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Spotlight journalists illuminate Boston’s unique racial disparities

Boston has had a reputation as one of the most racist cities in America. A new seven-part investigation by the Boston Globe Spotlight team sets out to answer whether it deserves that reputation. William Brangham talks to the Globe’s Akilah Johnson about racial disparities in the city's famed universities, hospitals and halls of power and how you measure racism.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Race in America permeated much of the news this past year, whether it was the deadly violence in Charlottesville, police shootings, criminal justice and the tone of our politics, taking a knee in sports, or grappling with race in public memorials and history.

    Just before the end of the year, a major investigative series looked at the different ways that race is coloring economic, political and cultural life in Boston.

    William Brangham gets a sense of that, as part of our continuing coverage of Race Matters.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Boston is famous for a lot of great things, but it also has had a reputation as one of the most racist cities in America.

    That's due in part to horrible images from the 1960s and '70s, when white Bostonians violently protested against the desegregation of the city's public schools. Fast-forward to this past May, when Red Sox fans hurled repeated racist insults at visiting Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones, prompting widespread criticism and an apology from the team.

    So, does the city deserve this reputation? That's the difficult question that The Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team set out to answer.

  • QUESTION:

    Is Boston racist?

  • MAN:

    No.

  • WOMAN:

    So, I can say yes.

  • MAN:

    Yes, there is some racism.

  • MAN:

    People might assume that.

  • WOMAN:

    We do have a lot of racism.

  • MAN:

    People in Boston are racists.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In a new seven-part series, its reporters examined racial disparities in the city's famed universities, its hospitals, even the city's halls of power.

    The series is called "Boston. Racism. Image. Reality."

    And I'm joined now by one of the reporters on that series, Akilah Johnson.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    Thanks for having me.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, the very first line of your series reads, "Google the phrase 'most racist city,' and Boston pops up more than any other place time and time again."

    So you guys set out to examine whether or not Boston in fact deserves this racist reputation. How do you go about measuring racism?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    Well, I mean, you tackle it from a variety of different angles, right?

    So, in addition to anecdotal kind of evidence, the stories that people tell of their lived experience, you begin to kind of look at different data streams that really talk about the disparities in wealth and power in the city.

    So, we're looking at, you know, who sits in the seats of power in corporate boardrooms and college classrooms. We're looking at admittance patterns at hospitals, just kind of a wide variety of things that can really kind of provide some data-driven analysis to this issue.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You said — and your series documents in a lot of those places, in hospitals and schools and boardrooms, just as you describe, that blacks are largely devoid from that pool.

    And how much of that do you think is because Boston has a relatively small, as a percentage, black population?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    You know, demographics are something that we kind of dealt with head on, right, because a lot of people like to say that demographics are destiny.

    And, in fact, Boston does have a relatively small black population, particularly in the greater Boston area. But when you begin to kind of compare that with some other cities that have smaller black populations, you see that you can't solely pin, kind of, the lack of political clout to the demographics of the city.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    There are so many striking facts in this series. And here's one that I had to read a couple of times to myself just because I couldn't quite take it on board fully.

  • It says:

    "African-Americans in greater Boston have a median net worth of just $8. That means they owe almost as much as the combined value of what they own, be it a car or house or savings."

    I mean, it is just an eye-popping statistic, and later you compare that to the median income of whites, which is almost a quarter of a million dollars.

    How do you explain that disparity?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    It was so eye-popping, we actually had to write kind of a follow-up sidebar, letting people know it wasn't a typo, because so many readers thought that we had created this egregious error in a series kind of as high-profile as this.

    But that number comes from a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, as well as Duke University, that was really looking at income disparities and wealth disparities in communities of color. So it was a — Boston was part of a five-city study. And of the five cities, Boston's African-American community had the lowest median net worth.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You also did an experiment using Craigslist to test racial attitudes in housing.

    Can you explain how that went and what you found?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    So, we did a Craigslist study used and modeled off of a lot of what academics do when they do kind of housing discrimination studies.

    And so we sent e-mails with what would traditionally be considered black-sounding names, and e-mails with what would condition traditionally be considered white-sounding names to different landlords in the area, saying, hey, we want to see this apartment. We saw it listed on Craigslist. Is it available?

    And then we tracked the various responses that the e-mail — that the e-mails received. And, by and large, what we found is that emails with black-sounding names were either ignored, not responded to, or that people were more willing to show apartments to e-mails to those folks who e-mailed with white-sounding names.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You described that one of the important things you're talking about, not just all of the different data sets that you have compiled, but also the lived experiences of African-Americans in Boston.

    Are there particular stories that stand out to you, that seem emblematic of the problem you guys were trying to describe?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    I mean, I think one of the stories that kind of stands out is a follow-up story that we actually did that has to do with a picture that we have put on the front page that led off the series, and also was one of the main, kind of the centerpiece photo of the day-one story.

    And it has to do with a gentleman at the Red Sox game, at a Red Sox game, when the Red Sox were playing the Yankees, and he is, by and large, the only black face in that section, which really kind of helps illustrate and represents a sense of isolation that middle-class and professional-class black folks feel in Boston.

    One of the common refrains we heard is that kind of the higher up the professional ladder you go, the whiter your world becomes.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In fact, you posted a video on your Web site of a white father describing the experience he had going to Fenway Park with his biracial son.

  • CALVIN HENNICK:

    My son and my father-in-law and I all had tickets to a game at Fenway, and it was for the day after the Adam Jones incident. And a young woman sang the national anthem. She was from Kenya.

    And when she finished, the white fan on the left-hand side of me leaned over to me and said, "She sang too long and she N-worded it up." He like used the word. I was like, "What did you say?"

    And he repeated what he said. And he said, "Yes, that's right, and I stand by it." He was very proud of himself.

    And so I went and reported it, and they kicked the guy out.

    At first, I was confused why he would say this to me, because it seemed obvious to me that I was there with my biracial son and my black father-in-law.

    But then later, as I thought about it, I thought he kind of maybe pointedly did say it to me the night after the whole Jones incident as a way of sort of saying, "I can say whatever I want to."

  • BELZIE MONT-LOUIS:

    If I had been there, I would have asked, like, are you saying that because they are sitting there?

    Because I think sometimes throwing people's racism at their — back at them makes them really uncomfortable. And, actually, no one wants to be called a racist, and I assume he wouldn't want to actually say he was a racist.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You could read your series as a fairly damning indictment of the way the structure of the city of Boston is organized and these patterns that have been going on for decades.

    What has the reaction been in Boston to this series so far?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    Or you could read the series as a mirror that we're holding up for everybody in the city of Boston to look at, including the folks at The Boston Globe, who realized it was time for us to kind of take stock in-house of what our diversity issues looked like.

    And so, by and large, a lot of the feedback that we have received from folks in positions of power is just that, that the series really kind of made them stop and say, we talk a good game, and we have talked about this for years, but we have — we need to do better and we need to do more.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    How hopeful are you that that actually will happen?

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    You know, now it's time to see where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

    And so the goal is to hold people accountable. The community is very engaged and involved, so the hope is that they begin to hold people in positions of power accountable for the promises that they make to improve life within the city's black community.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It's really a fascinating series.

    Akilah Johnson of The Boston Globe, thank you very much.

  • AKILAH JOHNSON:

    Thank you.

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