Media, mayor put focus on race in Hub
Globe series, race dialogue bring up issues of inclusion
Capping a week in which racism in Boston took center stage, with the Boston Globe’s seven-part series on the topic dominating conversations, Mayor Martin Walsh held his second annual Boston Talks About Racism event at Northeastern University.
The opening of the Dec. 15 event underscored the difficulties and contradictions in Boston’s attempts to grapple with the divisive issue. At the precise moment Boston Police Commissioner William Evans spoke in a city-produced video about how his department is “focusing on equity in police work more than ever before,” members of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers were speaking outside to reporters about what they described as systemic racism in the department.
Outside Blackman Auditorium, activist Kevin Peterson led the press conference organized by a group called Boston Communities United, slamming the mayor for an underrepresentation of people of color in well-paying jobs in the Boston Public Schools and in the police and fire departments. Peterson said the mayor refused to meet with his group or respond to its list of demands for improvements to the city’s response to civil rights issues.
“We are flummoxed as to why the mayor, who purports to lead the city on racial equity issues, has refused to address our issues,” he said.
Inside, in the city’s video, Walsh underscored his administration’s commitment to equity. “The drive for equity doesn’t just live in my office,” he said in the video. “It’s in every department.”
Walsh kicked off the question-and-answer session by acknowledging the Globe’s series on racism.
“What the Globe story did this week, whether people like it or didn’t like it — it sparked conversation,” he said. “And that conversation is important to have.”
Walsh noted that the conversation on race became a centerpiece of the 2013 mayoral race after he was confronted by a woman during a forum and was unable to adequately respond to a question on racism.
After winning the 2013 election, Walsh put together a cabinet that included people of color in high-profile positions, although few people of color lead large departments with sizeable staffs or budgets. According to City Hall sources, Walsh’s closest advisers are the five members of his senior staff, which includes no people of color.
During the forum, Walsh said people of color in his administration are “not afraid to come to me and say, ‘you handled that wrong.’” He said he has spoken to officials in his administration, including Conan Harris, who leads the city’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and Boston Centers for Youth and Families Commissioner Will Morales about their experiences growing up as people of color in Boston.
Questions on city policies
Audience members questioned the mayor on a wide range of topics, including his administration’s decision to change start times for many elementary schools to 7:15 and 7:30, which Aveann Bridgemohan likened to “balancing the budget on the backs of 4-year-olds.”
Walsh responded saying the changes would save money in the schools’ transportation budget and said the changes would bring more equity to the system.
“It’s not about 4-year-olds,” he said. “It’s not about what we need as parents. It’s about making sure we have better equity in our schools.”
While the mayor spoke about his administration’s approach to equity, Bridgemohan and others in the audience peppered him with pointed questions about city policies that they said disproportionately affect people of color.
Asked about why he has refused to implement a body-worn camera program for police, Walsh told an audience member that the city will continue to evaluate data for a pilot program that ended in September, but gave no indication that he is in favor of the tool.
“The jury is out around the country on body cameras,” he said.
Asked about his stance on an independent civilian review board — another longstanding demand from black activists — Walsh spoke instead about how his administration added a fifth member to the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel and increased the workload of the body, which reviews police complaint investigations that have been already completed by the police department’s Internal Affairs Division.
Many in the audience expressed frustration with the state of race relations in Boston, a dynamic Walsh acknowledged.
“I can feel the questions as they’re coming,” Walsh noted early in the forum. “They’re coming with a little bit of an edge to them.”
The edge Walsh referred to showed up in other ways last week. As the Boston Globe stories hit the stands, and readers’ web browser pages, several black activists hit back at the broadsheet in a Boston Herald article, questioning why the series aired after the mayoral election, during which challenger Tito Jackson was making many of the same points about disparities in wealth, income and health care outcomes. While the articles pointed out that Boston has never had a mayor of color, the Globe endorsed Walsh over Jackson.
“How do you say all those things then endorse Marty Walsh as the best candidate?” the Herald quoted Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement officers, as saying.
The same week the Globe aired an article highlighting the low numbers of African Americans enrolled at local colleges and universities, its editorial page advocated for UMass Boston to shift its focus, quoting Freeman Hrabowski, President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has been hired as a consultant in UMass Boston’s search for a new chancellor.
“Massachusetts has to ‘look in the mirror’ and decide whether it has the desire to make UMass Boston ‘an institution of choice’ and not just an institution for ‘those people’ who are less advantaged and who have no other choice,” Hrabowski told the Globe.
Fifty-nine percent of UMass Boston students are U.S.-born people of color. The student body is 14 percent African American and 14 percent Latino.
Many Bostonians, including Walsh and Boston Communities United’s Peterson, lauded the Globe for taking on the issue of racism.
“While the issue of race has been persistent for decades, we welcome the analysis of the Globe and its skillful reporting about what many blacks already know,” Peterson said.
For others at the Boston Communities United press conference, the city officials’ equity lens has done little to ameliorate the issues for which they are advocating: the low representation of people of color in the high-paying jobs in the city’s three largest departments — police, fire and schools.
Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts member Bob Marshall said Walsh has fallen short of his campaign promise to hire more teachers of color.
“He told us point blank, ‘You shouldn’t have to have a court order to hire black teachers — You should do it because it’s the right thing to do,’” Marshall said. “The numbers are still as bad as when he first came in.”