Black Power

Why doesn’t Boston have more of it?

black power

Boston has just gone through a tremendous political shakeup. The result? The faces of power got even whiter. Newly elected officeholders in the past two years include the mayor; both U.S. senators; the governor, attorney general, and treasurer; four Boston city councilors; and six state representatives in the city’s districts. Of those 16 new faces of political power, just one is black: state Representative Evandro Carvalho, from an overwhelmingly black Dorchester district.

Individual elections aren’t always great indicators of historical trends. But it’s hard not to take recent developments as a strong sign that, after years of talk about black empowerment in Boston, little has changed at the top.

The new state Senate president is white; so is the incoming head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Jim Rooney. Ditto the new heads of Partners HealthCare, Fidelity Investments, and State Street Global Advisors. The city’s new police commissioner is white; the new schools superintendent is Asian American. The developers who are rapidly changing the face of Boston are almost all white. So are the vast majority of chairmen and CEOs of Boston’s biggest companies and nonprofit institutions. When former Governor Deval Patrick joined Bain Capital in April, he became the only black managing director out of dozens—and, in fact, the first in the firm’s 31-year history.

While Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh strive earnestly for diverse administrations, they are having limited success—even as many of the black stars recruited to Beacon Hill by Deval Patrick are now, like him, leaving the spotlight, and the city.

To be sure, Boston is by no means the same racially divisive place it was in the 1980s, let alone during the busing crisis or the many decades before. In March, speaking to students at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, veteran black journalist Phillip Martin, an investigative reporter at WGBH, recalled the bad old Boston of the ’70s and ’80s: having his car windows smashed in the North End, getting into scuffles in South Boston, being afraid to be in Charlestown at night. These days, he said, gentrification has ironically made those neighborhoods more welcoming to black Bostonians—even if many can no longer afford to live there.

That’s progress, of a sort. But there is still a dearth of black leadership at the very top of the ladders of influence. Why?

It’s a question I’ve heard debated and discussed repeatedly, for as long as I’ve been in Boston. And it remains important, because it can help us understand whether we’ll be having this same conversation in 10 years, or 20, or 30.

It would be silly to declare a single definitive answer. But as an admittedly white, middle-aged, middle-class observer, here are six theories as to why all the talk about “New Boston” hasn’t translated into a new generation of black power players—and what we can do about it.


To Each Her Own

On a frozen Monday evening in February, at Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen on Columbus Avenue, a mostly black audience gathered for a discussion of the political landscape for Boston’s African Americans. Darryl’s was familiar territory for the panelists and the audience, as was the topic. One of the speakers was former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who in 1993 became the first black woman elected to that body. Rumor has it she is thinking of running against current District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, 20 years her junior, whose territory includes Roxbury and parts of Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, Dorchester, and the South End. At one point, Wilkerson went on a long monologue—which she later repeated in a Facebook post—about the need for liquor-license reform. She, and those cheering her on, seemed to have temporarily forgotten the fact that she had been sent to prison for taking a $23,000 bribe—which she was photographed stuffing into her bra, during an FBI sting—to help obtain a liquor license.

I am not one who takes pleasure in bashing Wilkerson, whom I have known for years. She deserves great credit for her own accomplishments in office, and for giving opportunities to the next generation of minority leaders: people like Marvin Venay, recently a deputy director of government affairs for Treasurer Deb Goldberg; and Jerome Smith, who’s director of neighborhood services in Mayor Walsh’s cabinet.

But that night at Darryl’s, Wilkerson had harsh words for younger, minority elected officials, such as Michelle Wu and Tito Jackson, who she suggested are not doing enough to promote minority-owned businesses and boost minority employment. Along with her rumored plan to unseat Jackson, this fits into a frustrating pattern of destructive infighting within Boston’s black community. Some rising talents have been accused of being too “downtown” to represent black neighborhoods. And in the 2013 mayoral election, many of the black community’s leading figures, supporting Charlotte Golar Richie, seemed to spend more energy trying to drive John Barros and Charles Yancey out of the race than doing the hard work of raising money and organizing for Richie’s faltering campaign. That culminated in an embarrassing meeting before the preliminary election, organized by top Richie campaign aide Kevin Peterson but later disavowed by Richie, at which dozens of community elders discussed ways to get her black competitors to drop out.

Maybe we ought not to be surprised to find these kinds of battles within Boston’s black electorate: It’s a wide and complex community, and it is afforded such a small slice of elected power. Effectively blocked from avenues of executive power over the years, black leaders in Boston have gravitated to churches, nonprofit services, and a handful of political offices with predominantly black constituencies. Tales of the resulting infighting are endless. Of course, those stories can be found within any demographic. But the paucity of power positions for black Bostonians makes them more costly.


Follow the Money

A 2010 study of “The State of Black Boston” estimated the total net assets of all black Bostonians at $14.7 billion. To put that in perspective: It means that one-quarter of Boston’s population, collectively, is worth some $2.5 billion less than Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson.
“Power and influence is often attached to wealth,” says Michael Curry, head of the Boston NAACP. “We don’t have the generational wealth that allows us to claim that.”

White Bostonians also disproportionately control the types of grant funds and investment portfolios that everybody wants a piece of. As Curry notes, that absence of wealth is no accident—it’s history. Black Boston, historically and institutionally, is still playing catch-up after generations of discrimination. And without that financial clout, black Bostonians know they’ll be less desirable as board members and trustees—positions that often require access to personal or institutional wealth—and, by extension, they will hold less sway over politics and politicians.


  • When?

    Why have you and other journalist continued to write about diversity without also noting or addressing that Latinos are a significant portion of the population in Boston and yet have less representation and power than African Americans, Whites, Asians etc. especially if we discuss it from a proportional to the MA/Boston population.

    Zero latinos are on your 50 Most Powerful. This needs to be addressed.

    • Albert Willis

      Who would you suggest? Other than Sonia Chang-Díaz (our first Latina state senator who’s father was America’s first Latino astronaut), not a lot of other names come to mind.

  • Ines

    Waving from the front of the room…..look at me the lil brown Latina! Oh, I guess you are not ready for me?? So many of us and we are ignored. Get ready, I’m running of City Council At Large soon!

  • GrnMachine

    Interesting that while David Goldstein is bemoaning the lack of black leaders in Boston, he failed to acknowledge the election of Steve Tompkins as Sheriff of Suffolk County. This is the first time a black man has been elected to this office, and he is only one of two black Sheriffs in the state.

    • Albert Willis

      The article is actually about the lack of black power in Boston, not about the lack of black elected officials. Being an elected official (black or otherwise) doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a leader.

      Tompkins is in a position to enact reforms that would be welcomed by Boston’s black community; lets see what happens.

  • Albert Willis

    Regarding the “lost generation” hypothesis: that’s my generation and I had many friends leave Boston during the 80s. At the end of the day, most of them didn’t see toiling away in Boston as worthwhile.

    Having grownup in Boston, many of them wanted to be in places like Washington D.C. or Atlanta that felt more welcoming to young black professionals.

    And there’s the ever present pressure from friends and family to leave Boston, because of the mostly negative reputation it has among black people in the rest of the country. Because the cost of living (especially housing) is much less in other places, you can literally buy a nice house or condo in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland or Virginia versus living with 2 or 3 roommates in Boston in addition to all of the other drama of being black in Boston.

    So yeah, lots of black people who would be those political and corporate leaders just aren’t here and they’re not coming back.

    The most popular Boston politician (having topped the ticket two elections in a row) and who graces the cover of the power issue—Ayanna Pressley—is from Chicago, like former governor Patrick.

    This is where Boston’s tribalism and infighting among the black community works against any sustainable black power base. People like Ayanna Pressley weren’t affected by black Boston’s reality distortion field, which enables them to be much more effective.

  • TW

    As a native Bostonian, I have always studied the “Great Migration” of blacks coming up from the South along with families born in this city. Boston has always been a difficult area to get a foothold. It was migrant and very polarized. Historically, unlike other U.S. cities, a strong segregated and visible black middle class never took hold. There were nice neighborhoods, but no, “Pill Hill” or “Sugar Hill” that existed. Also, the black churches in Boston never took a strong political or social stance for the community. Absent this foundation, the factors for success remains flawed. Fast forward, and now we have a new migration pattern. I think the diversity of origin in the black community and no ability to pull all these factions together is the death null to getting a better stronghold politically and economically. People identify as African American, Haitian, Jamaican, West Indian, Cape Verdean, etc. When election time comes around many different voices call, but no rallying theme. Just subtraction by division. The tapestry for blacks in Boston is even worse when you look at the lack of black radio, restaurants, cultural centers of excellence and deeper opportunities for entrepreneurship. Only a few are at the table corporately, as these organizations struggle to attract and retain talent. People of Color considering Boston are looking for all the foundational pieces in a community. When they can’t find it, they either chose not to be here or chose towns outside of Boston. All of these factors, make blacks invisible. City Hall only presents BandAids. Until, universal messages are presented and the “black community” comes together as one homogenous group, things will not change. Critical mass is needed.