Missed opportunities in Channel 5 forum on race

We need to move beyond usual grievances and scapegoating

THE CONVERSATION ON race in Boston hosted by Channel 5 and the Boston Foundation on Thursday offered a tremendous opportunity to confront prejudice and systemic discrimination in Boston. Sadly, people talked around the real issues and missed another opportunity to move things forward.

Black civil rights leaders may have been telling the city’s white audience something that they didn’t know about race in Boston, but they again failed to proffer anything remotely insightful to what should be a candid engagement about color and caste in a city long in denial of its harmful treatment of black and brown people.

Usually deft and persuasive, NAACP Boston Branch president Michael Curry bloviated about the need to understand the historical “narrative” of race in Boston, oddly comparing racial animus in the city as something like a “dysfunctional” family.  His locquacisousness and obvious desire to employ overdone civil rights tropes led some to readily speculate if there was a there there.

Rahsaan Hall, of the ACLU, always steady and sober, sounded undone in explaining how the police regularly break the law when dealing with black people in the streets. Nothing new there.

Another guest, Daunasia Yancey, of Black Lives Matters, strangely called for “defunding” the police as a remedy for racial oppression of blacks in Boston. Perhaps it didn’t occur to her — or others on the panel who failed to challenge her — that such a move would invite anarchy, particularly in high crime neighborhoods in the city.

John Barros, the city’s chief economic officer, played defense all night long on behalf of his boss, Mayor Martin Walsh. In dulcet tones he danced around claims that the city has failed to address the issue of race.

Barros’s sometimes strident and poor defense made some observers embarrassed. But it would have been good to have Walsh at the event, because — to his great credit — he started his administration announcing the city’s racial problems.

Walsh’s push to diversify police department’s leadership and his efforts at advancing President Obama’s “My Brothers Keeper” program show a commitment toward racial healing. Walsh squandered a moment to step up.

But there were some bright spots that forced illumination and the level of concentration needed to truly grapple with race in Boston.

The first was the WCVB/Boston Foundation poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group. It documented the obvious: More than 60 percent of Boston residents see race as a serious issue. The city remains highly segregated based on race. One in three blacks feel that the police are unfair.

The poll’s value is that it serves as a real-time barometer of the racial realities in Boston. It reflects the contemporary view of attitudes, dispositions and insights around prejudice in a city that claims to be enlightened on social matters. It’s a fresh reference point upon which clear claims about race in Boston can be asserted or rejected.

During the discussion, Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan sounded the salient point that progress on race has, indeed, been made in Boston and pushed the audience to think deeper.

“I do think there are some bright spots, though,” he said. “We are seeing real increases in the number of Boston public school graduates who are going on to graduate from college, not just enroll. The dropout rate from the public schools is way down … One of the things we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Is progress possible? And how can you [achieve it] if the answer is yes?’”

Grogan is saying that one way of addressing Boston’s race problem requires asking tough philosophic questions about the city’s identity and will. He is calling for community and collective action. He is pushing the adults in the city to bravely confront the demon in the room with tenacity and tough-mindedness. He is urging that leaders take a smarter leadership perspective, calling on us to take on an exhausting existential task.

This charge moves us beyond racial scapegoating and unproductive pleas of grievance made so often by many of Boston’s civil rights leaders.

It requires deep soul-searching and seriousness. It asks that we eschew outdated rhetoric about race and look honestly at our current conditions. It requires a new language describing racial differences that articulates sensible solutions in our city — which are vastly different from what they were during the height of the busing crisis in Boston. It calls for laborious effort around getting results for the next generation of Bostonians. This starts with palpable truth-telling and reconciliation. It avoids distasteful finger pointing, especially by black leaders.

Because Grogan has tremendous resources at hand, he should fund these types of conversations throughout Boston, neighborhood by neighborhood.

This would effectively seed dialogue that can change the tone and tenor of the conversation, impacting how we interact with each other, and reorienting how we populate and integrate the public spaces throughout the city.

The practical outcomes of a citywide engagement on race may result in new institutions that build social capital across neighborhoods. Or it may result in new public school curriculum that addresses the issue of race among children and teenagers. Or we might find ways to use our civic, non-profit, and faith organizations collectively to flag racial hostility and address the invidious harm it creates.

Another bright moment at the forum came with Mattapan state Rep. Russell Holmes’s statements around finding pragmatic solutions that are the result of legislative intervention on the state and city level.

For Holmes, policy matters.

So he says we should push for laws that require police body cameras, civilian review boards, and intense police training around bias. Holmes also says we should direct more money into trauma services for the civilians as well as the police.

It may take decades to rid Boston of the stark racial inequities that plague it, but strong policies will regulate behaviors. Innovative policies will send the message that racism must be addressed. Policies will institutionalize our will to do justice.

Meet the Author

The hour-long dialogue on race at the Channel 5 studios had no pretense of solving our city’s racial woes. But it did stir the waters and all of us are now a little clearer about the enormous work that lies ahead.

Kevin C. Peterson is the founder of The New Democracy Coalition, which focuses on civic literacy, civic policy and electoral justice.