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.