Aug 1, 2023 - Politics

Why Boston has a racist reputation among Black Americans, and what's changing

Photo illustration of Draymond Green and Boston Celtics fans overlaid with strings, pins, and a map of Boston.

Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Boston Globe/Getty Images

When U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley took the stage at the NAACP convention last weekend, she said first-time visitors may wonder: "Are there any Black folks in Boston? Let this moment be a resounding and decisive yes."

Why it matters: Decades after a federal judge made Boston desegregate schools through busing, and even as the majority-minority city has gained many political and business leaders of color, the Hub remains known among Black Americans as one of the country's most racist cities.

Driving the news: NAACP and city leaders tried to counter that narrative during the convention by elevating Black-owned businesses, producing displays of local Black luminaries and hosting a tour of majority-Black Boston neighborhoods — despite the event's location in the majority-white Seaport.

The big picture: Boston gets a bad rap partly thanks to high-profile and recurring instances of overt racism involving rival sports teams, tourists and residents of color.

  • Just last year, a group of white supremacists marched through Boston and allegedly assaulted a Black artist.

Meanwhile, the city's tourism hubs in Back Bay, downtown and the Seaport remain majority white — evidence of the lingering effects of redlining.

Context: The biggest examples of Boston's racism nowadays are the structural inequities still evident in wealth, health and housing, James Jennings, a Tufts University urban and environmental planning professor, tells Axios.

  • A 2015 study found the median net worth for a Black household in the city was $8, compared to $248,000 for white households.
  • New data shows life expectancy in the Back Bay is 33 years higher than in majority-Black Roxbury.

Yes, but: Boston has made progress — largely thanks to generations of Black and brown residents pushing for change.

  • The anti-Black violence that plagued Boston during the busing crisis is rare nowadays.
  • And its halls of power are more diverse. Today Boston is home to many high-profile Black political leaders — like Pressley and former Mayor Kim Janey — as well as business leaders like Harvard University President Claudine Gay and Fed President Susan Collins.
  • Mayor Michelle Wu, an Asian American woman and the first elected mayor of color, has ushered in a cohort of racially and ethnically diverse city staff.

Plus: Activists for decades fought to preserve affordable housing, tackle police brutality allegations and make public transit more affordable in diverse neighborhoods.

Flashback: Bostonians of color have been pushing for racial justice for centuries — from abolitionists in the 1800s to William Monroe Trotter's Black newspaper the Boston Guardian in 1901, from the NAACP's first chartered branch in Boston in 1911 to Melnea Cass' work mobilizing Black women to vote in 1920.

  • "Those of us who do live here, we feel the change, we see the change," Lee Pelton, president of the Boston Foundation says. "It’s not something that happens overnight."
The 'Quin House Cofounder Sandy Edgerley introduces former Boston mayors Ray Flynn and Kim Janey.
Former mayors Kim Janey, right, and Ray Flynn rang in the NAACP Convention kickoff with a talk on how Boston has, and hasn't, changed. Photo: Courtesy of the 'Quin House

Zoom out: Boston shares its struggle over racism with other major U.S. cities, even those like Chicago and Los Angeles where people of color gained political influence far sooner, experts tell Axios.

  • But Boston has had to acknowledge its past, which is perhaps "the first step for other cities to also take on" as they grapple with structural inequities, Jennings at Tufts says.

The bottom line: There's a lot Boston has overcome in the past four decades, says former Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who in 2021 became the first woman and person of color to lead the city.

  • "But I want to make sure we don't forget about the work that's before us," she told an event ahead of the convention.
  • "We have not arrived."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a new headline and hyperlink.

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