Divided We Stand

By Doug Most | Boston Magazine |

Knee-length navy blue dress. Pearl earrings. Heels. Lorraine Herbert’s a knockout as she strides up to the door of one of Boston’s hottest nightspots. It’s a Thursday evening and the sidewalks of the Back Bay are hopping. But she hesitates. She doesn’t go in. She walks past the windows and peers inside. It’s a typical crowd — men and women laughing at the bar, families crowding around tables, couples holding hands — everyone white. Herbert stands outside. She looks uncertain, like she’s about to walk away. Finally, with a nervous step, she walks past the pretty hostess into the bar.

Vox Populi on Boylston Street doesn’t know it — but it’s about to get a whole lot of color. Herbert is black. A minute after she enters, two men follow, both in coat and tie — also black. Then the floodgates open. A hundred black professionals flow in over the next hour, transforming a bar that on most nights sees few, if any, blacks. “I’m happy to have a social scene,” one man says as the evening passes, “but it’s unfortunate we have to do this. It’s bittersweet.” By 8 p.m. Vox is packed with an ocean of blacks, and now it’s the blond bartenders and managers who stick out like buoys on the open sea. At one point, a pair of young white men wearing khakis and ties walk in, check out a scene they obviously had not anticipated, and walk out. It’s not the reaction Reggie Cummings wants.

An e-mail the software developer circulated during the week had invited thousands of black professionals to this “Friendly Takeover.” Limbo. Whiskey Park. Blue Cat Café. Trio. He’s hit them all in recent months, each time writing in his e-mail: “There are a good number of fine bars and restaurants in the Boston area that could use a little color. I am sure someone will bring some CDs, and we’ll kindly ask that they put some of our music in the rotation they are playing. It’s about time the after-work social scene in Boston became a little more balanced — if only one place at a time.”

This is what it’s come to for blacks in Boston. Convinced that the white elected leaders — Boston is one of the few major American cities that’s never had a black mayor, and Massachusetts doesn’t have a single black in Congress — are afraid to talk about race for fear of committing political suicide, blacks here are kicking down doors for the first time. Doors that, while they don’t actually say “Whites Only,” have felt that way for years. Mostly, it’s out of frustration. They’re fed up with having to go to Dorchester — or DC, for that matter — to hit a bar, restaurant, baseball game, or any scene where they won’t feel the way those workers at Vox must have felt for one measly night.

“This city, for white people, is the best place in the world,” Cummings says. “The biggest misconception in the black community is it’s not for us — the Symphony, Fenway, everything. They’re not made to feel welcome. But they should go anyway.”

He’s right — they should go. “It’s in black people’s hands to change things,” says Mel King, who in 1983 got support from whites and blacks and came closer than any black to winning Boston’s mayoral race. “We only get access when we push.”

So they’re pushing — people like Reggie Cummings are pushing for the first time. They’re annoyed the city hasn’t shed the reputation left over from its busing riots less than 30 years ago — when, as Melvin B. Miller, publisher of New England’s oldest continually operated black newspaper, the Bay State Banner, says, “Boston got pegged as the Northern racial bad boy.” And they’re tired of hearing people ask them why they still live in a town that’s so racist.

But is it? That question was put to people across the country in a poll commissioned by Boston magazine, asking their opinions on racism and segregation in five cities — Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The results suggest that people outside Boston don’t have nearly as bleak a view of the city as the people who live in it. Given the choice of describing Boston as “racist,” “segregated,” “integrated,” or “tolerant,” most respondents picked “tolerant” and “integrated.” Asked to rate the cities in terms of how racially divided they are, those surveyed said they considered Boston the least divided (and Los Angeles the most).

“Boston is by no means a shining city on the hill,” says Michael Bloomfield, executive vice president of the Mellman Group, the Washington, DC, public-opinion research firm that conducted the poll. “All of these cities, including Boston, are overwhelmingly seen as racially divided. But it’s also true that Boston is consistently seen as less divided than the other major cities we tested.” By a slight margin, nonwhites said Boston was more segregated than integrated, while whites said it was more integrated than segregated. Still, both whites and nonwhites described Boston as more tolerant than racist. “I think if the poll says anything, it says, ‘Hey, Boston, get over it,’” Bloomfield says. “It seems like old news when you’re quoting Bill Russell about race in Boston. That’s a long time ago.”

One-third of current Boston residents have lived here for only five years or less. Two-thirds weren’t even born here. Busing, to them, is nothing but a word. They don’t know the details behind Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s ruling on June 21, 1974, ordering that black students be bused to mostly white schools — from Roxbury to South Boston, for example. They know he did it, and they know what happened — whites threw rocks and tomatoes at buses carrying black kids. But because the busing era became so entrenched in peoples’ minds thanks to a photo of a white man attacking a black man with the pole of a big American flag, that past still clings to the city like a terrier nipping at a mailman’s leg. “Boston had the worst response to the desegregation of schools, and it cost the city a lot,” says Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard. “Those things don’t get forgotten easily.”

If ever — which, of course, may explain why, even though the stone-throwing has stopped and the dividing lines are slowly blurring, blacks and whites in Boston still live, work, and socialize in their own separate worlds. The suburbs remain almost lily-white: Boston is the third-whitest major metropolitan area in America, behind only Pittsburgh and Minneapolis.

“The Census says this is a minority-majority city, but you don’t walk down the street and see that,” says Benaree Wiley, president of the Partnership, whose mission is to recruit black professionals to the city’s workforce. Nonwhites may outnumber whites here for the first time, but only 8 percent of professionals, 6 percent of managers and executives, and 2.5 percent of board members are black, far below national averages.

It might be time to accept the previously unthinkable notion that Boston is not the racist place so many Bostonians seem to think it is.

But segregated? Well, that’s another story.

Racism in Boston, says Ted Landsmark, the black man being attacked in that famous photo, “is no greater than in New York or Chicago or other American cities.” Sitting in his office at the Boston Architectural Center, where he’s president, he adds, “But it’s still very troubling. Those cities have had black mayors, several blacks elected to Congress, blacks in prominent positions, things you don’t find in Boston.”

What you find in Boston, even with its rich history of racial progress, is a city that’s been remarkably tolerant of intolerance. Words and actions that in other cities would run leaders out of town have served only to elevate leaders in Boston. John Silber runs for governor and says of one police district in Roxbury, “There is no point in my making a speech on crime control to a group of drug addicts.” He nearly pulls off the win, and 12 years later he’s still chancellor of Boston University. City councilor Jimmy Kelly refuses to support blacks who were discriminated against at their housing complex and fights for the whites of Southie who he insists are still owed something from the busing era — and he keeps getting reelected. A South Boston pub hangs stuffed monkeys on its walls during Black History Month, but the taps keep flowing. Former city councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil says a Vietnamese neighborhood in Fields Corner reminds him of “Saigon, for Chrissakes. Makes you sick.” He’s reelected.

Verbal assaults like these create the tensions that spark physical violence, and, like most cities, Boston has had its share of incidents. There was the time the cops spread their dragnet for a fictitious black man Charles Stuart blamed for his wife’s murder. There was undercover officer Michael Cox’s beating at the hands of white colleagues who mistook him for a criminal. As recently as last March, Boston’s past reared its ugly head again. A 23-year-old butcher from Roxbury walked into a Dorchester bar called Twelve Bens around midnight on March 14. That, alone, might not have aroused anyone, even if he was the only black man in an Irish pub. But he was with a 27-year-old white friend, and after they had ordered a few drinks and started playing darts, a half dozen drunken white men approached them, according to the police report. The word “nigger” was thrown at the black man, and he was taunted for being a black hockey fan wearing a Bruins shirt. His friend stepped in and was branded a “nigger lover.” The two men asked the bartender for help; he allegedly snapped, “Mind your own business.” They left, but the group followed them and a fight erupted in the parking lot, six men pummeling one into the pavement. No one was arrested, though the bar’s owner was cited for failing to notify police. The incident went all but unreported in the media.

Why is it so hard to come together? Just look around. The blacks have their neighborhoods, from Roxbury to Mattapan to South Dorchester; the whites have theirs, from Beacon Hill to West Roxbury to South Boston. There’s no doubt some areas are integrating. Since busing, several communities have become considerably more diverse, almost without anybody noticing. East Boston had 31,000 whites, 120 blacks, and 940 Hispanics in 1980, but by 2000 had 19,000 whites, 1,200 blacks, and 15,000 Hispanics. Even South Boston, the epicenter of the busing struggle, has quietly gone from being 1.5 percent nonwhite to more than 15 percent nonwhite since 1980. Despite these small steps, though, segregation in Boston remains greatest between blacks and whites, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard found. And when it comes to Boston, a city defined by black and white, segregation is greatest in the city’s three most visible neighborhoods: Back Bay and Beacon Hill, which remain 85 percent white, and the Financial District, which still remains a white man’s bastion.

None of this means the city’s white politicians don’t help its black residents or that college presidents don’t recruit black students or that cultural institutions don’t reach out for black patrons or that business leaders aren’t trying to recruit more black professionals. They’re all trying. “This city has not been very good about telling its success stories,” says Ralph Martin, the former Suffolk County district attorney and the black man many believe has the best chance of breaking through in Boston politics. “Boston is much farther along than in 1974 when busing first started.” But what it does mean is the city still is struggling to bring blacks and whites together in boardrooms, courtrooms, restaurants, council meetings, and shops, and even at public events. “We have to get beyond tolerating diversity and start embracing diversity,” says David Lee, one of Boston’s most noted architects and a black man. “This shouldn’t be like taking Alka-Seltzer.”

Sometime this month, a decision is expected that would taste more like a cherry LifeSaver than Alka-Seltzer — if it goes Boston’s way. If not, city leaders might want to look in the mirror to understand why.

There had been less talk about race in Boston in recent years, which was unusual. But there were still flashpoints. Blacks were livid at the MBTA, for example, for giving the corridor where 25 percent of Boston’s residents live — an overwhelmingly black corridor — a bus line instead of a rail line, while commuters from Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and Brighton ride trolleys to work. “The whites in Boston have a paternalistic attitude,” says Paul Watanabe, codirector of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston. “Their attitude is, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ It’s had mixed results.’”

George “Chip” Greenidge, head of the National Black College Alliance and the founder of the State of Young Black Boston, adds, “We’re the only city in the state that doesn’t have an elected school committee. Why? The voters are going to pick the wrong person?”

But, mostly, the recent news has been good. Mayor Tom Menino was touting the 12 supermarkets he’s gotten to move in as the building blocks of inner-city communities. His Main Street program revitalized 19 neighborhoods and won the National Historic Trust’s Great American Main Street award. Dudley Square and Blue Hill Avenue, once the city’s ghettos, are blossoming, while the Grove Hall Mall has given Roxbury its first business center. Analysis by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard shows just how diverse Boston had become. The number of multiethnic neighborhoods in which at least three racial groups account for 10 percent of the population had grown from 30 in 1990 to 48 in 2000. It seemed the walls were coming down.

Then last summer, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) arrived to consider Boston for its 2004 convention — their final decision is expected to be announced this month — and the Boston Globe reported that two DNC members left muttering about how white the city seemed. Hard to imagine anyone forming that opinion in a city where one in four residents is black and one in six, Hispanic. Then again, Menino treated his guests to lunch at the New England Aquarium, dinner in the Public Garden, and breakfast in the Financial District. Instead of showing off the restored Blue Hill Avenue or Dudley Square, he took them to three of the whitest attractions in the third-whitest city in the country. “This mayor doesn’t seem to be comfortable talking about race, and that feeds a perception that Bostonians are not capable of talking about race,” says David Harris, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. “It’s a city defined by race, and to have a mayor who is uncomfortable talking about it, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Menino, in a 90-minute conversation on the topic in his office, seems to confirm some of Harris’s concerns. “There are a lot of talkers, not doers,” Menino says. “I do it. They talk. When was the last time they walked a street of Boston? There have been too many talkers the last 25 years who just talked about this issue and pontificated.” Told what Harris said, the mayor snaps that he’s never heard of Harris and wonders if he’s ever attended a City Council meeting. Then he blames the media for keeping alive the perception that Boston’s racist. It’s exactly the defensiveness that disturbs some blacks, who, while they credit Menino’s efforts, say his references to Boston as a city of neighborhoods actually build fences rather than tear them down. It’s a point he disputes. “The ethnic enclaves are a strength of the city,” Menino says. “They help people maintain their ethnicity.”

The truth is those enclaves formed out of necessity, not desire. They formed because many blacks in Boston can’t afford to live in most of its neighborhoods or haven’t felt welcomed elsewhere in the city. A report last year found that when blacks and whites asked about the availability of apartments in Boston, blacks were given different information from that given to whites 16 out of 22 times. In Atlanta, 25 percent of black residents ranked all-black neighborhoods as the most desirable to live in, while in Boston, it was the opposite. Only 9 percent of blacks said they actually prefer to live in an all-black neighborhood.

“Helping minority communities doesn’t help race relations,” says Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard. “This is a powerless minority community. In Chicago or New York you can’t do anything without consulting black leaders. In Boston you can.”

That’s because black leadership in Boston is all but invisible. Three of the nine City Council districts are mostly nonwhite, but blacks hold only two of the 13 council seats. White politicians don’t worry about the black vote in Boston because it’s inconsequential.

“The perception is people of color don’t vote, and if they don’t vote, you don’t have to worry about them,” says Leonard Alkins, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch. He’s sitting in his Roxbury office surrounded by maps of voting districts, determined to get more blacks voting, a huge challenge. In Ward 12, Boston’s largest African-American ward, there are 11,971 people of voting age. Only 7,338 of them are registered to vote, and only 1,989 of those registered voted in the 2000 nonpresidential election. That means only 27 percent of eligible voters actually voted. If you’re a politician, is that where you’ll be campaigning?

The unusually blunt news re-lease from one of Boston’s top law firms landed on fax machines around the city. “Boston does not have the reputation of being the most nurturing of cities for minorities to work and thrive,” it read. “Things are slowly changing, however. For an attorney of color to achieve the prestigious title of partner in a law firm, especially one as large as Mintz Levin, is a significant event. But recently our firm has elected four attorneys to partner status, more than any firm in Boston.”

In other cities, that’s not news. In Boston, it’s bragging rights.

Though blacks have been unable to break the hold whites have in Boston politics — “When you’ve been in power so many years,” one black lawyer says, “you don’t want to give it up” — black business leaders are mobilizing like never before. Their timing comes at a critical point. For seven straight years, the most common complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination (MCAD) were from disabled workers or those claiming sexual harassment. Last year, for the first time, racial complaints topped the list.

In a conference room of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo overlooking Boston Harbor, William “Mo” Cowan and Seni Adio sit with the firm’s white managing partner, Irwin Heller, and talk about their eight-year climb to the top. Cowan, who attended Northeastern University School of Law, says most of his black friends schooled in Boston couldn’t wait to graduate. “People of color say I’ll give it my three years and then I’m out of here,” he says. It’s called brain drain, and in a metropolitan area with 68 colleges and universities and 250,000 college students, it may be the single biggest concern of the city’s business community — that students come to Boston to be educated, then leave for other cities to work. It’s why a team from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Partnership, and 13 of Boston’s biggest businesses and institutions went to Nashville, Tennessee, in September — to recruit blacks to Boston. “There are major companies and CEOs trying to improve the image and the reality,” says Paul Guzzi, president and CEO of the chamber. “Are we better than the stereotype? I think so. But it’s in our self-interest to attract and keep the best professionals in this city.”

They have their work cut out for them. Following up on a 1986 Boston magazine survey that found just six blacks out of 700 partners at Boston’s biggest law firms, the Boston Globe last summer reported that things had hardly improved. Of 957 partners at the city’s 10 biggest firms, just 34 are minorities. On page four of the Boston Bar Journal is a list of its board of editors. Of the 21 faces, 19 are white; there is only one black and one Asian.

The Partnership’s goal is to change these images. “We will not be a world-class city as long as we have that reputation,” says Wiley, who runs the organization out of an office on, of all places, Newbury Street. Almost 1,000 black professionals have passed through the program, and 84 percent have stayed in Boston. Wiley says she’s proud of that figure. However, blacks still make up only 8.4 percent of Boston’s private industry workforce, compared to 14 percent nationally. Boston has a higher percentage of black professionals than New York, Washington, and Atlanta, but a lower percentage of black officials and managers.

“Young people of color are moving to Atlanta, DC, the West Coast, places that are integrated vertically,” says Charlotte Kahn, director of the Boston Community Building Network for the Boston Foundation, who is white. “Boston is not. We need to bring in and nurture young leaders.”

Greenidge says bluntly, “African Americans here don’t have a glass ceiling. We have a concrete ceiling.”

The first signs of cracking in that concrete might be showing, however.

The CEO of United Way of Massachusetts Bay — black. Two of the newest partners at the city’s most prestigious law firm — black. One of the largest owners of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in Boston. The city’s housing chief. The vice president of John Hancock Financial Services. The general manager of IBM’s Cambridge-based Lotus Software division. The chairman of the Boston Foundation, one of the city’s wealthiest community-building organizations. The managing director of the Community Investment Group at FleetBoston Financial. Fleet’s chief privacy officer. Two senior vice presidents at Citizens Bank. The two biggest stars the Boston Celtics have had in a decade. And the former district attorney many say could be Boston’s next mayor or governor of Massachusetts.

All of them black.

Wayne Budd, John Hancock’s vice president and general counsel, who is black, says black professionals leave Boston because they assume they can’t succeed here. “The times I speak to groups of young folk are more important than anything I do professionally,” he says. “I’m very heartened by the progress we’ve made, but I think we can do better.”

Clayton Turnbull is also working to make Boston more business-friendly for blacks. He runs Dunkin’ Donuts shops in Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester and is organizing a network of 150 black businessmen. “If you don’t help the black neighborhoods,” he says, “they become economically depressed tinderboxes waiting to be lit. Grove Hall, Upham’s Corner, if they’re not economically viable, black people can’t integrate into the system.”

But in Boston you need money. That’s where a woman like Gail Snowden, who is also black, comes in. She runs the Community Investment Group at FleetBoston, providing credit to minority-owned businesses. She also attends breakfasts with other black businesswomen. “Leadership is getting together for the first time,” she says in her office overlooking Boston Harbor. “You’ll never get that black mayor until people organize. If we don’t get in to influence events, shame on us. We may be invisible, but give us a year or two.”

Lorraine Herbert, Khari Porter, Earl Phalen, and the others mingling at Vox Populi are tired of waiting. The women say their friends looking to marry left Boston to meet someone — and did. “There are so few clubs that cater to the African-American urban professional,” says Porter, who publishes a newsletter of activities for blacks.

Satch’s Place, a downtown jazz club that was popular with blacks, is gone. Bob the Chef’s on Columbus Avenue draws a mixed crowd with jazz and soul food, but it’s off the beaten path. The city’s cultural institutions are still struggling. In 1991, of the 148 board members of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Boston Ballet, 3 were black. Today about 16 are — but their audiences remain mostly white. Black Nativity draws blacks every Christmas — but few whites. They go to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. Lots of events for whites, lots for blacks, few for both.

“When I call friends in Philadelphia,” says Greenidge, “they say, ‘I thought you’d be gone by now.’ If you’re young, smart, and African American, the perception is you’re supposed to leave Boston.”

Aiesha Young did leave, settling in Washington, DC, after growing up in Roxbury. “The doors are more open,” she says. “In Boston, you constantly feel there’s a new obstacle. It’s the segregation. It’s what I love about Boston and what I despise.” She recalls a time when she went to play pool in the Fens — the only black woman in her group of 10. “The bouncer said, ‘You sure you’re in the right place? You might want the South End.’ Finally, the girl I was with saw me and waved, and I went in.”

Young must have felt as Herbert did outside Vox Populi. But Young didn’t have Reggie Cummings then. When he launched an event called First Fridays, 20 people came, then 200, then eventually 1,500. “They are starving for places to fit in,” he says.

Judging by how blacks in Boston are mobilizing, they may not wait around for invitations. They might just start showing up — and moving up.

“The numbers are there. They’re ready to take over,” says Diddy Cullinane, the white president of Black & White Boston Coming Together. “And I think it’s a good thing. It’s time.”