The recent arrest of the esteemed black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Cambridge home has put the Greater Boston area back in the national spotlight as a hotbed of racism.
I have lived in Boston all of my life, and I grew up hearing about the racist attacks on black students being bused into South Boston High School in the 1970s. I am reminded of Stanley Foreman’s infamous photo of a white teenager using an American flag as a weapon directed at the body of a black man named Ted Landsmark at a 1976 desegregation protest at City Hall. This has left an indelible mark on how I view race relations in my city.
Whenever I travel to other cities around the country, the first verbal reaction I get from other black people comes with a weird stare. “You live in that racist place,” they say to me.
Boston is not the same place it was during the 1970s school-busing era. Boston, Cambridge, and other spots in Massachusetts are also known internationally for being bastions of liberalism. Two years ago, Deval Patrick became the first black governor of the state. Following his victory, E. Denise Simmons became the first black and openly lesbian mayor of an American city when she assumed the office in Cambridge. Simmons followed fellow trailblazer Kenneth E. Reeves, who holds the honor of being the country’s first openly gay black man to become mayor. With all of these signs of racial progress, both locally and in the White House, one would think that racism was a thing of the past.
Well, let’s just say that “post-racial” for some reason didn’t completely make it to Boston.
Like Gates, I also know many black people who have been hassled by the police for no apparent reason and have since developed a distrust for the authorities. This is not surprising, considering that black Bostonians still remember when the police roamed and harassed black communities throughout the city immediately following the murder of Carol Stuart. Stuart was a pregnant white woman who was believed to have been killed by a black man named Willie Bennett 20 years ago. It later turned out that she was murdered by her husband, Charles, in order to collect an insurance payment.
According to a 2006 survey conducted University of Massachusetts at Boston, 75 percent of black Massachusetts residents said that race relations in the state were only “fair to poor.” Seventeen percent of respondents also said they had personally experienced racial discrimination from police within the last few months.
The city of Boston also has the problem of segregation. For the most part, black and white Bostonians don’t really socialize with each other or live in the same communities together. It is not surprising to go to some of Boston’s finest restaurants and bars and not see many faces of color.
Recently, many black Bostonians have also begun to feel that their voices are not being heard literally. First, we lost our only black radio station, WILD 1090, to media consolidation two years ago, and earlier this month, the Bay State Banner, Boston’s only black newspaper, had to suspend publication indefinitely due to the economic downturn. So, there isn’t even a black media outlet where black Bostonians can discuss racial issues anymore.
While we might never know what really transpired between Dr. Gates and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley, it is clear to the world that America isn’t quite post-racial yet.
But if you live in the Boston area, you already knew this.