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Boston still struggles with its racial past

Southie is no longer that close-knit old school “tough-as-nail” Irish Catholic enclave. But the historical memory still lingers because, in my opinion, stereotypes about class makes it easier to point the pox of racism at Southie, a hardscrabble community, than at liberal Cambridge where I reside, or at a tony suburb, like Wellesley, where I attended undergrad.

Boston is a “city of champions.” The appellation is not only about its dominance in sports. It’s about Boston being one of the country’s leading medical and academic hubs, too.
Boston still prides itself as a “city upon a hill” and it’s noted for a lot of firsts. For example, Boston Latin, established in 1635, was the first public school. Boston hosted the first World Series — the Red Sox took on the Pirates — in 1903. The first organ transplant was in 1954 at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The Boston Marathon -the city’s crown jewel – was the first marathon in the United States in 1897.

Boston’s educational hub and its rich African American heritage are what drew me here.
During the 1800’s Boston was the best city to be black in America. It was the epicenter of the country’s Abolitionist Movement, playing a major role in the Underground Railroad. And, it had the largest free African American population in the country, most these residents lived on the North Slope of Beacon Hill where now placards commemorating the neighborhood’s luminaries are dotted up and down its streets I walk today to attend functions at the African American Museum, the country’s first.

Lauded as one of the bluest states in the country with an activist court that has always been forward thinking I thought Boston would be one of the better cities for minorities like myself – LGBTQ, people of color, women, to call its second home.

But, I quickly learned Boston has an inglorious history, too.

So, when comedian Michael Che joked during a pre- Super Bowl “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live that Boston is one of “the most racist city I’ve ever been to” Che had no idea that he hit the city’s third rail. Nearly two months later and during an appearance at Boston University his controversial statement still simmered for many Bostonians, receiving criticism both from his audience and on social media when he refused to recant or apologize.
There really is no way to quantify how racist Boston is. I thought, however, a good indicator of Boston’s racial intolerance might be to look at the backlash Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham received from her op-eds.

Graham’s op-ed “Yes, Boston, you are racist” defending Che had to be followed by another “In Boston, less racism is still racism” because of the volume of outrage over the first one.
Looking at Boston’s racial history through the lens of public school education, one can easily see an area of its troubling past still present today.

Boston Latin School is a magnet school, attracting the city’s best and brightest. The school, however, is now under two investigations- the School Department’s Office of Equity and the U. S. Justice Department- and in the news. BLS’s black activist group took to social media, using the hashtag #BlackAtBls and YouTube, to expose the school’s racial climate -its turning point being an incident involving a white student threatening to lynch a black female, and the school administration neither informed the girl’s parents nor took swift disciplinary action against the white student. Boston Latin School sits in a district where 77 percent of its school-aged children are black and Latino. The school’s percentage of blacks are 8.5 percent and 11.6 percent for Latinos. Today at Boston Latin, black and Latino enrollment is half of what it was two decades ago. That’s a step — maybe two or three steps — backward.

A past event indelibly etched in people’s memory- here and abroad- is Stanley Forman’s infamous 1976 photo titled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” It shows a young white male attacking an African American man using the pointy end of a flagpole, as a spear, with the American flag attached at City Hall Plaza. The photograph went viral, revealing to the shock of the world Boston’s bussing crisis. It placed the city on the map as one of “the racist” for hiding under its “liberal facade” yet being one of the last holdouts to desegregate its schools after the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954.

For some, Boston’s bussing crisis is the city’s old past. South Boston, which was front and center in the battle, is no longer that close-knit old school “tough-as-nail” Irish Catholic enclave. “Southie,” as it is still fondly referred to, houses the world today, flaunting some of the best restaurants and expensive housing in the city. But the historical memory of that horrific era still lingers because, in my opinion, stereotypes about class makes it easier to point the pox of racism at Southie, a hardscrabble community, than at liberal Cambridge where I reside, or at a tony suburb, like Wellesley, where I attended undergrad.

Rather than address the challenge to provide educational parity for all of Boston’s school-aged children, Boston’s white and less financially strapped populations, like that of South Boston in the 1970’s, solved their neighborhood school desegregation crisis by fleeing to the suburbs, leaving a high concentration of its urban schools in both poverty and in disrepair.

While Boston doesn’t have as direct “school-to-prison pipeline” like many other major urban cities across the country, “Boston Globe” reported that there is zero-tolerance in Massachusetts when it comes to disciplining students of color which leads to repeated arrests and then evidently incarceration. Massachusetts African American school-aged children are disciplined, expelled and suspended four times more like than white children and Latinos school-aged are three times as likely.

When Renee Graham tried to point out the racial disparities that persist in Boston, the reaction from the internet was swift and brutal.

Most of the comments pointedly accused Graham and black people as being racists, too – “Racism is a two way street.” Other comments accused blacks using the race card for not embracing Boston’s Irish culture. The kinder responses were aghast by Graham’s op-ed, because they either had black friends, communicated cordially with black officemates, would date outside their race or had a black neighbor. Many of the comments, however, were blocked. Readers, like myself, wished this one from Jeff N. to Graham was, too:

“If you want to know why everyone hates you n****rs, your article is a good reason why. Better yet, take a trip to Roxbury, you might find your answer there as well.”

Those comments are proof that Boston’s racial past is not dead. It’s not even the past.

Review & Commentary