Walsh evolution in confronting racism takes center stage

Mayor calls it our ‘deepest moral obligation’ 

THE BOOKENDS TO Marty Walsh’s seven-year run as mayor are all you need to look at to understand how the issue of race has gone from long-simmering, but often backburner, issue to a central subject of the day in Boston.

As part of a sprawling 12-candidate field for the open mayor’s seat in 2013, Walsh chased votes across the city, including with a series of town hall forums dubbed “Mondays with Marty.” The events let him to make his pitch to — and answer questions from — residents who were not always well acquainted with the then-Dorchester state representative. 

One hot Monday in July found Walsh holding forth at Spontaneous Celebrations,  a community arts center in Jamaica Plain that offered classes in things like “toddler drumming” and which seemed a long way from the Laborers Union hall where he got his start in politics. 

In the Q&A phase, a middle-aged black woman — one of the only people of color at the event chock-full of white JP lefties — posed a seemingly straightforward question: How would Walsh address racism in Boston? 

It seemed to come like a wild idea out of nowhere to Walsh, and he was momentarily thrown by it. He said no one had raised the issue during the three and half months he had been on the campaign trail. He went on to say that racism would have no party in a Walsh administration and spoke about the tremendous diversity of his Dorchester House district. 

Fast forward to Tuesday night and Walsh’s annual State of the City address, and it felt like it was a different city being talked about — by a leader who is now in a very different place when it comes to issues of race and racism. 

With Walsh preparing to leave office to serve as secretary of labor in the Biden administration, the specter of the pandemic that has caused so much death and dislocation loomed heavy over last night’s speech, beginning with its delivery with no live audience from a newly built branch library in Roxbury. But along with considerable attention to the COVID crisis — and all the predictable lines about the city’s resiliency and “Boston strong” — confronting racism was the subject Walsh dug deepest on.

He called it “our deepest moral obligation” and the city’s “greatest opportunity for growth.” 

In what is likely to be his last major speech as mayor, Walsh applauded those who demonstrated last year following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and pointed to ways Boston has sought to address racism. 

“The gravity of this moment weighed on me,” said Walsh. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done in Boston. But doing better than before isn’t enough. We need to address all the ways systemic racism hurts people in our city.”

He spoke about the issue through the lens that gets closest to his core — as someone who has spent more than two decades in recovery from alcoholism.

“In the end, I went back to what I learned in recovery,” Walsh said. “I listened to those who have been there tell their stories and speak their truth. Young black members of my team shared their thoughts first. I held Zoom calls with our Black Employee Network, to listen. I reached out to leaders, activists, and clergy. They spoke about daily fears that something will happen to a loved one. They described lifelong anxiety around being pre-judged and denied opportunities. I heard grief, not just over lives lost — but over children’s futures limited. I will never forget those conversations.”

Using his own lived experience to try to grasp some of the anguish and anger of black Bostonians, Walsh seemed to channel a version of Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s often stated refrain that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power in crafting policies to address those problems.

Walsh said his administration declared racism “a public health crisis;” he talked about steering more funding toward youth, trauma, and mental health programs; and lauded “historic police reforms” that were led by “black and brown Bostonians.”  

Of course, there are criticisms over the specifics of steps Walsh has or hasn’t taken. But by any measure there has been a sea change since that July 2013 forum in his recognition of the role of racism in Boston, just as other leading voices and major institutions in the city are stepping forward in ways not seen before.

There is now strong belief that the city may be poised to elect its first non-white mayor. Race and racism are certain to figure prominently in the campaign now unfolding. Walsh, as part of the legacy he will leave, has certainly helped set the stage for that.