That black people find Boston racially inhospitable isn’t news. While angry white faces standing between a black child and a schoolhouse door does not represent the city today, Boston isn’t any more inclusive for black people now than it was during its rancorous busing era four decades ago.
In its seven-part series “BOSTON. RACISM. IMAGE. REALITY,” the Globe’s Spotlight team outlined the indelible stain of racism on Boston’s reputation. It also painstakingly detailed how that mark has deepened and hardened over time. As Boston enjoys an economic boom, black residents still find themselves segregated in housing, schools, and even hospitals, and excluded from boardrooms, job opportunities, and political power.
“To be a black person in Boston, is [often] to be the only one. . . . The only one in the office; the only one in the leadership position. It’s lonely,” Bridgit Brown, a communications specialist from Dorchester, told the Globe. “You’re aware of the racism. You’re aware of the subtleties. It’s like the air we breathe, if you’re black.”
Racism is nimble. It shape-shifts away from the most obvious, headline-grabbing horrors, allowing those in corridors of power, as well as ordinary white people, to insist things aren’t as bad as they used to be. And, in the most superficial sense, they aren’t. Still, such facile readings ignore how racism burrows in, normalized and equivocated, until it becomes just another accepted part of our landscape.
Its toll on Boston’s black community is immeasurable. Yet the price for a city that considers itself world class is also unacceptably high. For all its achievements, pervasive racism forces Boston to operate with one arm tied behind its back.
No city fully realizes its potential unless it makes the most of what political leaders like to call its “human capital.” Those are the people who, given an opportunity to do so, share their singular talents and vision to help stamp a city’s identity. With its many esteemed colleges and universities, Boston has always been in a unique position to welcome fresh young minds into the city every year and make its case that this city is more than just an academic destination.
In recent years, Boston has made it a priority to retain as permanent residents graduating students. In 2013, a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston study revealed that, compared with other census areas, New England retains fewer college graduates, leading to a so-called “brain drain.”
With black college students, even getting them to come to Boston is difficult. Few want to confront what they see as entrenched racism. The Spotlight team found that African-American enrollment in Greater Boston area universities was less than 7 percent in 2015. That’s significantly less than other major metro areas; nationally, the average for black enrollment is 11 percent.
This could be a refreshing infusion of young black people, some who might stay to establish a real black middle class in Boston. Instead, they won’t even step foot in the city.
“I had the impression that it was this liberal city and that the race relations were on par with Los Angeles or New York,” Melissa Potter Forde told the Globe. A 2006 Northeastern University graduate, she left Boston to finish her last semester in New York. “But I realize there’s still a time of evolution that’s still taking place in the city. Racism was a big part of why I left.”
It’s also a big part of why African-Americans generally don’t stay in Boston after college. In a national survey commissioned by the Globe this fall, black people ranked Boston, out of eight major cities, as the least welcoming to people of color. More than half of those surveyed also rated Boston as unwelcoming
When they come at all, many black college students leave the city as soon as they have their degree in hand. For many, four years in Boston is enough, and greater opportunities, they believe, lie in such places as Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Chicago. These cities also have their own persistent issues with racism, yet present more opportunities and cultural balance. It’s a sentiment passed from one generation to the next. Black people who move to Boston are often warned by their families to reconsider. And when black friends visit, they are usually struck by what looks like Boston’s overwhelming whiteness.
As the Spotlight series pointed out, Boston has worked to ensure that the city does not slip back into the tragic errors of its troubled past. Mayor Martin Walsh has sponsored public conversations about race, but there’s still not much of an indication how that talk will be translated into action. We’ve long since answered the question about whether Boston is racist. The question remains how best to address that fact.
Leaders often speak of diversity, but it’s ardent inclusion that allows cities to thrive. Right now, Boston is failing to utilize to the fullest 23 percent of its population. Nor is it doing enough to convince black professionals that this city welcomes what they have to offer.
Boston is a fine city, but systemic racism continues to bleed us of black talent, innovation, and the cultural spark that turns a good place to live for some into a great place to live for everyone.