Is Boston a racist city? It's time to evolve the narrative


An aerial view of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox Major League Baseball team. In the background is the Charles River and the skyline of Boston. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

I believe all of their Boston stories. All of them.

From Michael Wilbon to Elle Duncan, from Torii Hunter to Adam Jones. I believe them, and others, without hesitation.

I’ve lived in Boston for 26 years, and based on what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced in this city, there’s no debate about its tense and racialized backdrop. It’s there in our neighborhoods, our schools, our boardrooms, our courts, our stores, our museums, our media, our police and fire departments, our politics and, yes, even our sports venues.

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All those things are true. But can I be totally honest with you today? I’ve long been frustrated and annoyed with Boston-themed discussions of race. In fact, I feel that most of them take place in a capsule where the narrative rarely arcs or evolves, and what we’re left with is two opposite — and unhelpful — extremes.

Why does that frustrate me so much? Because it’s dangerous and ahistorical, and it either ignores or obsessively localizes a disease — racism — that is both systemic and global. We’ll continue to have these endless ping-pong discussions until we can topple the towering structures that keep them alive.

In one corner: Boston is the most racist city in the United States. In the other corner: Boston is being attacked by outsiders who don’t understand it, and they’re bringing up these isolated incidents to make the city look bad.

The reality is that this conversation needs to be out of the corners altogether. Truly, I have stories that both camps could easily use to strengthen their positions, but we’d still be missing the larger point.

A few weeks ago, I told my colleagues about (appropriately) a trash bag I used to carry with me each time I moved into a new apartment. The bag was full of racist email I received while writing columns at the Globe. I moved a lot when I first got to the city, from Jamaica Plain to Brookline to Mission Hill to Kenmore Square to Roxbury to the South End, and the contents of that bag always came with me. I toted it with defiance, determined to prove to every racist that my resolve was stronger than their hate. But one day it occurred to me that all I was doing was literally carrying around someone else’s trash, and despite my intentions, I’d never grow from that.

I threw the bag away.

That’s a win for the anti-Boston crowd, right? Well, I heard Wilbon say that the first time he was called the n-word to his face was in the legendary Boston Garden. The first time for me was in Akron, Ohio, during a Catholic Youth Organization basketball game. I was 13. I was on an all-black team from the city and my opponent played for an all-white team from the suburbs. I’ll never forget the way he said it to me, so casual that it was as if he were asking for directions.

“What’d you say?” I asked, leaning in.

And he said it again. I gave him a two-handed push to the chest and received a technical. What stood out to me, though, is that the kid was genuinely stunned. He seemed unsure of what he’d said wrong and why I’d reacted the way I did. For him, this was normal.

Now we’re back to a pro-Boston win with that one. It’s not just us; talk about someplace else.

The point we miss too often, sadly, is that the tentacles of racism are such that I never have to doubt what anyone says about Boston because I’ve experienced the same, or similar, in every place I’ve lived, including Wilbon’s hometown of Chicago. Ranking the cities and parsing their racist activity minimizes the ferocity of this global monster. I think we’ve all got to work harder to reframe the conversation so that we confront the issues before us, in Boston and Chicago and Los Angeles, while also putting those issues in their proper, worldwide context.

It means that people who instinctively defend Boston have to be unafraid to grapple with some questions. Specifically, we share the same fragile, racial landscape as other cities in this country, but why do certain things continue to happen routinely on our plot? Why did Hunter hear the slurs here, repeatedly, and nowhere else? Why, here, have people felt so comfortable walking into a public venue and spewing racial profanity without fear?

Is it possible that while we’ve got the same roiling issues as everyone else, the Fenway outfield is our metaphor? That is, Hunter is hearing things out there and there aren’t enough outraged witnesses — at Fenway, at the courthouse, in leadership positions, etc. — who stand up and say or decide 'Dammit, you’re not going to do this here'?

Is it possible that other cities have more layers of protection between them and racism laid bare?

The flip side is that those who peddle the 'Boston is the most racist…' line of thinking have to reflect, too. I understand the trauma of visiting or living in an area where one doesn’t feel valued or safe. Based on innumerable testimonials, Boston has been that place. Unfortunately, Boston is just another city on the list of those where heartbreaking American tragedies have taken place. It’s soul-crushing to name some of them, and it’s dishonest and regressive if we don’t.

How do we even determine a “most” of the past 100 years? Is it Birmingham and the church bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls? Is it Chicago and Fred Hampton, riddled with police officers’ bullets as he slept? Bensonhurst and 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, a black kid killed by a white mob because he was on the “wrong” side of town? Is it Boston and Charles Stuart in 1989, or New York in 2020 with Amy Cooper attempting to echo Stuart’s racial dog whistle?

Is it Minneapolis and George Floyd?

There is no most. There’s all. And no matter where we stand or live, we’ve all got a lot of work to do. 

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