Is Boston America’s Most Racist City? Ask a Black Bostonian for Once

Black sports stars and comics from out of town often argue that the Hub is America’s most racist city. Many white residents disagree. But guess whose perspective almost no one is listening to? Black Bostonians'.

Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

As I watched the Celtics’ fourth playoff game against the Brooklyn Nets this past spring, I found myself not just praying that the Celts would win, but that the night would end without incident. The Nets’ guard, Kyrie Irving, had expressed a similar wish at a press conference a couple of days before the game. He said he hoped “we can just keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling shit from the crowd.” As it turned out, neither Irving nor I had any such luck.

Soon after I turned away from the television, disappointed by the Celtics’ loss but thinking we had, in fact, made it through the game without an episode, I found myself staring at my phone watching footage of a young white male, wearing a Kevin Garnett jersey, living up to every Boston sports fan stereotype by throwing a nearly empty water bottle at Irving as he made his way through the tunnel, an act of apparent revenge for the moment Irving stomped on and dragged his foot across the Celtics’ leprechaun logo at half court.

I could only shake my head in frustration at my fellow Celtics fan. All he had to do was boo Irving. Nothing else. Instead, a white fan threw garbage at a Black player, unleashing cries of racism from Irving and countless others who said it lent credence to everything Irving had said about Boston just days before.

Whether it was a racially motivated attack hardly mattered at that point (the fan was never charged with a hate crime). What mattered was what was about to come next. I braced myself, knowing we were on the verge of yet another round of the frustrating, demoralizing, and never-ending debate over whether Boston is an inherently racist city.

I have seen this debate unfold countless times before. It happened just a month earlier, when British actor Daniel Kaluuya was hosting Saturday Night Live and made a joke about Boston’s reputation as a racist town. It happened after comedian Michael Che’s comments a while back, also on SNL, about how Boston is the most racist place he’s ever been. These types of comments have been made many, many times in the past, too.

On one side of this perennial debate are Black and brown people from outside Boston and across the nation arguing that the city deserves its racist reputation. On the other side are white Bostonians denying that a particular incident was racist or, worse, that there is racism in Boston at all. The irony, lost on so many, is that those who are most hurt by this debate—by both sides of the argument—are the Black people, like me, who call Boston home.

One of the most frustrating things about being a Black Bostonian is getting hit by friendly fire from Blacks and other people of color from out of town who chime in vigorously anytime Boston becomes the subject of derision. No sooner had Irving’s comments about the possibility that he and his teammates would face racist insults at TD Garden gone public than a groundswell of negative posts about Boston from Black and brown people nationwide appeared in real time on social media. “Boston might as well be the Mississippi of the East Coast,” one person wrote. Boston “just has a unique level of racism,” another said.

Still, when Black Bostonians attempted to join the conversation or give our takes—including pointing out that Boston does not have a monopoly in this country on racism—it unleashed a weeklong Twitter war throughout our diaspora. When we tried to present a more nuanced view of our own experience, we were accused of defending racism. “Black Bostonians are so eager to defend racists in their city. I’ll never get it,” one person wrote. We were called overly “sensitive” about the comments directed at Boston, and critiqued and clowned for trying to stand up for the city in any way. We were damn near diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome for having the audacity to stick up for our hometown. “I want to believe it’s Black [people] who haven’t lived anywhere else [other than Boston] so they think that mess is normal,” reasoned one user.

It is frustrating enough for Black Bostonians to deal with a lack of visibility and erasure in our hometown media. But it is even more frustrating to see our own people aiding and abetting our erasure by discounting our voices when we speak about our everyday lives and experiences growing up and living in Greater Boston. By shouting us down or disregarding our viewpoints, our own people push us farther to the margins. This irony was not lost on some Twitter users. “Y’all arguing with Black Bostonians about our racism and I thought y’all said we should listen to Black people,” someone posted.

If the commentary were simply about structural racism, systemic inequity, or overt and covert racism present in a particular city or region, it would be different. Where the problem lies is that the comments about Boston lack any kind of nuance. “When social media discourse arises attempting to quantify our experiences, we are painted as downtrodden, almost slave-like figures in one of the most progressive cities in the world,” says Sharra Gaston, chairwoman of the Boston Art & Music Soul Fest. “When we attempt to speak up about the duality of being Black anywhere, we are dismissed and belittled. Only fellow native Black Bostonians know and understand the nuances which exist within our unique experience as both members of the African diaspora and proud members of the City of Champions.”

The reality, of course, is that Black Bostonians have been in the trenches fighting racism their entire lives, while the overwhelming majority of people talking about what a racist hellhole Boston is have never even been here. When Blacks nationwide write off Boston, they are also writing off the Black people who live here and our efforts to forge change.

The other side of the debate is even more fraught for Black Bostonians. When these incidents flare up, some white Bostonians aggressively push back at any accusations of rampant racism, even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Case in point: Around the time of the Irving incident, the now-former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge went on record saying that in his 26 years with the team, he’d never heard from his players of any racist incidents happening to them in Boston. If that’s true, then all that means is that he isn’t listening. When people such as Ainge whitewash the city’s image and the racism here, they only open up Black Bostonians to more ridicule when we try to speak up about our individual experiences.

Many white locals like to hide the racism that exists here behind the image of being a liberal and progressive city with a history full of abolitionists, revolutionaries, and freedom fighters. What they often refuse to acknowledge is the resistance these local heroes faced in this very city. Instead, Bostonians stick their heads in the sand, deny, and make excuses. This only feeds into the narrative of Boston being an overtly racist city.

The way I see it, Bostonians should have to deal head on with our city’s reputation of being hostile to Black and Latinx people by finally taking real action to change this perception, using the same kind of energy expended on denying the accusations.

One of the root causes of the perception that Boston is uniquely racist is the common misperception that Black and Latinx people don’t have any real representation in the region. “Most people, many of whom have never lived here, or visit just enough of the majority-white tourist areas to think they know Boston, do not want to hear that we have a thriving community of Black and brown people,” says Nakeisha Johnson, a lifelong Dorchester resident. “We are a majority-minority city, but you’d never know it because of the way we are dismissed in the media on a regular basis.”

The powers that be in Boston have done little to break down the misperception that there is no thriving Black community here. That forces Black Bostonians like myself to be advocates for, representatives of, and educators on our own existence. When I first arrived in 1996 on the campus of Morgan State University, a historically Black school in Maryland, I spent a large portion of my first semester explaining to Black people from all over the country, and even international students, that there have been prominent Black Bostonians since the 1630s. Twenty-five years later, I am still at it.

Even with high-profile Bostonians such as Mayor Kim Janey, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, business leader Segun Idowu, Sheena Collier, founder of Boston While Black, and state Representative Liz Miranda in the media limelight, Boston isn’t exactly known for centering or promoting its residents of color. This is a major contributor to the longstanding perception that the city, and Massachusetts as a whole, must not have a thriving, sizable population of non-whites. Where are they? Who are they? Either they don’t exist, Boston refuses to highlight or acknowledge them, or the city is working overtime to suppress and erase them. None of this sounds like a city that should receive the benefit of the doubt from Black and brown people nationwide.

This erasure even occurs when it comes to promoting efforts to battle racism. Whenever any semblance of progress is made in terms of laws or reforms meant to address the racial divide, wealth gap, or the many other inequalities in Boston and the state, it’s usually been spearheaded or championed by members of non-white Greater Boston, the people most affected by these problems. But you wouldn’t know it. When these new provisions get passed and make national news, Boston’s predominantly white leadership class takes all of the credit, as though the city is a progressive utopia and not the place that created the issue to begin with.

At long last, it seems as though Boston might finally be owning up to its image problem. A $2.5 million contract with Colette Phillips Communications—the single largest non-construction contract ever awarded to a BIPOC-owned firm in Boston—to help promote tourism and the city itself included a research study on Boston’s image. The study “found that the predominant perception of the city was that it is overwhelmingly white, male, conservative, and largely unwelcoming to outsiders,” Phillips says. As a result, Phillips and partners Daren Bascome of Proverb and Martha Sheridan of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau crafted an “All Inclusive Boston” campaign to counter this rampant misperception by rebranding the city as diverse and inclusive, as well as promoting BIPOC-owned businesses and culture. It’s a start, but a single marketing campaign is simply not enough.

I love my city. Boston is my home and has been for 46 years, but I want it to finally live up to being for all Bostonians the glorious beacon of liberty, freedom, righteousness, and equality it professes to have been for almost 400 years. I would love, for once, for Boston to not embarrass me in front of company when I try to tell my friends and family members from out of state that there is a thriving Black population here, and that we have a long history of prominent Black leaders working for change, much like in every city in America. Until then, their lasting impression of Boston will always be Bill Russell’s encounters with racism during his time as a Celtic, white Bostonians yelling slurs and throwing rocks at buses full of Black and Latinx children, and the infamous image of Ted Landsmark being stabbed with an American flag by an anti-busing protestor from South Boston on City Hall Plaza in 1976. Unfortunately, as much as we Black, Latinx, and Asian Bostonians try to convince them that Boston is not akin to Mississipi in the 1960s, they refuse to believe us.

Until Boston actively embraces, highlights, and showcases its non-white residents in media, art, and politics, until white Bostonians publicly acknowledge the city’s racist history instead of denying it and making excuses, Black Bostonians will be stuck looking like fools solely for being proud representatives of our own hometown.