Is Boston’s Mayor Walsh Capable of Addressing The City’s Raw Racism

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Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has been accused of racial insensitivity by opposing changing the name of a city-owned building with racist connections. (Photo Credit: The Boston Globe)

Mayor Marty Walsh pledged last week to make Boston a model city for ending systemic racism. But is he qualified for that task?

By many accounts Walsh is a highly functional mayor. He has proven his abilities at delivering on the basic city servives that voters expected. His recent leadership during the city’s battle with COVID-19, for instance, has displayed his sound judgement in the middle of crisis.

But Walsh has been an abject failure at addressing the issue of anti-black bias during his tenure. He is poignantly oblivious to the horrid racial climate that haunts the city. Worst, Walsh appears quietly indifferent to the soft apartheid conditions that grip Boston.

What’s demonstrably clear is that Walsh lacks the personal and political leadership skills to appreciate the depth and complexity of the raw racism that make black life in Boston bleak, woefully constrained and without relief. Most whites lack a capacity to understand this. Walsh is an example.

To his credit Walsh attempted to address white supremacy last Thursday during a press conference while the nation — including Boston — was convulsing over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Walsh said “[I encourage] everyone who is white to listen, listen to your Black neighbors, listen to Black Bostonians who are protesting.”

Yet blacks in the city wonder whether Walsh has been listening to them at all as they complain by about flagrant racial disparity in the city — a city where blackness is synonymous to poverty and neighborhood segregation, in a city where police department leadership is virtually lily white, and a city where the wide wealth gap is reflected along the lines of race. Blacks wonder if Walsh suffers from hearing the everyday soundings of discrimination and prejudice that ricochet across the streets of the city. Blacks in Boston grimly surmise our mayor is acoustically incapable of capturing the bias that is symptomatic of a city that has long-embraced xenophobic tendencies.

Perhaps because Walsh was raised in the racially cloistered precincts of Savin Hill in Dorchester, he has come so slowly to seeing race as a crisis-driven issue in Boston. And as the demography has shifted so starkly in Boston so that whites are now the municipality’s minority population, Walsh may find the racial changes in the city confusing.

But if Walsh wants to take up the pledge of making Boston more friendly to blacks, he is welcomed to do that. He is also encouraged to keep reminding white Bostonians to engage the city’s black residents so that they explore their racial insensitivities. Those things are truly needed.

At the same time Walsh must recognize that he cannot be the leader in the effort of exocising racism in Boston. His white standing— all whites are racially fragile in light of the implicit forms of bias they possess — makes him unqualified at commanding this charge. Walsh needs help moving past confronting white supremacy in Boston.

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Daniel Tavares, who leads Boston’s Office of Diversity, possesses no adavanced academic or training expererience (Photo Credit: Boston University)

As things stand now, the city’s office of diversity is a waste of time. It is led by blacks who lack any advanced knowledge or training about race. They should be replaced. Moreover, the equity policies espoused by the Walsh administration remain anemic and can be fairly compared to Orwellian double speak. This is reflected clearly with the nearly non-existent relationship the Walsh administration has with Boston’s black businesses around contracts and procurement.

Add to this the effort being led to rename Faneuil Hall because of its connection to slavery. Walsh has actively opposed a process that would change the building’s name through political stonewalling. This makes it apparent that Walsh’s administration is woefully sophomoric at addressing the city’s desperate racial causes. They are not ready for primetime.

The administration needs a dramatically new vocabulary to effectively address race in Boston. The also need a new vision on what the city would look like along the lines of race as it approached its 400 anniversary in 2030. These tasks are enormous and will require citywide dialogues and prodigous policy production.

If Walsh truly wants to advance the city in the areas of race relations then he needs to listen intently to black people who suffer in Boston everyday. He should be prepared to address all forms of institutionalized discrimination. He should realize that symbols like Faneuil Hall represent insensitivity to black people and that the building — as it is currently named — fosters a kind of racial violence.

This means that Walsh will need to change drastically as an elected official and as person if he continues to lead the city. We hope that he is up to it. Otherwise, he should not run for office again.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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