The Spotlight Team, Boston Globe, December 10, 2017
Except that Boston’s reputation problem goes much deeper than an online search. A national survey commissioned by the Globe this fall found that among eight major cities, black people ranked Boston as least welcoming to people of color. More than half — 54 percent — rated Boston as unwelcoming.
The reputation is real, and pervasive — but, most important, is it deserved?
The Globe Spotlight Team analyzed data, launched surveys, and conducted hundreds of interviews, to answer just that question. Spotlight examined the core of Boston’s identity: our renowned colleges and world-class medical institutions; the growth that keeps expanding our skyline; business and politics; and our championship sports teams.
Look at the Seaport, a whole new neighborhood rising on the South Boston Waterfront that benefited from $18 billion in taxpayer investment, and you see none of the richness of an increasingly diverse city. Look at Boston’s lauded colleges and realize black students remain rare; the percentage of black enrollment at many top universities has not increased appreciably in three decades, stuck in the single digits.
Look at our political institutions and try to recall how many black politicians have been elected to statewide office — or to the top job in City Hall — in the last half century. (Answer: 2.)
Peek, if you can, into corporate board rooms in Massachusetts, where only 1 percent of board members at publicly traded firms are black. Step into the newsrooms and front offices of media organizations anywhere in Boston, including the Globe’s Page 1 deliberations, and see few black faces.
And look at the area’s middle-class black neighborhoods — if you can find one. There also are not many downtown restaurants and bars where black patrons can go spontaneously and see others who look like them. Living in Boston can be a particularly isolating experience for black professionals.
Although the city’s vast sports, entertainment, and cultural offerings are open to all, it’s perhaps little wonder why black people are hard to spot at, say, a Red Sox or Patriots game or the Museum of Fine Arts. It could be they simply choose not to go, or it may be the cost. African-Americans in Greater Boston have a median net worth of just $8. That means they owe almost as much as the combined value of what they own, be it a car, or house, or savings.
Finally, know that if you seek an apartment in the region using Craigslist, and if you are black, you can’t count on getting equal treatment, even in this day and age, a Globe study found. This inquiry, like this Spotlight series, focuses on the black community specifically, not all communities of color, because blacks have had the longest and most contentious history with racism in Boston.
In a 1983 series of stories, a team of Globe reporters took a hard look at racial equality in our region. It was not a pretty picture, but local leaders promised things would improve. Thirty-four years later, the promise has yet to be fulfilled. For example:
Then: Just 4.5 percent of black workers were officials and managers.
Now: That number has barely moved, to 4.6 percent in 2015.
Then: The “Vault” — an organization of Boston’s most powerful business leaders — had no black people among its 20 members.
Now: The “New Vault” — the 16-person Massachusetts Competitive Partnership — has no black members.
Then: This area’s unemployment rate was about twice as high for blacks as whites.
Now: The gap remains, with black unemployment more than double the rate of white workers in 2014.
Demographics and destiny
To truly explain why racial inequities persist in the Boston area, it is necessary to understand how much can be blamed on demographics and how much can not.
Greater Boston stands out among the nation’s top 10 metro areas in one distinct way. We have the highest proportion of white residents — nearly three out of every four.
Our area’s black population is small and the size relatively unchanged in decades — only 7 percent, or 334,000 people, in a region of 4.7 million. If you look only at the city of Boston, the black population is about 23 percent, or about 148,000 people.
And it’s been this way for decades, in large part because the metro area never benefited from the Great Migration — the post-Civil War movement of blacks from Southern states in search of opportunity — the way places like Chicago and New York did.
But Boston is also very different. New York and Chicago dwarf Boston in size and scale. The population of New York City alone is 8.4 million people, nearly 2 million of whom are black. That translates into more black residents who earn more money, leading to a developed middle class with extensive professional representation — in other words, cities made welcoming, in part, because there simply is a critical mass of black residents who reflect the achievement possible within their community. Boston lacks that advantage.
The experience in other cities shows that, even when the black population is relatively small, things can be done with sufficient will. Minneapolis, Denver, and Seattle — all with smaller black populations than Boston — have elected black mayors at least once. Boston has never even come close.
Using a methodology employed by academic researchers who study bias in housing, the Globe conducted a study of nearly 600 Craigslist ads from rental landlords in the Greater Boston area, finding housing discrimination remains in Boston.
Overall, landlords ignored nearly 45 percent of e-mails from prospective tenants with black-sounding names, like Darnell Washington or Keisha Jackson, versus 36 percent of e-mails from people with white-sounding names, like Brendan Weber or Meredith McCarthy.
For example, when a prospective tenant using the name Allison Wolf asked about renting a two-bedroom condo in Boston’s Back Bay, the landlord responded later that day. “It’s available,” she e-mailed back. “You can see it on Sunday.” But when a prospective tenant asked about that same apartment the same morning using the name Tamika Rivers, the landlord never replied.
The difference was even more pronounced when landlords received more informal e-mails with grammatical errors or typos, with landlords seeming more forgiving of such written lapses among whites than blacks.
The missing middle class
The lack of a robust black middle class is both a result, and a cause, of Boston’s reputation as an unwelcoming place. As blacks move up the economic ladder here, they encounter an increasingly white world, and their solitary and alienating experience becomes part of our city’s word-of-mouth reputation.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the city’s history — the mayhem surrounding court-ordered school desegregation — was reason enough for many black graduates and professionals to settle elsewhere. Boston’s black middle class stagnated, providing little incentive for the next round of graduates to stay in Boston. And so a cycle, or perhaps a spiral, began.
Today, of all the households in the region earning at least $75,000 annually, only 4 percent are black.
The Globe ran a data analysis of census tracts nationally to see which met three criteria: At least 15 percent of the residents are black; and among the black residents, at least 30 percent had a four-year college degree and their household income was at or above the median for their metro area. (That is about $75,000 in Greater Boston.)
Here in Greater Boston there are just four such enclaves: two in Stoughton, one in Milton, and one in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. If the search were done looking for neighborhoods that met these criteria for white residents, the results would be a bountiful choice of 516 enclaves. The Boston area also reflects a pattern of segregation that is more extensive than in most other metro regions, studies show.
Forty-five other metropolitan areas have far more black enclaves than Boston, including some major metropolitan centers, such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, each with more than 100 enclaves, and other smaller urban areas, particularly — but not only — in the South.
The town with the highest concentration of black residents in Massachusetts is Randolph, which is about 30 minutes south of the city. More than 40 percent of Randolph’s population is black, as is the town council president and superintendent of schools. Its median household income is about $12,000 less than the overall metro area.
Our own worst enemy
There is no doubt that Boston has made gains in overcoming its history of racism. Gone are the days when black people crouched in cars, windows rolled up, hats pulled low so as not to be seen driving through the streets of South Boston or Charlestown, fearing racial slurs or real physical violence.
Though safety remains an issue in some neighborhoods, violent crime in Boston is the lowest in a decade. Also, as police forces nationwide work to end deep mistrust of them within black communities, Boston’s officers have so far avoided high-profile clashes that have led to protests elsewhere, and have garnered generally favorable reviews about the city’s level of outreach.
Despite the dearth of black politicians elected to statewide office — save for Deval Patrick’s two terms as governor and Edward Brooke’s path-breaking election as state attorney general and a US senator in the 1960s and 1970s — gains have also been made locally, including the election of black candidates in predominantly white neighborhoods.
There was the case of Charles Stuart, a white man who in 1989 killed his wife and then lied, describing the assailant as a black man. The city readily set out in pursuit of a man fitting the fake description.
That was followed by the 2009 arrest of a prominent African-American scholar at Harvard, Henry Louis Gates Jr., handcuffed after being confronted by police for allegedly breaking into his own home, attracting national headlines.
The region’s main tourism website features a video of overwhelmingly white faces inviting visitors to places like Faneuil Hall, Symphony Hall, and along the Charles River. And the introduction of the website’s “neighborhood dining guide” only highlights the Back Bay, downtown, the North End, and the Seaport — all neighborhoods with few black residents.
Compare that to Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., where black travelers can find entire itineraries on those area’s tourism websites dedicated to African-American arts, culture, food, and history.
Despite a thriving economy fueling a downtown building boom, black residents in Massachusetts are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed. They earn sharply lower salaries when they do land jobs, have little savings, and are far less likely to own their homes.
The median net worth of non-immigrant African-American households in the Boston area is just $8, the lowest in a five-city study of wealth disparities. It’s hard to ignore the dramatic contrast to the $247,500 net worth for white households in the Boston area.
And when it comes to income alone, the imbalance looks like this: For every one black household earning more than $75,000 in the metro region, there are about 21 white ones.
Everywhere you look
Even though about 334,000 black people live in Boston’s metro region, few of them can be found at the city’s most iconic locations.
Less than 2 percent of some 4,600 fans counted systematically at select entrances in Fenway Park on a summer night when the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals were black. And of nearly 8,000 ticketholders counted at Gillette Stadium at a game this fall, about 2 percent were black.
On a sunny Saturday in September, about 4 percent of the roughly 3,000 patrons counted entering the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the largest museums in the country, were black. And about 4 percent of the more than 1,180 people counted walking into the Boston Children’s Museum on an October Saturday were black.
Of the 200 diners sipping cocktails and enjoying Thursday night dinner in October at Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square, four were black. That same night and time, only one black person ate at Ostra in the Back Bay and no black people dined at Blue Dragon in the Seaport.
And during the Saturday night rush at Legal Harborside, about 4 percent of nearly 380 diners were black, while about 10 percent of diners were black that same night at the Cheesecake Factory at the Prudential Center, which could be due to its more moderate-priced menu and accessible location.
There are only a small number of restaurants in which black diners report they can dependably find other black people, including Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, Slade’s Bar & Grill, and Savvor Restaurant & Lounge.
Everyone in Boston loses out on the cultural front. The downtown dining and social scene does not reflect the city’s full diversity, and some black patrons who want to dine in places with others like them organize “friendly takeovers” of establishments with their friends or hold private events. It’s today’s answer to social segregation in Boston.
For black professionals who live or work outside of the heart of the city’s black community, day-to-day life can be very isolating.
For many, this means being the only black person in the room, turning them into the de facto emissary and expert on the entirety of the global black experience, a translator of everything from HBO’s “Insecure” to soca music to respectability politics and the Black Power movement.
Also, being the only one in the room often means being constantly on guard, policing your attire, aesthetic, tone, speech, and mannerisms.