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Boston’s racist past haunts its present

Boston is known for achieving many firsts.
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Boston is a “city of champions.” That appellation is not only about its dominance in sports. It’s about Boston being one of the country’s leading medical and academic hubs, too.

Boston is known for achieving many firsts.

Boston Latin, established in 1635, was the first public school.

We hosted the first World Series — the Red Sox took on the Pirates — in 1903. The first organ transplant was in 1954 at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.

The Boston Marathon, which began in 1897, was the first marathon in the United States.

It was this vibrancy that drew me to Boston, a city with a rich African-American heritage.

It was the epicenter of the country’s Abolitionist Movement, playing a major role in the Underground Railroad.

But, I quickly learned that the city has an inglorious history, too. The ugliness that surrounded the busing controversy is the most prominent example, but there are others that reverberate around the city today.

I’m thinking of Charles Stuart, who blamed a black homeless man of killing his pregnant wife to try to cover up his crime.

More recently, there was the Henry Louis Gates, Jr., episode. The esteemed Harvard professor, who is black, was arrested trying to open his door. The police thought he was a burglar.

That was the history that Saturday Night Live comedian Michael Che waded into when he said Boston is one of “the most racist city I’ve ever been to.” Che had no idea that he hit the city’s third rail when he made the joke during a pre-Super Bowl “Weekend Update” segment. 

Nearly two months later, during an appearance at Boston University, his controversial statement still simmered for many Bostonians. He received even more criticism when he refused to recant or apologize. 

There really is no way to quantify how racist Boston is. But, looking at Boston’s racial history through the lens of public school education, one can easily see how its troubling past is still present today.

Take, for example, Boston Latin, a magnet school that attracts the city’s best and brightest.

That school, however, is now under two investigations (one by the school department’s Office of Equity and one by the U.S. Justice Department) for fostering an environment that’s hostile to minority students.

When a white student threatened to lynch a black female, the school’s administration neither informed the girl’s parents nor took swift disciplinary action against the white student.

Boston Latin School sits in a district where 77 percent of its school-aged children are black and Latino. The school’s percentage of blacks are 8.5 percent and 11.6 percent for Latinos. 

Today, black and Latino enrollment is half of what it was two decades ago. That’s a step — maybe two or three steps — backward.

For some, the busing crisis of the 1970’s is the city’s old past.

But the impulse that led many of Boston’s white middle class families to flee to the suburbs — rather than address the challenge to provide educational parity for all of Boston’s school-aged children — lingers today.

Their legacy is leaving a high concentration of its urban schools in both poverty and in disrepair. 

While Boston doesn’t have as direct of a “school-to-prison pipeline” like many other major urban cities across the country, it has been reported that there is zero-tolerance in Massachusetts when it comes to disciplining students of color.

Black school-aged children in the Bay State are disciplined, expelled and suspended at four times the rate of white children. (Latinos are three times as likely to receive punishment). That leads to repeated arrests and evidently incarceration. 

When Renee Graham tried to point out the racial disparities that persist in Boston, the reaction from the internet was swift and brutal.

Most of the comments pointedly accused Graham and black people as being racists, too. “Racism is a two way street.” Other comments accused blacks using the race card for not embracing Boston’s Irish culture. 

The kinder responses were aghast by Graham’s op-ed, because they either had black friends, communicated cordially with black officemates, would date outside their race or had a black neighbor. 

Many of the comments, however, were blocked. Readers, like myself, wished this one from Jeff N. was, too: 

“If you want to know why everyone hates you n****rs, your article is a good reason why. Better yet, take a trip to Roxbury, you might find your answer there as well,” he wrote. 

Those comments are proof that Boston’s racial past is not dead. It’s not even the past.