Our city is of legend when it comes to race, and not the good kind of legend. The history of Boston as we know it reaches all the way back to the original colonies, and ‘til this day remains just a 45 minute drive from the place where Malcolm X and later Denzel noted, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Despite a common belief that businesses and farms up North didn’t use shackled workers, Boston was a hub of the slavery industry in transport, sale, and ownership. Indeed, many families and enterprises in the area profited handsomely on the backs of Black men and women.
Many people know the history of busing in Boston, and the now “classic” (kinda sick, huh?) image of Ted Landsmark being speared with an American flag on City Hall Plaza. What some white people, including Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans, fondly refer to as the “good ole days” included rock-throwing and racist graffiti with messages like “Niggers Go Home” sprawled across walls.
So it goes in Boston. Recently, the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh has courageously, albeit foolishly decided to lead a discussion to deal with racism in our city. Why foolish, you ask? Simple. This administration (like all those before it) does not have the knowledge on race, racism, psychology, sociology, and culture in order to participate in that conversation, let alone lead one. As a result of these shortcomings, such efforts often facilitate a softening of the blow, and a whitewashing of history.
I recently attended two “secret” meetings held between the city and people deemed by the Walsh administration to be community leaders (both “secret” events were reported on in the press shortly thereafter). As these things tend to go, the congregations were held under the guise of having “tough” conversations, but ultimately devolved into exercises to make white people feel comfortable and accountable (for some reason, attendees at one of these meetings included James Rooney of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, disgraced former House Speaker Tom Finneran, and Tip O’Neill’s son and political consultant Tommy O’Neill). All views were allegedly welcome, but radical revolutionary voices—people like me, who have been pushing buttons on the topic of race for several decades—were ignored.
We have been down this route before, and Boston has historically failed to address the equity question equitably. Despite their miserable records, officials and their sidekicks appoint themselves to direct and lead the efforts. It’s like failing biology for all four years in college and then returning to teach it.
After the not-so-secret discussions, along with several hundred others I finally got to see the grand rollout for “A Public Discussion About Race in Boston” last month. Broadcast live from the Cutler Majestic Theatre, it was anything but a “public discussion.” As I forewarned, the whole dialogue was shaped and framed by white people, and even largely featured white people seeking to engage and placate more white people. Organized by the mayor and his Chief of Policy Joyce Linehan, the event was opened by Rooney of the Chamber of Commerce, with a program featuring the likes of Debbie Irving, the author of the memoir Waking Up White and a self-styled racial justice educator. Irving opened with her schtick, saying she’s “the poster child for how not to engage in racial equity work,” then went on to offer the seldom heard perspective of a white woman. Dr. Atyia Martin, the City of Boston’s first chief resilience officer, was one of the only faces of color who presented, and but one of a few drops of coffee in a cup of cream.
The voice that was missing, and that is also the one that is always shut out of these “open” conversations, is again that of the radical, the revolutionary, the Black Nationalist, the Pan-Afrikanist, the Afrocentric … you know, the people who have been championing issues of race and fighting racism in America for the past five decades. The ones who told you all that life began in Africa, and who you in turn called crazy. The ones who you laughed at when they told you Africans were in America before Columbus. Yeah, dem folks.
The current administration has touted a “serious commitment” to addressing race and racism in Boston. One way to tell how committed someone is to something is to look at how much they spend on it. Where his money is, so is his heart. As the Bible says in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” On that note, the City of Boston has revealed plans to deal with matters of race on two fronts:
- The My Brother’s Keeper initiative, spearheaded by the city’s deputy director of public safety initiatives Conan Harris, which has the task of addressing issues facing all young Black and Latino men and boys in the entire city. In order to achieve this feat, MBK has been given an operational budget of $100,000.
- The Boston Resilient Cities strategy and the new Office of Resiliency, spearheaded by Dr. Atyia Martin, which is responsible for addressing race and racism in totality for all of Boston. To accomplish this Herculean task, Martin has at her disposal a whopping $170,000. That funding is for more than peace work, too; the Resilient Cities site makes no mention of race work in Boston, and instead highlights the dangers of coastal flooding (note: the press clips on the site refer to Boston’s work on race; someone may want to contact the webmaster).
Further complicating matters for the Resilient Cities program is the source of its money. The operation is “pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation,” which footed the $170,000 for the Boston project. The Rockefeller Foundation’s stated mission, unchanged since 1913, is to “improve the wellbeing of humanity around the world.” What’s never mentioned in talks of these funders is the origin of the supporting wealth which, in the case of the Rockefellers, has demonstrable ties back to Nazi Germany and other regrettable partnerships throughout history. As the Guardian and many others have reported:
America’s eugenics movement, powered by millions of dollars from the opulent Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, sought to extend its reach into Germany. Rockefeller and Carnegie spent Depression-era fortunes to finance the worst Nazi doctors and race institutes.
You read that right. It’s not some cockeyed conspiracy theory. This pseudo-science was considered gospel for those who subscribed to master race theory, and was referenced as proof that Jews, Africans, gypsies, gays, mentally ill people, and basically anyone else who was not pure Aryan with a blonde hair, blue eye phenotype was subhuman, and thus marked for destruction to make way for genetic purity. How soon we forget.
I brought up this history at the city-sponsored race talks, and was told that taking money tied to Nazi sympathizers really isn’t that big of a deal. One of the city organizers said, “That was a long time ago,” and, “If we started looking at how groups we take money from made their money, we would be stuck because everyone’s money is tainted.” This may sound cute, but it’s not based in reality. Not all money is tainted by atrocities like the slave trade and the Holocaust. Just some of the businesses we are relying on to improve race relations in Boston.
None of which is new. Apologists for racism and white supremacy have long uttered phrases like, “Oh but that was so long ago,” suggesting that racism went the way of the steam engine. Another popular cop out is the ever faithful, “Just get over it.” Which suggests there was some worldwide reckoning and resolution, but us ungrateful Blacks continue to bitch and moan and just won’t let it go. We are supposed to get over these things and simply join the conversation. Even though the city’s soiled past should be the start of the discussion.
Black people in Boston often struggle with their general sense of safety, and rarely feel respected or valued. Many of us want to say that out loud. Instead of so much posturing, a true public discussion on race should be guided by those members of the public and give voice to the victims of racism—not provide political cover for the historic perpetrators and beneficiaries of it.