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Boston’s bad reputation on race troubles firms

Hub image hinders recruitment; business community sees role to play in reform

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Following reports of racial harassment at Fenway, accounts poured out from athletes of color affirming that for many across the nation, the incidents came as no surprise. Nor is Boston’s tarnished image on race limited to the sports community.

The city that prompted #BlackatBLS last year again struggles with racism allegations in schools, as Boston College High School students were found to have targeted hate speech at classmates of color both in person and in online forums, according to principal Stephen Hughes in an email to parents this month. In the business community, a pervasive image of Boston as unwelcoming to minorities has long presented a hurdle to recruiting talent and attracting minority businesses and business organizations, said James Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Incidents like those Fenway reinforce an image that Rooney says he and other in the Chamber are struggling to counter.

“When I talk to colleagues in business, people who have relocated here who are African American or Hispanic tell stories of friends and family who say, ‘Are you sure you want to go to Boston?’” Rooney told the Banner.

With many acknowledging that racism is not limited to isolated events, but part of a larger climate and system, more eyes are turning to the role the business community can play.

“While the incidents at Fenway Park received significant media coverage, the experiences of people day-to-day do suggest that these incidents are not isolated and that in some respects, they are reflective of a shared experience, that unfortunately people of color have,” Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, told the Banner.

Sullivan said the incidents at Fenway are just the most overt examples of racism and products of a climate that allow some people to believe such actions are acceptable. True reform requires listening to those who are impacted and engaging the entire community in addressing where they can the structural and systemic issues that contribute to and perpetuate inequity. These include educational achievement gaps, unemployment and earning opportunity gaps and criminal justice practices that contribute to disparate impact, such as mandatory minimums for drug offenses, she said.

“Racism … is experienced on a day-to-day basis through microaggressions, through systems that have had negative affects on people of color,” Sullivan said. “It makes tackling this issue a collective responsibility.”

Rooney agreed that the business community must be involved in reform.

“As I think back on some of the horrific events that have occurred in different parts of the country, often times the conversation starts with law enforcement and shifts to judicial fairness, but then when people probe the issues that are driving or underpinning issues of race and social unrest, it comes down to basic economics and economic opportunity,” Rooney said. “If economic opportunity is a dimension of racial inequality, then the business community has to be at the table.”

Support seems to be there, he added: “There’s an acknowledgement that we have work to do.”

Mayor Martin Walsh used a recent speech at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce as an opportunity to call for action against racism.

“Boston is overdue for more open, intentional conversation on race,” Walsh said. “We can’t pat ourselves on the backs, and call our work done. We saw some of this evidence [of] why that is in recent incidents at Fenway Park last week. Greater Boston does have a long way to go in rooting out racism and healing the wounds of history. But we can’t treat these as isolated incidents. We must recognize overt racism as a sign of ongoing systemic injustice.”

Walsh suggested that President Trump’s administration has encouraged those holding racist beliefs to bring them to the surface.

“I, too, believe that divisive and cruel rhetoric from national leaders emboldens these hateful actions and attitudes,” he said. “We can change that here in the city of Boston. We are better than that.”

Boston’s business sector image

In a previous role running the Boston Convention and Exposition Center Rooney struggled to persuade minority groups to come to conventions held in Boston, and he said Boston’s image has dampened firms’ ability to recruit people of color.

“People who are from other cities and state certainly either know of the history around the busing years, the Charles Stuart years, or other more recent incidents — certainly the Fenway Park incident went national which reinforces the brand of an unwelcoming city,” Rooney said. “We need to create moments that demonstrate to people that by and large, most people here are not like that.”

While with the convention center, Rooney arranged conversations between leaders of color and organizations to discuss what the city could offer. Ultimately, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Association of Black Journalists and National Urban League agreed to come to Boston, marking for some of the groups the first time in decades, or ever, that they had come to the city, Rooney said. To improve Boston’s image, it is critical to create positive experiences to balance out the negative accounts, Rooney said. He recalled that during the Black Journalists’ event, a Los Angeles-based attendee said this was the first time he’d left his family behind on such a trip, but after three days in Boston, his opinion had changed, and next time he would bring them.

As another ray of hope, Rooney noted is that many foreign-born immigrants who come to Boston do find their personal and professional needs met and choose to stay.

Chamber of Commerce’s role

Sullivan spoke of the importance of all members of Boston finding ways to tackle racial inequity.

For members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce this means finding ways to use the particular skill set of such a business group, Rooney said. Their efforts include work to connect small businesses, especially those with diverse leadership, to supplier opportunities with larger businesses. Other significant areas to address, Rooney said, are education opportunity and transit access from minority neighborhoods to job centers. He said he believes the business community can bring its influence to advocate for transportation infrastructure investment.