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Racism and Boston


By Michael W. Hirschorn

A RULE OF THUMS: To gauge how ineffectively government is solving a problem, look at how many task forces it has set up to deal with it.

Take Boston's race-relations quandary Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has a special task force with special administrators. He appears on late-night T.V. spots in a playground with an ethnic potpourri of children, speaking of "eracism" in English and Spanish. Mayor Raymond L. Flynn meets with Dukakis and the new Archbishop Bernard F. Law '53 in a highly publicized conference on bringing the city together. The Boston Covenant, formed after a Black student was shot on a Charlestown football field, and the Citywide Parents Council all continue to flail away at the invisible enemy.

Flynn pays nearly a million dollars to the widow of a Black man shot by police in 1975. And he personally chips in to make sure the first Blacks to move into an all white Charlestown housing project are not harmed.

The Boston Globe, not wishing to be left out of the action, recently finishes a 16-month series on Hub racism, which snags a Pulitzer because it is too massive and sprawling not to.

What gives? Obviously, racism is not something one approaches like unemployment or inflation. You can't throw money at racism. You can't solve the problem through tax cuts, defense hikes, or constructing more shelters for the homeless. But Boston is a city on the move, as Kevin White always said with a quivering voice, a city about to become an international center for culture and commerce. Such a city cannot afford the stigma of racism that Boston earned during the mid-seventies' forced busing fracas.

But communities here have been clashing ever since the Irish immigrants challenged Yankee hegemony in this most Protestant of cities. But don't mention that; it could get in the way of plans for Boston's grand future. In the high stakes of development politics, lots of concerned committees and lots of pictures of politicians fraternizing with the locals makes effective p.r.

THIS IS NOT TO IMPUGN the good motives of men like Flynn and Dukakis. Dukakis has always been a positive force in the region on race relations, and Flynn has attacked the problem with a fervor that belongs only to the converted. As one who was a public hindrance to the cause of justice when he opposed forced busing in South Boston 10 years ago, Flynn's recent efforts have the local impact of Richard M. Nixon's voyage to China.

But Flynn's approach as mayor has essentially been public relations--something while couldn't even claim--and it serves to obscure the problem rather than solve it. He draws kudos from The New York Times and The Globe, who are happy to have some good news to report and are rightly trying to encourage the new mayor. But Flynn is attacking the wrong problem, and his approach suggests that he is not confident enough of success to embark on a more comprehensive, long-term plan to improve the city's racial climate.

"Racism" is a facile, loaded term. It looms as a giant, foreboding presence just beyond all the self-affirmation of ethnic pride and encompasses so many shades of though and action as to make it almost meaningless. Is it conscious, a product of ignorance, or merely part of the inertia of tradition? The distinctions are important, especially in Boston.

When Flynn attacks neighborhood racism, for example, he is chasing a ghost, because the tensions at the grass roots level are more often a product of neighborhoods instinctively retreating inward to prevent change than they are of conscious racism per se. The real problem, as The Globe series bluntly showed, is downtown and at places like Harvard, where Blacks have been shunted off toward lower level, lower paying work.

The problem is also papers like The Globe where, according to in-house reporting, only 69 of 2339 employees are Black, high technology and industries and banks, where only 3.6 and 7.8 percent respectively of the employees are Black. It is area colleges whose faculties are 2.2 percent Black, and state government where 6.5 percent of the employees are Black.

Race relations at the neighborhood level and in the job market are two different issues, and Flynn, Dukakis, et al, should approach them as such.

TO FORMULATE an approach to Boston's often tense race relations in neighborhoods such as Charlestown. Southie, Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End, it is important to understand how the current state of affairs came about. During the '50s, when the Black population in Boston was much smaller than its current 20 percent, residents faced few race-related problems, in all likelihood because Blacks had not yet made a serious bid in the job market.

Kevin while, who began his stint in City Hall in 1969, recalled in a recent interview that as late as the '60s Blacks were able to walk through predominantly Irish Catholic South Boston unharassed. "Blacks used to regularly fish of Kelly's landing in South Boston as late as 1968," White says. "What tore the fabric apart was busing, the force and the harshness of its implementation."

Busing, or more precisely the fact that U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity tried as a symbolic gesture to bus Blacks into the most Irish of Boston neighborhoods, Southie, "exacerbated the latent racial tensions that existed in Boston and gave Boston a national stigma," White says.

In 1974, and the years following, busing made Boston national news. Non-violent opponents to Garrity's order, men like Ray Flynn, and goons belonging to such organizations as the still-active South Boston Information Center turned the educational system upside down, and made it dangerous to be a Black living in Boston. Roxbury residents trying to reach the public Carson Beach in Southie were assaulted, and when Black activist Melvin H. King led a peaceful procession through the heart of Southie, locals threw rocks and bottles.

But the bloodshed taught Bostonians one important point that tensions would exist as long as the city's neighborhoods remained as isolated as they now are Perhaps more than any other major city. Boston is a city atomized, split between the neighborhoods and downtown, and split along geographic, racial, and ethnic lines Working class Southie is isolated across the channel and the harbor from the city's skyscrapers. The subway system barely skirts its perimeters, and to reach Southie's center, one must walk for 10 minutes through barren streets, flanked by run-down housing units and abandoned warehouses West Roxbury and communities such as Mattapan and Hyde Park are self-contained mini-cities with little outside interference.

Busing put a dent in the imagined security of these communities, and, as with all innovations, it met resistance. But today, Blacks attend South Boston High, with only one or two quickly-hushed reports of racial scuffles. Blacks, running city wide, were able to gain several seats on the City Council and the school committee.

Of course the busing controversy has ebbed for other reasons, including wholes-cale "white flight" from public schools and from the city to suburbs such as Brookline and Newton. A member of the South Boston Information Center told me last fall. "The only reason things are different from '74 is because all the people that really cared about Blacks coming to South Boston High got their children out." SBIC currently runs its own school, and its president, James Kelley, serves on the city council.

Yet, the fact that progress is taking place is indisputable. Candidate Flynn last fall found a sympathetic audience when he argued that what ailed Roxbury was what ailed Southie. "In South Boston everybody thinks that because of affirmative action the Blacks are getting everything," then-councilor Flynn told The Globe in 1982. "Everybody thinks that because people in South Boston are white, they're getting everything. The reality is that neither one is getting anything."

What seems to be getting through is the notion that the city's self-conscious neighborhood orientation is the real culprit. "Community groups have begun to talk to each other, they have crossed neighborhood lines, which is an enormous transition for a city like Boston that was built on neighborhoods," White says. The city has changed not because of say lecturing from the papers of political leaders running for or away from the issue," he adds.

White remembers the racial strife that existed when he was a youth. "When I was a boy the real tensions were between the Irish and the Italians, and they were bitter, and they were physical, and they weren't just fun. But it was neighborhood turf."

Boston is a city in flux. Many of the neighborhoods are changing, as outsiders sweep in, disrupting the status quo that has characterized most of Boston's history, and the racial tensions that currently exist are more a product of resistance to change rather than prejudice directed specifically at Blacks.

AS A RESULT, Flynn, Dukakis, and Law--who, as archbishop, will prove to be a crucial figure in improving race relations in coming years--should focus their political and moral spotlight on institutional racism in Boston. The Globe put it succinctly and bluntly. "Boston today is the most difficult place in America for a Black person to hold a job or earn a promotion."

The minority hiring record in Boston is abysmal for a number of reasons, all of which contribute to a feeling among Blacks that they are not wanted in the city. Although goo-goos have pushed through programs like the Boston Compact, which provide jobs to untrained high school graduates--many of them minorities the affirmative action record within Boston's institutions is disastrous.

From the government to the Red Sox, Boston is one of the whitest major cities in the country. Though it has grown almost exponentially in recent years, institutions have stubbornly maintained their former all-white status.

Observers call it a vicious cycle. Qualified Blacks are loathe to remain in Boston, knowing they will find more opportunities and lets harassment elsewhere. The Globe report, for instance of the 60 Blacks who graduated from the Harvard Business School in the last two years, only five new work in the city. Two of them are planning to have.

The lack of qualified Blacks is the area has required an extra effort on the part of employers, few of whom seem to be willing to do so.

Blame is harder to pin here. Is the low level of minority employers, and the fact that most employed are on the lower end of the pay scale, the result of corporate negligence, or a desire to keep Blacks away from power? Possible, but that is only half of the problem.

INSTITUTIONAL RACISM continues largely because of a lack of public relations, a lack of consciousness among non-minorities about the yawning gap between the races. It is to this end that would-be reformers must devote their time. Ray Flynn knows such problems exist. But he suffers from limited resources, and must deal with one of the poorest major cities in the country. Whites are not well off either, and Flynn has wirely couched his rhetoric in communal rather than divisive terms. He must step up efforts to bring black leaders like Mel King and City Councilor Bruce C. Bolling into the spotlight. King, who won about 20 percent of the white vote in an inspired but unsuccessful bid for mayor, will continue to be a force for change in the city, and Flynn should again encourage him to join up.

City Hall, which for years has coddled developers, now has the responsibility to use its power for change. One can only hope that if attention is brought to bear on local business, some progress will follow.

It is within the Hub's newly affluent corridors of power that change must take place In discouraging the city's residents, be they any ethnic or racial group, from working and living in Boston, the City puts its future in peril.

Kevin White has left the skyline as his legacy; but Boston will never become a great city so long as its newfound prosperity is offered only to a select group.

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