregation. It’s also not the city where, despite warnings from friends and family, I relocated nearly 30 years ago. After all, having lived in a Florida community where a neighbor flew a Confederate flag in front of his home, I felt somewhat inoculated from whatever Boston could toss my way.
Boston taught me the tough lesson that racism was more than a treasonous flag snapping in a stiff breeze.
In the 1980s, Bradlees, a now-defunct department store, had a policy of noting its customers’ race on personal checks, presumably so they could undergo further scrutiny. With 129 locations in eight states, this was standard operating procedure in only two stores — both in Dorchester. (Public backlash, after a series of Globe articles, finally forced Bradlees to drop this odious rule in 1990.)
During my early years in Boston, some stores would keep certain items, like black hair care products or hip-hop CDs, behind its counters, assuming that customers of such goods were more likely to steal them. Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, Carol, and blamed a fictional black assailant. Months later, his hoax was discovered, but not before the city again roiled with racist recriminations.
No one would deny that bigotry is an affliction unconfined to a single city, state, or region. Nor should anyone doubt that racism, like a horror movie monster, has many dreaded faces. It is just as often environmental, economic, and medical. It lies behind the dismal findings of a 2015 Boston University study that showed that residents in the predominately white Back Bay have a life expectancy of 90 years; in Roxbury, a few miles away, with a large black population, that expectancy drops to 59 years.
For all its sophistication, Boston is very parochial. That can be especially acute for people of color who despite years, even decades, here, still find boundaries they are reluctant to cross. Boston has worked to repair its reputation, but that work remains incomplete. The question isn’t whether this city is racist, but what its citizens, business leaders, and elected officials plan to do beyond occasionally talking about it. Perhaps a solid first step will be for people to be as outraged by the racism that clings to Boston like a second skin as they are by a comedian who had the audacity to call it out.