Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Is Boston Racist?

By now you've heard about the Adam Jones incident. Twenty-four hours later, the topic was still the news story in baseball, unspooling new sub-threads and inspiring much larger debates (anyone still think sports isn't political?). They'll move on, eventually. But in my hometown of Boston, the incident has exposed an ugly truth and forced a great deal of introspection that will—or at least should—linger.

We Bostonians have an inferiority complex, and one of our most tender spots is when the rest of the country plays the "Boston is racist" card. A cosmopolitan, liberal city, Boston certainly doesn't see itself that way—yet at the same time anyone with a more than passing connection to the city carries around the hidden shame of the city's violent resistance to busing in the 1970s. Within my lifetime, the Boston media, city leaders, and the collective masses were all guilty of a rush to judgment about the murder of Carol Stuart, a young suburban mother-to-be killed not by a black carjacker, but by her white husband. When an African American baseball player is called the N-word at Fenway Park, it's impossible not to draw the connection.

My first impression was optimism that our city was at least viewing Jones's assault with open eyes. Instead of attacking Jones or ignoring the story entirely, the Boston elite faced up to it. The Boston Globe led with the story all day on its website, and Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker both issued swift statements of condemnation early this morning. Walsh, an Irish Catholic from Dorchester (still a demographic profile that's more associated with Trumpian intolerance than the bleeding-heart inclusiveness of the Cantabrigian university student), had particularly strong words: "If they claim to be a sports fan, they’re not a sports fan—nothing but a racist." Boston finally seemed to be acknowledging that, yes, it had a problem with racism it desperately needed to fix.

There was also a common thread in Walsh's and Baker's words, as Globe columnist RenĂ©e Graham pointed out: "This is not what Massachusetts and Boston are about." So maybe the sensitivity remained. Walsh and Baker were acknowledging that Boston has racist elements, but also insisting that, at its core, Boston was a welcoming and tolerant place. Well, OK. They're politicians—they are going to believe (or at least say they believe) the best about their constituents. But it's worth noting that Walsh's administration last year kicked off a series of town halls "aimed at bringing conversations about racism, healing, and policy work into all Boston neighborhoods." At one of the meetings, Walsh said, point-blank, "Boston has an issue with racism." Whether he thinks "racist" or "tolerant" is a more fitting adjective for Boston in 2017, Walsh clearly understands that there is still racism left to overcome in the city.

That was the city's elite, however. How did the hoi polloi react? Twitter unfortunately became the instrument by which this was measured, and the results were mixed at best. Liberal baseball Twitter pounced upon this tweet by NFL writer Albert Breer that summed up the denial of many Bostonians: "Is it horrible to want some proof? I dunno. I've probably been to 200 games at Fenway in my life. Never heard a slur yelled at a player." (Never mind that Jones had no reason to lie, and Boston fans have a reputation for racial taunting among African American athletes.) However, I saw just as many tweets from Bostonians (not to mention my own reaction) expressing their unqualified disgust for their fellow Red Sox fans in the bleachers Monday night, so I hardly think Breer's viewpoint is universally held here. Twitter attracts a broad element of society, including its dregs. You can find pretty much any opinion on there if you're looking for it. Overall, I think Boston took responsibility for the incident, as it should have—as it must have if we're going to make sure it isn't repeated.

It would be nice if that were the final word. But that inferiority complex is acting up again, because even those of us who own up to the racism of drunk Red Sox fans can't help but get defensive about the resurgent blanket narrative that "Boston is racist." We object to the very logic that people accuse us of: that our entire community should be stereotyped by the actions of a foolish few. This is unfair, of course; most people in Boston are not racist, as illustrated most recently by the classy standing ovation Red Sox fans gave Jones at Tuesday's game. The ovation did not undo what happened to Jones, but neither does what happened to Jones negate the ovation. Clearly, Boston has a racist underbelly, but what percentage of a city's residents have to belong to that fringe in order to say the city as a whole is racist? One bigot does not a racist city make, but a place doesn't need to be 100% pure-grade racist either.

This is something outsiders fail to realize when they smugly ask how Boston can be considered one of the most liberal cities in America while still struggling with racism. The two facts have little to do with each other. Massachusetts isn't a monolith where 100% of its citizens are latte-sipping progressives who nonetheless harbor secret racial animosities. Yes, it's true, 60% of Bay Staters voted for Hillary Clinton in November, more than 45 other states. But that means 33% voted for Donald Trump—at least some of whom were motivated by prejudice. (Trump also won the state handily during the primary.) And yes, some Democrats are racist as well, even if only in subtler ways. It was in dark blue Cambridge that someone called 911 to report that famed African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates looked suspicious as he attempted to open the jammed front door of his Harvard Square townhouse. These uncomfortable truths do nothing to change the fact that Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the progressive movement (inaugurating, among other things, same-sex marriage and Obamacare), including on issues of racial justice, which aren't abstract to them either: Massachusetts was home to the first black U.S. senator and the second black governor ever to be elected.

The question is whether Boston is racist with tolerant elements or tolerant with racist elements. And I honestly don't know which is correct. Boston hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt with its history; in addition to the nationally publicized busing crisis, Celtics players including the great Bill Russell confronted blatant racism here during the 1970s and '80s. But Boston is also a very different city than it was back then, and the racist reputation it earned 40 years ago gives us only an incomplete picture of the present day. The Jones incident did elicit a disturbing comment out of fellow African American ballplayer C.C. Sabathia, who said he has "never been called the N-word" anywhere but Boston (albeit not since before 2009); "when you go to Boston, expect it." Former MLB outfielder Vernon Wells chimed in that he "was only warned about two stadiums where racially motivated comments could occur...Fenway was one." In 2007, Gary Matthews Jr., then of the Angels, called Boston "one of the few places where you hear racial comments." But then that reminds you that other fan bases have brazenly engaged in bigotry as well. Athletics outfielder Rajai Davis—who has never played for the Red Sox and has no apparent reason to hold back about the city—said Tuesday, "It's not a Boston problem. It's a national problem."

And there's another confounder. As we learned seemingly nonstop for eight years after we supposedly overcame it by electing Barack Obama, the United States is still infested with latent racism. Other cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC—have racial records as troubled as Boston's. Heck, it's not even limited to this country—the last time Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs, it was in Toronto during last year's Wild Card game. All this makes it even harder to determine whether Boston is a particular hotbed for bigotry or merely part of a wider problem, from which even coastal liberal bastions are not safe. Of course, the fact that other cities are racist too doesn't make Boston not racist.

So is Boston racist? Ultimately, it's semantic. I have a hard time disagreeing with someone who says Boston is racist according to a certain definition of the term. Personally, though, I would say instead that it has a race problem. So does the entire country—that shouldn't be controversial. Is Boston's worse? I don't know. It certainly was historically; it might still be. We've made enough progress since the 1970s that we're now in a gray zone where the slurs directed at Adam Jones could plausibly be either the residue of Boston's prejudicial past or a symptom of a national trend. But it also doesn't really matter, because neither is good enough. Even after Monday night's vulgarity, I love my hometown. I love it because of all the things it does right—ranked at or near the top in education, medical care, economic vitality. With that pedigree, there's no excuse for having even nationally average levels of racism. We are the City on a Hill, meant from our founding to be an example for the rest of the world to strive toward. The same self-righteousness that makes Bostonians so protective and such easy targets for the rest of the country should be a unique motivator to clean up our act. If you think, in the face of so much evidence, that Boston is already perfect, you're interpreting this Hub of the Universe thing wrong. Instead, it's the nagging conviction that we should be better that propels us there.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article. I think people should note that the majority of people attending games at Fenway are white people from the suburbs. Boston itself is a much different city than even 20 years ago. It is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world and if I am not mistaken, I believe that white people are lesser in numbers than Asians/Asian-Americans and African-Amereicans/Afro-Caribbeans (I am actually surprised by that, in the neighborhoods I've lived it has been predominantly Latino and/or Brazilian.
    Anyways, my main point is that I would assume those people who pull that garbage are from the suburbs, if simply because 95% of the attendees of teh games are not from the city.
    Also, I am currently in Liberal Northampton MA and it's amazing to me how many white people there try to paint Boston as racist when clearly Northampton has its own issues with it.
    Thanks for your piece. Cheers!