The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Is Boston Racist? Yes — Because It’s America (Duh)

Downtown Boston.  Source:
(Note: Earlier this morning I wrote a long Twitter thread as a response to the Boston Globe’s seven-part series (this links to Part 1) on Boston’s enduring reputation as a racist city.  Is it true?  Is it warranted?  I have to start by saying I’ve never been to Boston, but it is a city whose reputation among blacks is well known throughout the nation.  And whether or not it’s true, it does have some historical and cultural traits that it developed and perhaps promoted the nation.  

So I’m doing a bit of a departure for the Corner Side Yard.  For ease of reading, and to put the thoughts of the thread in one place, I’ve copied and pasted the tweets here, unedited.  -Pete)
So I read the @BostonGlobe series on Boston’s reputation as a racist city. Good to see the paper being introspective about a vexing problem.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that Boston’s black migration is unique among large U.S. cities. @BostonGlobe reports just 7% of Boston metro population is black. However 36% of of blacks in Boston are immigrants (Caribbean, African). A key difference.

That partly demonstrates how little Boston was impacted by the Great Migration of blacks from South to North from 1910-1970. Very few went beyond NYC, and Boston (IMO) could say it didn’t have to confront race matters.

Of course, (again, IMO) Boston and all of New England was just as intentional in creating the type of society it wanted as the South was. The South opted for slave-based plantation economy. NE chose the pious “shining city on a hill” path.

In other words, VERY early in their histories, i.e. our nation’s colonization in the 1600s, the South chose exploitation, and NE chose exclusion.

Our nation has been struggling with dealing with its exploitative legacy forever. But it has done far, far less with dealing with its exclusionary legacy, which I think Boston/NE gave to the rest of America.

A phrase familiar to many blacks, going back at least a century: “in the South, people don’t care how close we are, as long as we’re not too big. In the North, people don’t care how big we are, as long as we’re not too close.”

Put another way: in the South blacks were to remain a permanent economic underclass. In the North blacks were to be unseen and unheard.

As the Southern race apparatus was being challenged (slavery, then Jim Crow), the Northern one spread throughout the U.S. Exclusionary tactics emerge.

Those tactics: restrictive housing covenants, explicit/implicit exclusionary zoning, redlining, public housing construction, urban renewal, interstate highway construction, intentionally underfunded schools/city services, aggressive policing, among others.

Somehow I think many of the Northern exclusion tactics emerged as ideas in the very elite universities that Boston and New England are known for.

Here’s the deal. Future economic success has always been largely correlated with *where* one lives and the networks that come from that. Today that correlation is stronger than ever.

It’s simply not enough to say “we’ll remove barriers” because practices stay in place. Housing discrimination has been illegal nationwide for 50 years but the nation is still as segregated now as then. Why? Practices.

We still live with the residue of the exclusionary practices of the entire 20th century, even as they’ve all been discredited. We now know it was wrong to raze that historic nghbd for a highway, but there’s no new nghbd.

A point I neglected to bring up re: South/exploitation and North/exclusion: the North could always avoid the power dynamic vis a vis the South because the Southern power dynamic was clear and North could say “blacks just aren’t here”.

When Boston famously fought against school busing in the ’70s, that was a reaction to decades of exclusionary policy. Residents went from “blacks just aren’t here” to “they’re in our midst” and responded violently.

Boston and New England — and other Northern cities — developed exclusion and promoted it nationwide. Boston/New England aren’t alone in this. If we think racism is only hatred and explicit discrimination, we miss the full picture.

Northern cities perfected the “you guys stay over there and you can join us when you’re good” policy. And that’s what many blacks relate to with the Boston = racism perception.

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