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Boston: Growing Progression and Resisting Regression

Like many other major cities in the U.S., Boston saw massive increases in progressive demonstrations in 2017 and, so far, in 2018 as well. For example, we saw two Women’s Marches, with the first emphasizing feminism and the second emphasizing intersectionality and the importance of political action. Given the significant number of vocal Bostonians who are open-minded and deeply care for equity, one may assume that we have moved beyond past inequality and are now pointing our finger at the rest of the nation. But, what is the truth? Has the city really remedied its racist reputation? The Boston Globe says no. Their 2017 Spotlight on inequality explains why.

In short, the Globe’s piece reveals that in many, many ways, Boston is not progressive. In fact, Boston seems to struggle with racial inequality the most out of all U.S. cities. First off, a Globe poll found that 54 percent of black people surveyed across the country believed Boston was unwelcoming to people of color, moreso than any other city. Second, the Globe brought attention to findings in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that “the median net worth for African-American households, excluding immigrants, was just $8… [meanwhile] for white households, that figure was $247,500”. Third, only 7 percent of residents in the metro Boston area are black, which contributes to a feeling of cultural and racial isolation that is even more intensified for black professionals and students. Fourth, there is social discrimination, with ⅔ of black Bostonians in a Globe poll reporting feeling that they had been racially discriminated in some setting in the past month. Unfortunately, the Globe’s list of inequalities is practically endless. But that begs the question: what do we do about it? Well, the Globe’s answer is a whole-of-society approach.

The Globe wants people and companies to be able to admit that they have a problem, more offices to be created for people of color, colleges to focus on recruiting students from low-income or minority-majority schools, businesses enforcing diversity quotas, commissions renaming locations that have names with racist connotations, individual changes such as calling out and avoiding microaggressions, and wants Boston to market itself in ways that represent its diversity, to hold more cultural events, and to change its charter, . I very much agree with the Globe that these are all things we need to change. However, I believe that we must first focus our energies in three places: changing the city charter, recognizing the problems around us, and being politically active individuals. I am a strong believer that change must begin at the individual level and must begin with an understanding of the problem at hand. Once that happens, individuals need the means to advocate for themselves (ie. a strengthened city council that the mayor cannot overpower).

In the status quo, the city charter provides a relatively large amount of power to the mayor of Boston compared to the city council. However, the charter did not originally divide power in this unequal way. Our strong-mayor system is actually the result of a series of amendments made in the mid-1800s to resist the influence of the growing Irish minority. Now, this same political device limits the influence of city councilors of color who are in a unique position to advocate for the African-American community that makes up about 25 percent of Boston’s population. In contrast to the persistence of these regressive amendments, in 2017, the voters spoke out for progressivism: 6 women of color were elected to the 13-person city council, including to the position of president. If allocated more power, the council would gain the means to very powerfully advocate for people of color. Given that Boston has never elected a black mayor, let alone a mayor of color, the only way to give people of color the greater amount of advocacy that they deserve is to increase the power of the city council, where voters have been more likely to elect minorities. However, the benefits of this change would be fruitless without there first being the prevalence of an individual understanding of how large a problem inequality is and what it truly means at a human level.

A key topic that the Globe does not venture too deeply into is the importance of combating voter ignorance and inactivity. This seems to be becoming less of an issue at the level of the city council, but it undoubtedly persists when it comes to elections for mayor. For example, in this past mayoral election, voters very easily could have voted in the first mayor of color, Tito Jackson. However, shockingly, last year’s election only had 27 percent voter turnout. In comparison, the previous mayoral election, which was between two white politicians, created so much buzz that voter turnout was 40 percent. It would have only taken a margin of about 10 percent of the vote for Jackson to win, of the 73 percent who did not turn out. Based on the lack of enthusiasm, visible in the disappointing turnout rate, it seems apparent that Bostonians do not understand the importance of electing a black mayor. Instead of using their votes to put Jackson in a unique position for equity improvements and minority advocacy, voters chose to stay home. In my opinion, the underlying issue is that people either happen to be ignorant, prefer to be ignorant, or feel powerless compared to the ignorance of others.

The unfortunate thing about inequality is that if it is not staring you in the face, if you are in a position of privilege and thus power, it is very easy to forget about it. The people in power are not the people impassioned by the issue, because they are not directly impacted by it. The drive for action comes only once the unacceptable state of the status quo slaps you in the face. Thus, people need to make sure they educate themselves and remember that many people in their area struggle to obtain what many others take for granted — money, respect, shelter, the list goes on. If everyone, including the privileged, truly understood the gravity of the inequality in the status quo and the human impact that it has, they should feel compelled to take action. Recognizing that voting is easy to do, if your vote can be used to lessen inequality and improve people’s lives, you have a moral obligation to use it instead of letting it go to waste. Then, perhaps most importantly, people need to hold in mind one of the messages from the 2018 Boston/ Cambridge Women’s March, ‘Activism is something you must do every day, not once every four years’.

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