Boston’s Racial Myopia

It’s true that most Americans believe that racism is still a major problem, but somehow in Boston some perceive it to be only a minor one.   It is hard to understand how that conclusion can be drawn especially after the Globe's Spotlight Series on Race.  Still, it’s a matter of perspective, or in the case of Boston, it’s also a matter of social privilege and racial myopia.

By standard measures of segregation such as evenness of distribution, exposure to potential contact, concentration of physical space, and clustering of identity groups, Boston, as is the case for other American cities, suffers from segregated neighborhoods.   Neighborhood segregation and spatial racism contribute to Boston’s racial myopia.  Spatial racism is the practice of developing racially and economically segregated suburbs, housing developments, or gentrified areas of cities.  Facing the opportunity to diversify the racial composition of the city’s neighborhoods, Boston created yet another white neighborhood in the Seaport district, limiting even more cross-racial interactions within the city.

Boston’s clustering of racial identity groups in organizations further encapsulates and distorts its understanding of modern forms of racism.  Despite the city’s outstanding intellectual capital, Boston suffers from color-blind racism. In Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains that color-blind racism masks itself as non-discriminatory, but underneath lies “a full-blown arsenal of arguments, phrases, and stories that whites use to account for and ultimately justify racial inequities.”  These stories, chronicled in the Globe's Spotlight Series on Race,  allow Bostonians to believe that racism is only a minor problem and to remain dumbstruck when Boston is perceived as one of the most racist cities.

At an event, in conversation with recently retired reporter for WCVB Channel 5, Jorge Quiroga and his wife Barbara, they asked me why they never seemed to see any African Americans in any of the restaurants they frequented in Boston.  Barbara stated that she was told that African Americans entertained in their homes.  She asked me if I thought that was correct.  I had no idea.  However, my guess would be that it is simply due to Boston’s racial encapsulation.  When I first moved to the Boston area, my sister from Cleveland, Ohio came to visit.  Out to dinner at a recommended restaurant, she looked around and remarked, “Gee, even the help here is white.”   Being in monoracial social settings might just be a normal landscape for many Bostonians.

Although the vast majority of Americans believe that cross-racial friendships play a big role in making progress toward racial equity, most of us do not have friends across racial lines and our social networks are of our same race.  In my analysis, I have found no difference in these patterns in Boston.   Having cross-racial interactions provides opportunities for heightened awareness and the ability to recognize and acknowledge that there is disparate treatment for people of color in education, healthcare, employment, and within the criminal justice system. When we live in segregated neighborhoods, work in organizations that lack racial diversity, and only socialize with our same racial group, we limit our understanding of the socially sanctioned rights and privileges afforded to whites that are withheld from people of color. Of the largest metro cities, Boston has the highest percentage of white residents, forming the foundation for racial encapsulation. People from all over the world seek healthcare in Boston but numbers from its own racial minorities remain low. Corporate leadership and corporate boards remain predominately white.  Even going to a Red Sox game, puts blacks and browns at risk for hearing racial slurs.

My experience of Boston demonstrates that the majority of Bostonians are not racists. I am inspired by the many whites who are strong advocates for racial justice and the efforts  put forth by the current administration outlined in the State of the City Address.  Yet in Boston, spatial racism, unconscious bias in its hiring and promotion practices, and racially segregated social patterns persist with limited understanding of its impact on people of color and its future consequences for the city. We limit possibilities for change when we do not embrace this reality that exists in the city.   Without this awareness, Boston’s racial myopia will result in deepening the racial divide.