The Minority Report

The first thing I learned about power was that in Boston, black people were never supposed to have it.

Leo DaRosa told me this. It was 1986, the year of the Celtics and my high school graduation, long before such things mattered to me.

That summer, Leo hired me to paint houses with him. A guidance counselor in Plymouth, where I grew up after my family left Dorchester, he was paid to prepare children for the future. Leo was impatient with the black and brown cocky, smart-ass kids–too young, cool, and immature to understand that without education they lived with a foot already in the grave. He was fastidious, deeply intense, when considering how certain people succeeded while others did not. He told me it was different for black people.

The moment was uncomfortable. Sweat trickled down Leo's sharp cheekbones as he wolfed down a sandwich. Reaching into the cooler for a soda, he started talking. Neither he nor his partner thought much of me, and I couldn't blame them, for I had a poor work ethic. They worked hard; I did not. Leo held down two jobs, teaching, painting, busting his ass. I was 17, graduating without ever having gotten my hands dirty.

“You want to know how to make it?” he volunteered grimly.


“Leave town.”

Leave town, he said. Leave Boston.

“If you're black, you'll never be able to advance from within,” he said. “You'll never get the chance. There will always be someone in front of you. The only way you can make it here is if you leave. Leave and build a reputation somewhere else. You do that, and you'll be able to come back. If you stay, you'll never have the opportunity to climb the ladder from within. They won't let you.”

Nearly 20 years later , in the New Boston–the Boston with California-grade sushi, a non-Irish mayor, and a plurality of nonwhite citizens–the notion of power, who has it, who can climb and who cannot, remains present, unresolved, roiling. J. Keith Motley, the popular African-American interim chancellor at UMass Boston, is bypassed for the permanent job amid hard feelings, and a far-off conversation is again revived. Race and power in Boston is like Pacaya, the unpredictable Guatemalan volcano that lurks, hibernates, and erupts.

Howard Manly, the Boston Herald columnist, is upset about Motley and about this magazine's May list of Boston's 100 most influential people, which contained 99 whites and one African American, the Reverend Eugene Rivers III, at number 97. Manly burns, like the crackling cigarette wedged between his scowling lips. If nature is responsible for Pacaya's fury, race in Boston is a topic more easily aroused. To Manly, the magazine's contribution is proof that it's unwise to be careless with matches inside a tinderbox. He dismisses the list, focusing on the selectors. That, more than the list itself, is the example of power. Motley's loss to Michael Collins stung, but was not unprecedented. That the dynamic New Boston looks profoundly like the insular old one is the more immediate issue. The sushi might taste better but the power hasn't shifted.

“The names change,” Manly says acidly, flicking ash, “but the game remains the same. So much for the 'New Boston.' ”

I SMASH INTO A BRICK WALL. Few people want to talk. William Van Faasen (number 11), outgoing CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, considered one of the most inspiring thinkers on this topic by his peers, does not decline an invitation to be interviewed, but also does not accept it. Phone calls go unreturned, deadlines pass. Cleve Killingsworth Jr., who succeeds Van Faasen this month, considers it inappropriate to talk before working a single day in the job. Motley is interested and then wanes. The response crystallizes a hard truth: Race cannot be discussed. Dialogue always disintegrates, leaving only noise.

Some are protesting the magazine, that it could be so clumsy–not so much politically incorrect, but horribly out of touch with the city. “People should not seek confirmation of what they do and who they are by being or not being on a list,” Howard Manly tells me. “It is more a confirmation of the editors and what they think. Do you honestly believe [black former U.S. Associate Attorney General] Wayne Budd does not have influence? I would put this in the category of trivia.” But here, in the contested land of the 54th Regiment and Frederick Douglass, of Garrison and John Boyle O'Reilly, but also of Louise Day Hicks and Chuck Stuart, being clumsy has consequences.

Could Curt Schilling (number 91), a baseball player, honestly be considered more powerful, more influential, than Ray Hammond, Harvard-educated, socially muscular chairman of the board of the $675 million Boston Foundation, who also serves on the boards of the Yawkey Foundation and the Boston Globe, among others, and perhaps most importantly, who has the savvy to navigate the far-flung quarters of Boston's power structure? “The perception,” one insider whose superior is on the list told me, “is that they made their list sitting around a conference room drinking chablis.”

Yet there is another feeling, that the list was ill conceived yet accurate, that the players who once inhabited Boston, men like Shag and Bal Taylor, who in the pre-World War II years were tight with Mayor James Michael Curley, are no longer here, replaced by a new dynamic of successful African Americans but few who are actual power brokers. That the list inflamed because its whiteness represented a reality, from the philanthropic world to sports to politics and the media, in which opinion can power the social agenda. Maybe the truth hurts.

I CHECK THE BALLOT BOX. They call Boston a “majority minority” city. I call Leonard C. Alkins, president of the NAACP in Boston, the birthplace of that venerable institution. He doesn't dispute the numbers, but what good are they without translating into power? Alkins believes that only in 1967, when Tom Atkins became the first black elected citywide to the Boston City Council, and in '71, when Atkins ran for mayor against Kevin White, did blacks appear close to political power. The rest is a bitter dream. Adrian Walker, the talented columnist for the Boston Globe, believes the watershed moment was Ray Flynn's 1983 racially charged victory over Mel King. “People think it was close,” Walker says. “But they don't remember that Flynn won by an almost 2-to-1 margin. That said a lot.”

Alkins tells me power is about hiring and firing. He is skeptical of what he calls the “usual suspects”–visible and prominent but co-opted black Bostonians. “Perceived power is when you are anointed, given a title and the perception that you can get things done,” he says. “And then there is real power.”

I FOLLOW THE MONEY. Cathy Minehan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is a power player. Eleven years ago, she became the first woman president of the Boston Fed, remarkable in the land of winks, nods, Triple Eagles (BC High, BC, BC Law), and the seemingly unbreakable chain of old boys' clubs. Minehan (number 23) tells me power is “picking your spots and making things happen,”
a strategy at work in Boston through multiethnic coalitions at the highest levels. She is impressed by Van Faasen, Rivers, and Hammond, by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall (number 14) and Wayne Budd. “You can't go into finance, into the world of nonprofits or medicine, without finding important people of color.”

Lennie Alkins considers Kevin Cohee a player, though the Boston establishment is ambivalent about the Harvard Law-educated CEO of Boston-based OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the country, and though his financial power is largely based in California and Florida. “They don't get it,” Alkins tells me. “They don't understand the city they're writing about.”

I FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL. A force in this town is seated courtside at every Celtics home game, visible but inconspicuous. In 2002, Irv and Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca, and Robert Epstein assembled a high-powered consortium and purchased the Celtics for $360 million. James Cash is quietly part of that sinewy group. The first black professor at Harvard Business School to be granted tenure, he reportedly put in at least $10 million to join the Celtics limited partnership. Cash plays above the rim. He is a trustee of Mass General Hospital and member of the Microsoft, General Electric, and Partners HealthCare boards of directors. He has also been on the board of the Gardner Museum. “He's not one of those people who needs to tell the media he can get things done,” Alkins says of Cash. “When he needs something, he goes to the source.”

The new owners of the famously racist but now repentant Red Sox say they also want to share power. John Henry, Larry Lucchino (number 16), and Tom Werner are on record as saying they will complete the transformation of the team by adding an African-American limited partner. That was three years ago, and counting. At Yankee Stadium, a legend is laughing. Reggie Jackson, rebuffed by baseball in his attempts to buy a big-league club, is pessimistic. He asks: “What's taking them so long? Is it that hard?” Jackson wonders if the New Sox are the same old car with a new coat of paint.

REAL POWER CAN'T BE GIVEN. It must be taken, so I look for the opinion shapers who move the market, the ones who stay in your face.

Will McDonough was a kingmaker. His clannish loyalty may not have made for the best journalism, but it constituted power. The late longtime Globe sports columnist virtually negotiated Bill Parcells's escape from the Patriots and elevated and sustained the legacies of Joe Cronin and Tom Yawkey, scaring off challenges and truth. He allied with Joe O'Donnell (number 1) and other heavyweights. Every powerful sports figure in this town considered him before making a move.

Peter Gammons is a kingmaker. At the Globe and later ESPN, Gammons was called “the commissioner.” Aspiring managers knew that the powerful read Gammons. They knew a Gammons mention transformed an unknown into a job finalist. Aspiring managers were always nice to Peter Gammons.

When Oakland's Billy Beane flirted with the Sox in 2002 for the job of general manager (which he rejected and Theo Epstein accepted), Gammons, like McDonough with Parcells, was a conduit.

It's there for the taking, but some black writers don't want power. Power means advocating a position, forcing dialogue, the Gammons and McDonough way. A century ago, advocacy was the staple of black journalism. William Monroe Trotter and his Boston Guardian were advocates, and long before him there were Douglass and the North Star. Or crusading sportswriter Mabray “Doc” Kountze, who in the 1930s, long before Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, met with the Boston Braves to push for integration. Today black writers rarely use prime journalistic real estate to move the market. They're not sure it's part of the job description.

The Boston Globe has existed for 133 years. It has employed two full-time black sports columnists in its history. The last, Michael Holley, wanted to be respected as a writer who happened to be black, uninterested in being the black voice of the city. To Lennie Alkins, Holley's choice produced a seismic effect, robbing a community that needed representation.

Adrian Walker has been accused of not being vigilant enough in positing the black need and moral claim, even though he mans arguably the most powerful column space in New England: the Globe Metro column where Mike Barnicle once threw haymakers. Barnicle steered the debate. Walker now owns the property, but hasn't yet decided how he wants to till the land.

“To have power is to have the ability to shape events, but I don't think that writing exclusively about race gives you more power,” Walker tells me. “If anything, it could make you more redundant, easier to tune out. I know how Len Alkins feels, but he's an advocate. I know how Howard feels, but you can never write enough to satisfy everyone. At the same time, I used to think when I first got the job that I didn't want that title, to always have to be the one to write about racial issues, but I've slowly come to the realization that in many cases, if I don't write, there's no one else who will.”

Today, the Globe has no African-American sports columnists. In the rainbow of the New Boston, the Globe sports columnists are named Ryan, Shaughnessy, and MacMullan, hardly different from 1986, when I awaited my SAT scores. Editor Marty Baron (number 36) tells me he believes his paper has a sufficient number of columnists.

Holley now works at sports radio giant WEEI, a station famous for its bombast, its influence, and its racism. Neither John Dennis nor Gerry Callahan, the morning team, can overcome their infamous “Metco gorilla” exchange or their deserved reputations as the leading racists on the airwaves. They most likely don't care to, for their act–reassuring the angry-white-guy element (long the Herald' s dominion) that, even in a politically correct universe, there's still one place where everything will be all right–plays big in Boston. If it didn't, both would have been sacked by now. They have power and they use it.

Between the Globe and WEEI, Holley has held the two most powerful positions of any black sports-media person in the history of this city. But Lennie Alkins did not support Holley's hire at WEEI, and told station general manager Julie Kahn (number 59) as much. To Alkins, a power position demanded a power broker.

“There are people who are put in positions of power who don't want it,” Alkins tells me. “But they have no choice but to use it. Use power for truth. They have to use their positions to speak for those communities that can't speak for themselves. The way I see it, if you are a person with power and don't use it, you're no different than those without it.”

I LOOK TO THE SKY, and see the 36-story, approximately $705 million One Lincoln Street (now called State Street Financial Center), the 17-year passion of Ken Guscott. One Lincoln is the first major real estate project in America developed by minority partners.

“That's the only building in this city where a person of color can point to it and say, 'That was built, top to bottom, with our money,'” Howard Manly tells me. “That's the kind of power I'm talking about.” Instead of waiting for the kingmakers to accept the challenge, it's better to have a few more kings.