In a scene from “Arrested Development,” a character discovers a brown paper bag in his refrigerator with a written warning: “DEAD DOVE Do Not Eat.” He opens the bag and finds a very dead, very inedible dove. After recoiling, he shakes his head and says, “Well, I don’t know what I expected.”
That pretty much describes the seven days since I called Boston racist: more than 360 comments. More than 150 e-mails. Dozens of tweets. I don’t know what I expected.
Last week, I defended “Saturday Night Live” comedian Michael Che’s refusal to apologize for calling Boston “the most racist city I’ve ever been to.” I said his comment “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.” I called the city where I’ve lived for nearly three decades “racially hostile,” and there were quite a few readers who, while disagreeing with my opinion, also proved my point.
This from someone I’ll identify as Jeff N.: “If you want to know why everyone hates you niggers, your article is a good reason why. Better yet, take a trip to Roxbury, you might find your answer there as well.” That was the deep end of the cesspool, and Jeff N. was not alone.
Other readers couldn’t understand why anyone would consider Boston racist. Mitch L., a self-described “Boston-based white man” wrote, “I have never observed racism among white people or from white people toward people of color. I lived right next door to a black family in a ‘wealthy white neighborhood’ for decades . . . and never observed racism from any neighbor.” While he called Boston “segregated by race and income,” he did not think the city was racist. Still, he wanted to understand where I was coming from.
As I try to do with readers who disagree without being disagreeable, I responded: “Have you ever been followed in a store because the workers assume you’ll steal? Have you ever been asked for ID when white people around you have not? Do people assume . . . you don’t belong [in a particular place] because you’re a person of color? Just because you haven’t experienced or observed racism, don’t doubt those who deal with it every day. I mean, if I told you I was in pain, would you doubt me simply because you don’t feel it?”
In Boston — as in every American city — people of color know racism is not a figment of our imaginations. For years, black students at Boston Latin School endured both racist comments from white classmates and the unwillingness of administrators to take action. Only after the black students’ continued agitation for change made headlines last year did the Boston Public Schools and the federal government launch an investigation that led to the elite school’s headmaster’s resignation.
It’s unlikely that Boston Latin is the city’s only institution dealing with these issues. When racist acts become news, it doesn’t make them new.
Last year, Mayor Marty Walsh held his inaugural “Boston Talks about Racism” town hall, a promised yearlong series of meetings he says “will lay the groundwork for a more united, more just, and more resilient city.” Hundreds flocked to the Cutler Majestic Theatre last November believing, as Walsh must, that racism remains a destructive presence in Boston.
This week, the mayor offered to meet with Che when the comedian returns for a June performance to discuss “his bad experiences in our city,” and how city and community leaders are working to make Boston more inclusive. I hope Che accepts the invitation, and teaches Walsh as much as Walsh would like Che to learn.
Without question, Boston is a better city than it was 30 or 40 years ago; it had nowhere to go but up. Still, less racism is still racism as surely as less cancer is still cancer. And in the past week, I was again reminded — not that I needed it — that racism remains a cancer that Boston is still struggling to eradicate.