scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | David Scharfenberg

Boston needs an honest commitment to racial integration

Joan McLarin says a last minute goodbye to her eighth grade son, Milton, as his bus leaves for Braintree Jr. High School on Sept. 7, 1966, the first day of the voluntary busing program sponsored by METCO.Dan Sheehan/Globe Staff

Tanisha Sullivan, the new president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, speaks ardently of economic development and criminal justice reform.

But ask her about integration, once her organization’s signature cause, and she’s more ambivalent.

Too often, she says, it comes in the form of gentrification, with upwardly mobile whites pushing black working folk out of their neighborhoods. And many low-income black families, she says, aren’t interested in efforts to integrate whiter, wealthier places — preferring to remain in the communities they’ve known their whole lives.

Most of the white and woke nod in agreement when they hear those kinds of concerns. There’s obvious truth in what Sullivan says. And harping too much on the virtues of integration can feel paternalistic — and more than a little outdated.


Integration is so 1963.

But it would be a grave mistake for Boston, a liberal redoubt in the midst of a searching conversation about race — kicked off last year by a pair of black Boston Latin students calling out insensitivity at the elite school and fleshed out in a recent series by the Globe’s Spotlight Team — to write off the single most important racial justice strategy we’ve got.

Our aversion has something to do with local history. Say “integration” in these parts, and the mind immediately leaps to the disastrous busing experiment of the 1970s. Forced integration, we learned, simply does not work. But integration need not be forced. And if it’s done right, it can have powerful effects.

Landmark research from economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren shows that moving low-income families to thriving neighborhoods represents our best shot at breaking intergenerational

Children who make the move at a young age are more likely to go to college, less likely to become single parents, and will earn more money than those who remain in high-poverty neighborhoods.


And there are practical ways to integrate white, wealthy suburbs. I saw it myself last year when I visited the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which has turned the federal housing voucher into a powerful tool for racial and economic integration.

Participants, who join the program voluntarily, spend months preparing for a move to a better-off community — learning how to repair their credit, organize their housing searches, and care for hardwood floors.

Then they pile into minivans to go see apartments for rent and check out the schools their children could attend — acclimating to their new communities before they take the plunge, and improving their chances for long-term success.

Many of the 3,800 families who have made the move are led by single mothers. And I met several of them. They told me harrowing tales about their old lives in the city — stories of shielding their families from home invasions and steering their children past local drug dealers — and led me around their new communities, past the pools where their sons and daughters play, and into the spacious living rooms where they celebrate holidays and line up family pictures on the mantelpiece. Their lives, they said, had been transformed.

The program is not for everyone. Some participants have drifted back to their old neighborhoods. But the wait list for the Baltimore program is long — 14,574 families, as of last week. The lesson here is that many will move to better-off communities if given the choice, and stick with them if provided the right supports.


We don’t provide that sort of supported choice here in Massachusetts. We could and we should. We should also expand on the voluntary integration programs we’ve got — starting with METCO, which allows children of color in Boston and Springfield to attend high-performing schools in the suburbs.

You might imagine that school segregation isn’t the problem it used to be. It’s actually grown far worse. In 1990, about one in 10 black students in the Boston metropolitan region attended a highly segregated school, where more than 90 percent of students were nonwhite. Now, it’s more like one in four.

The research is clear. Students in segregated schools have less access to experienced teachers and advanced courses. And the achievement gap for black students widens as they make their way through segregated schools, as a study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management showed in 2009.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who won a MacArthur genius award for her work on school integration, put it bluntly in a recent episode of the podcast “The Atlantic Interview.” “Things that are acceptable for black children are never acceptable for white children,” she said. “So if you want what white children get, you have to be where white children are. . . . That’s what integration means for black kids.”


Suburban communities that already host METCO students should expand their programs. And those that do not should step up. Charles Walker, president of the METCO board, said nothing will attract additional funding from state lawmakers and private grant-makers like mounting interest in suburbia.

“If you come,” he said, of the suburbs, “then the state is going to be compelled to build it.”

Growing METCO is not the only suburban charge. The wealthy communities ringing Boston also need to relax their notoriously tight zoning restrictions so more mixed-
income projects can be built. And cities with thriving neighborhoods should loosen their own rules.

“Zoning is a city’s de facto immigration policy,” said Jesse Kanson-Benanav, chairman of A Better Cambridge, a “yes-in-my-backyard” advocacy group that encourages smart development. “Are you open to allowing new people to live in your community, or not?”

There is something deeply hypocritical about liberals who plant anti-Trump lawn signs alongside placards opposing the latest mixed-income housing proposal in town. If they want to live out their values, if they want to make a material difference in the lives of those they claim to stand up for, they’ve got to do something substantive in their own communities. Something concrete.

The integration I’m talking about isn’t the gauzy 1963 version we remember. It’s evidence-based social policy. It’s offering low-income families the high-functioning schools, safe streets, and clean parks that we know can change lives.

But even if we make a data-driven policy choice, that doesn’t mean we should discount the gauzy possibilities. If we want true racial reconciliation in this region — the kind we’ve talked about since the days of busing, but have never seriously pursued — then giving more white, black, and brown people the chance to live in close proximity is a good start.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.