JUNE 17, 2002
The Boston Celtics, a team I have followed obsessively since I was nine, didn't make the NBA finals last week, losing to the New Jersey Nets. But in defeat they achieved something even more important: They answered questions that have haunted the team, and the city, for decades. The Chicago Tribune posed them this way, in a 1992 article marking the retirement of Larry Bird: "Must the Celtics ... have a white star to placate the nearly all-white-ticket-holder base? Will Boston support a nearly all-black team?"
The answer to those questions is named Paul Pierce, the dazzling African American swingman who has revived the Celtics after a decade of mediocrity. Anyone who thinks Boston sports fans don't embrace Pierce--and his virtually all-black supporting cast--with the partisan fanaticism for which they are rightly renowned didn't hear the deafening applause emanating from Boston's FleetCenter when the Celtics dispatched Philadelphia in the fifth game of round one. But Pierce isn't the only reason to finally put to rest the cheap yet enduring stereotype of Boston as a racist city. In truth, the reasons are all around.
When it comes to the Celtics, the racism charge has always been laughable. In the 1980s the team was derided for practicing what might be called "reverse affirmative action," because it fielded Bird and several other white starters in a league dominated by African Americans. But during that decade the supposedly anti-meritocratic Celtics won the championship three times. And for much of it their white stars played under a black coach--subverting the pernicious stereotype of blacks as athletically superior but unable to run a team. In fact, the Celtics were the first franchise to hire a black coach (1966), the first to draft a black player (1950), and the first to play five blacks on the floor at the same time (1963). If that was racism, the NBA could have used a lot more of it.
The Bird-era Celtics were easy to caricature, however, because memories of Boston's mid-'70s busing crisis were still fresh in the nation's mind. And understandably so. In retrospect, some Bostonians think the city wouldn't have responded so shamefully had Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. not removed the issue from elected hands, thus torpedoing efforts to construct a school integration plan that enjoyed popular support. But as The Boston Globe's Alan Lupo explained a few years ago, "In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was an elected School Committee that lied, stalled, and stonewalled over desegregation, thereby insuring that a federal court would rule that Boston schools were segregated." And no desegregation plan--no matter how poorly conceived--justified the mob violence that disgraced the city in 1974 and 1975.
But even in the wake of busing, Boston's reputation never really made sense. After all, the racial trauma of what might be called the Northern phase of the civil rights movement affected virtually every big city. In 1967 and 1968, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, and Washington, D.C., suffered race riots; Boston, in part because of the actions of a progressive mayor, didn't. In 1966--the year Massachusetts became the first state since Reconstruction to elect a black man, Edward Brooke, to the U.S. Senate--Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a rock while leading an open-housing march in Marquette Park, Illinois. "I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate," he famously declared. The truth is that few major cities integrated without spasms of ugliness.
And over the last decade or so, not only has Boston's record on race not been worse than other cities; it's been better. In the late '80s, in its most important integration effort since busing, Boston moved minority families into many of the all-white housing projects that had rebelled most virulently against busing. But unlike the school integration of the early '70s--which had to be mandated by court order--the housing integration of the late '80s was led by an Irish-Catholic mayor from Southie, Ray Flynn. And although it sparked scattered incidents of harassment, there was no white political backlash.
Today, partly because of those efforts, no Boston neighborhood is more than 85 percent white. And a 2000 survey by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research found that of America's ten largest cities, only three are more integrated than Boston. As if to symbolize the city's new era, white and black leaders came together in 1999 to end busing, with virtually no political rancor.
But even more telling has been Boston's record on crime. If residential and educational segregation were the racial flashpoints of the '70s and '80s, police brutality has been the primary flashpoint of the last decade--sparking riots in Los Angeles in 1992 and in Cincinnati in 2001. And it's not hard to understand why. In recent years cities have taken dramatic steps to reverse a crime wave that in the early '90s seemed to be engulfing urban life. Boston's nadir came in 1992, when 14 hooded youths stormed into a murder victim's funeral and repeatedly stabbed a 21-year-old man. But while New York responded to its lawlessness with a "zero tolerance" policy that involved frisking large numbers of young black men, Boston developed a very different strategy in tandem with the city's black ministers. The Boston police helped establish recreational and job-training programs for troubled youth. And in turn the ministers helped the police win the trust of the black community. As a result, the number of murders annually in Boston dropped from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. And there have been no Abner Louimas or Amadou Diallos. By 2000 a Boston Police Department poll showed that 80 percent of the city's black residents expressed confidence in the police, compared with only 34 percent nationally. "When contrasted with the racial climate of the busing crisis of the mid-1970s, "wrote the Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III of the city's anti-crime effort, "it is indeed a miracle."
So despite all these achievements, why is Boston still stereotyped as the most racist major American city? I suspect there are two reasons. First, because many African Americans genuinely don't feel as comfortable in Boston as they do in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. And second, because of America's ten biggest cities, Boston is the only one never to have elected a black mayor--a high-profile personification of its racial progress.
But the best explanation for this isn't racism; it's Boston's small black population. Are white Bostonians more racist than, say, whites in Atlanta--a city with a great reputation among black professionals? Of course not--blacks go to Atlanta for the same reason Jews go to New York and gays go to San Francisco: to find a large enough community of people like them so that it doesn't matter what outsiders think. And when you have a large enough community of people like yourself, you elect a mayor. Boston hasn't done so because, of the nation's ten largest cities, it has the lowest combined percentage of blacks and Latinos. Gradually that percentage will rise--and just as Paul Pierce has finally convinced the NBA that the Celtics aren't a racist team, a black mayor will convince the country that Boston isn't a racist city. I look forward to that happy day with the knowledge that it will also be a redundant one--because whoever plays small forward, and whoever sits in city hall, the truth is that Boston doesn't need any redeeming at all.