One Boston? … And Justice for All

How Tom Menino tackled racial diversity and gay rights during his tenure as mayor of Boston.

tom menino race diversity gay rights

Photograph Courtesy of Isabel Leon/Office of the Mayor

One Boston?

Menino inherited a city reeling from the memory of racial conflict.

During Tom Menino’s tenure, Boston became a majority-minority city. Today 53 percent of the city’s citizens are from communities of color. Menino tackled diversity with the same pragmatic approach he used in all of his governance. Kelly Bates, who heads the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research at Emerson College, notes that Menino pushed to have community centers, pools, libraries, and parks carved out in some of Boston’s neediest neighborhoods. In other words, as the Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser says, “He focused on city services rather than on racial divisions.”

Over the years, that translated into votes. Menino enjoyed broad electoral success, and in his final two reelections, he won at least 70 percent of the vote in the city’s most minority neighborhoods. Those figures are even more remarkable given that, as UMass Boston political science professor Paul Watanabe says, Menino is “not somebody who has been seen as making a particular effort to cultivate the African-American or Latino or growing Asian-American segments of the city.”

Many minority leaders feel that people of color slipped off Menino’s radar. Indeed, one survey of city workers conducted by the blog Blackstonian found that only 22 percent of city department heads were non-white, and that few people of color held top positions. “We had a lot of high hopes for him,” says Pastor Bruce Wall, who supported Menino during his first campaign, only to become disenchanted with what he calls the mayor’s rhetoric on race. “Mayor Menino seemed to shy away from strong black talent.”

That perception, of course, is hardly new for the city of Boston. A 2010 survey conducted by the Commonwealth Compact project at UMass Boston found that Americans consider the city to be one of the least welcoming to people of color in the country. “The reality is we do suffer from the reputation of racism,” says Georgianna Meléndez, of the Commonwealth Compact. “It keeps people from coming and staying here. And as long as our leadership is not diverse, it’s not going to change.”

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