A One-Sided Conversation Is Making Boston A Safe Space For Racism

Is Boston A Racist City?

Boston Celtics fans seem to want Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, which made Jae Crowder mad. It didn’t, however, make Crowder call Boston a racist city. Other people did that.

If your trigger word is an accusation of racism, then Kirk & Callahan is your safe space.

The WEEI radio program is the No. 1 morning show in the Boston market, and its most popular bit is a game in which the hosts identify an alleged offense, something that might be considered racist, misogynistic or somehow offensive to someone, somewhere. The hosts and audience attempt to solve the question of whether the alleged offense is really racist. Spoiler: Unless the alleged offense involves a clear and present use of the N Word, the item is never really racist. The winner of this game is the entire audience. They get two prizes: 1. A pat on the back for not being racist. 2. Comfort.

Kirk & Callahan recently manufactured tremendous stakes for this game when the sports-and-politics show put Boston on the defensive over an alleged claim that the entire city is racist.

Here’s what happened: Celtics forward Jae Crowder was not happy when Boston’s home fans cheered for another forward, Utah’s free-agent-to-be Gordon Hayward. Crowder felt disrespected that fans were celebrating his possible replacement. ESPN talk show host Bomani Jones then weighed in, insinuating that Boston fans cheered for Hayward because he is white.

That was more than enough chum for the ratings sharks at WEEI. They sold the story that Jones was conjuring up the old standby claim that Boston has a race problem. Enter Kirk Minehan.

Is Boston a racist city? Depends who you ask.

Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder.

Minehan, the younger of the two hosts, is presented as the rational counterpoint to Gerry Callahan’s Grumpy Old Uncle. Rational as Minehan may be, he was suspended in July of 2014 for calling FOX sideline reporter Erin Andrews a “Gutless bitch.” When he returned from his one-day suspension (followed by a scheduled a one-week vacation), Minehan offered a thoughtful and contrite on-air apology, saying that if Andrews, “weighed 15 pounds more, she would be a waitress.” After FOX pulled advertising from WEEI (and only after), the station suspended Minehan again.

Clearly skilled in the art of determining what is and what is not offensive, Minehan and his show went bonkers at Jones’ insinuation that Boston had a racial motive for cheering Hayward. This escalated the stakes of Kirk & Callahan’s Couch the Racism game. All of Boston had been judged racist. The white men at WEEI concluded no, Boston was not racist, Jones was racist and everybody should shut the hell up. They asked Jones on the show. Apparently deciding to instead make hay of the situation on his own program, Jones demurred and discussed the topic extensively on ESPN air.

“They are very defensive about it,” Jones said of Boston’s response. “And I think it’s because they are the city that gets singled out in the name of racism.”

This is true. Boston, like most American cities, has a complicated racial history. When the Massachusetts legislature passed desegregation laws that required public schools to bus students into racially imbalanced districts starting in the 1970s, protests and outrage drew national attention. The controversy culminated in a 1990 made-for-TV movie that starred SNL alum Jane Curtin and portrayed a lot of middle-aged Irish Catholic women shouting the N Word in Boston accents. A lot has changed since then, and part of the reason Bostonians bristle at accusations of racial tension is that things have improved considerably over the last 40 years. Boston isn’t that any more.

On his show, Jones explained that his initial comments about Crowder were not an insinuation of racism. He said he was making a joke about Boston’s affinity for white athletes. Unfortunately for Jones, Boston is a notoriously unfunny city, which only laughs for former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling, particularly his material on the violent asphyxiation of the Fourth Estate.

Minehan and his producers continued to doggedly pursue ESPN personalities like Mark Wahlberg chasing down the Boston Marathon bombers. As the ESPN figures kept declining a bare-knuckled rhetorical cage match to settle the issue of racism, WEEI personalities kept shaming them for it on Twitter. Eventually, it got to the point where ESPN’s public editor Jim Brady called Minehan a “clown” on Twitter. The idea that ESPN’s ombudsman started calling people names on Twitter is itself banana balls crazy (suffice to say, this guy had forever sullied the name “Brady” in Boston).

Almost nowhere in the crosstalk of WEEI’s inflammatory ratings stunt had anyone bothered to sit down and consider the core issues here. First, how many of the people who call into this show expressing moral certitude against Boston’s racism even live in Boston. “Boston” can mean a lot of things in these parts, representing a geographic area ranging as far north as Nashua, N.H., as far west as Framingham, Mass., as far south as Pawtucket, R.I., and as far east as Dublin, Ireland.

I grew up an hour south of Boston and have lived within Boston’s city limits for the last seven years. The city is different from the inside than it is from the outside. A lot of the people who swear Boston isn’t racist visit Kenmore Square for Red Sox games and the West End for the Celtics and Bruins. Then they return to a suburban city having experienced only a piece of Boston. How many have ever walked Methadone Mile? Or even driven through Dudley Square? How many have been to a street in Mattapan that isn’t Blue Hill Avenue? They failed to observe the racism on day trips to the aquarium and Quincy Market.

How many Kirk & Callahan listeners are black Bostonians who have experienced racism first hand? I don’t know, but I think a crucial voice is going unheard in this controversy. In the hopes of informing those willing to listen, I reached out to a couple of friends to share their first-hand experiences of living in this city. These are people who have lived in other cities and other parts of the country. They’ve experienced racism in different forms. Some overt. Some subtle. Some unwitting. They tell me that some places are more racist than others. Some places aren’t racist at all. Barcelona apparently has an affinity for black women. But, yes, they’ve experienced racism in Boston, and that’s why I’m sharing their thoughts here.

These are two close friends of mine. Both are black, one female, the other male. I have changed their names to protect their identities. For the sake of avoiding stereotypes, I assigned them the whitest possible names I could think of — “Brooke Sullivan” and “Conan O’Brien.” These are their stories.

“BROOKE SULLIVAN”

Brooke Sullivan (again, not her real name) grew up in Michigan. She has lived in Chicago, Gainesville, Fla., Barcelona, and Washington, D.C. She spent about three years in Boston while in law school, living in a crummy student apartment on Huntington Avenue and a couple of different places in Jamaica Plain. For a time, she was roommates with my now-wife and lived in the apartment that I currently call home.

When I approach her with the question of whether Boston is a racist city, she responds, “preview – duh, yes Boston is a racist city.” But it’s not the only racist city she’s lived in. On the other hand, she said that D.C., which has a large black population, did not seem racist to her. Nor did Austin, her current home, which has a considerably large white population. Southern racism, she says, is different from Northern racism.

Before we factor race into the equation, understand that Brooke is the kind of person we’re conditioned to hate for other reasons. Her intellect, demeanor and smile are unassailable. She’s so daggum friendly and forgiving that she manages to befriend everyone, including me (a feat that is difficult by design). She wins scholarships and awards for being intelligent and a good person. In other words, this is someone we’re biologically wired to seek faults in so we can feel better about ourselves.

Is Boston a racist city?

Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban was the target of racist comments on social media following a game in 2014 (photo by Boston Globe)

Add race back in, and we’re conditioned to expect that a Southerner might be threatened by this apparently unflawed black woman. Brooke says her reality met that expectation when she attended school in Gainesville, Fla.

“People in the South who are racist are way less likely to come up to you and actually say something, or to puff up at you like in Chicago or Boston,” she says. “Below the Mason-Dixon, warfare is psychological.”

Brooke’s grandfather, a Southerner by birth, once told her, “in the South, white folks don’t care how close black people get, as long as yours isn’t bigger than theirs.” The country racism Brooke describes is about subtly reducing you to a social station the racist can stomach.

“Like asking you how many children you have, after you already said you’re not married,” she says. “Or asking about your mother … not your parents.”

The flip side to her grandfather’s wisdom is that in the North racists, “don’t care how much you got,” as long as you aren’t close to them. Brooke said she experienced this in Boston, where everybody is expected to “stay in their lane.”

It is no secret to people who live within Boston’s city limits that white people and black people tend to move in different circles here. There is intersection, and the self-imposed segregation of Boston has declined over time, but it’s certainly possible to live a nearly all-white or all-black life in Boston, and a lot of people from both groups exercise that option. This choice, in and of itself, may not be overtly or consciously racist, but the separation creates sub-cultures that sometimes struggle to understand each other.

The demographic shift is apparent if you’re paying attention on the T, Boston’s light rail system. A (white) friend once told me, you can identify a Red Line train by the people in the car. The Braintree train has more Asian passengers. The Ashmont train has more black passengers. If you ride the Orange Line end to end from Oak Grove (in suburban Malden) to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, there is an unmistakably immediate diversification of the car once you pass through Ruggles Station and head towards Roxbury and JP.

Brooke says the most memorable examples of racism in Boston came when she dated white men. The comments she heard from strangers were far less subtle than what she has experienced in the South.

“In Boston they just say ‘What the fuck are you doing with a white boy?’ Or you hear people say, ‘then this group of niggers [or] homeboys tried to square off to me and my boys.’ People are real loose with the N Word up there. Bostonians don’t hold back about ANYTHING.”

One time she gave a homeless guy a dollar. When the white man she was dating came out of a store to meet her on the street, the homeless guy said, “I’ll tell you what, this shit would never have stood in 1963.” She took her dollar back.

In trying to understand what makes a city racist, I ask Brooke if she was being too sensitive to some of her experiences. Maybe certain looks or certain comments weren’t intended to be racist. Maybe she was overthinking it or misinterpreting it. Brooke explains that part of being black is collecting a wealth of experiences that allow her to sort between what is innocent and what is sinister. She likened it to growing up in an abusive family.

“You can tell the second your dad walks in the door,” she says. “From his stance, his eyes, the way the air moves, what kind of night it’s about to be. You might not always get hit, but you know. You can feel it.”

OK, but is it possible that Brooke is exaggerating? Is it fair to classify a whole city as racist, based on a few bad actors? Again, she compares it to the concept of an abusive family. If a majority of non-abusive family members enable and tolerate the abusive family members, then it’s still an abusive family.

“If all my uncles are abusive, and so is my dad, then I come from an abusive family,” Brooke says. “Even if not every single person, or even most of the people participate. Some things are so pervasive, it doesn’t take majority infection to dictate culture.”

It’s especially instructive to consider the time that Brooke spent in Barcelona. She says that culture “WORSHIPPED” women of her skin tone.

“I literally thought ‘Is this what it’s like to be a white woman in my country?” she says. “And for five months, I lived without that weight on me and it was incredible. It’s amazing the things you can be when you’re not (thought of as) black first and foremost every moment.”

“CONAN O’BRIEN”

Conan O’Brien (again, not his real name, just the whitest name I could think of) has lived in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., Chicago, East Lansing, Mich., Oakland, Calif., and also spent three years attending law school in Boston, where he met me. When I explain the Jae Crowder story, he says, “Boston is a totally racist city, however I don’t know that that incident is an example of that.”

Much like Brooke, Conan said he experienced tension around the concept that he had wandered out of his “lane.”

“I can say that the most blatant racist stuff happened more so in East Lansing than Boston. But they are neck and neck actually. And that’s coming from a guy raised in Raleigh, N.C.”

He’d notice a difference, he said, when he was the only black person going into a bar with a group of white friends. In that situation, people paid less attention to him. But when he was with a group of mostly black friends, walking into a mostly white bar, people noticed.

“Single black guy with a group of white men, I was likely to be treated as an acceptable negro,” he said. “When I was with all black people, (I was) treated completely different.”

He tells a story of how a black friend came to visit him at his home in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. The friend, a lawyer, was stopped on the street and questioned by police for fitting the description of a robbery suspect.

“The description was a black man wearing blue jeans,” Conan says.

No height. No weight. No other information about the man’s clothing, or whether he was wearing a hat or carrying anything. Just a black man in blue jeans. The friend told the police, “That’s half of the black men in Boston.”

This type of story is often rationalized as a necessary evil of police business. The wrong guy gets stopped because the police are being vigilant. They’re doing their jobs. And some white people have a difficult time understanding why a person who has done nothing wrong would find an interaction with police stressful or insulting. But black people always have to wonder: Was there really a report of a robbery suspect in the first place? One with so few details? Or is this a preemptive stop? Is this intimidation? What happens if I say the wrong thing? How fragile is my innocence?

“This happens A LOT,” Conan says. “White folks never see it. Or immediately say, ‘Well, he must have been doing something suspicious.’ I live in Oakland and have never lived anywhere before that made me feel like it wasn’t a felony just to be black.”

One time when Conan was working as federal court clerk in Boston, he was eating lunch with two white, female clerks in an area designated specifically for clerks. A white police officer came over and told him, “defendants were not supposed to sit in that part of the court room.”

“Sad thing is, so many people of color lawyers who were in similar positions have shared the damn near exact same story,” he says.

LOVE THE RACIST, HATE THE RACISM            

If Boston really is racist, then why don’t the white people know it?

Well, we’re like the hosts on the HBO show Westworld. When those robots see evidence that contradicts their worldview, they say: “This doesn’t look like anything to me.” Why? Because they are programmed in a way that keeps them from understanding exactly what they’re looking it. They were not built to understand that a photo of an astronaut eating a hot dog in Times Square is suggestive of a world apart from the one they’ve experienced. Humans are likewise not built to empathize with slights they haven’t experienced.

“Racial biases flourish in many ways in many realms and have a negative effect on marginalized communities,” Conan says. “Many people of color, especially black people, recognize it and see it every day because it’s carried out against them whether in direct, overt, covert, or passive-aggressive ways. Many people (who aren’t) of color are shocked to hear it exists because they never experience it and never have to worry about it.”

There’s also a fear of complicity. White people tend to view claims of racism as a damning character flaw. So, if you say Boston is racist, then you’re saying we’re the bad people who haven’t stopped it. What we hear is that we’re bad people, which is weird to those of us who aren’t acting racist.

“I mean, I get it,” Brooke says. “I wouldn’t want to be called ‘selfish,’ let alone ‘racist.’ I understand the recoil. But still, I also think that people assume if someone says ‘You’re racist,’ you’re (also) saying ‘and I hate you.’”

Is Boston a racist city?

There is no record of Jeff Sessions using the N Word. So it is obviously impossible for him to be a racist.

When Brooke lived in Gainesville, she became so close with a friend that she considers that friend’s mom her “Second Mother.” She loves her second mother, even thought the she has said things Brooke finds racist. And Brooke has told her this.

“My second mother in Florida is kinda racist,” she said. “And she’d open a vein for me.”

This is where white people tend to detach. We think a racist is someone who wears a white sheet and burns crosses. Or someone who uses racial epithets freely and refuses to hire black people. You know, the obvious kind of racist.

“There are some people who think if you don’t burn crosses, you’re not racist,” Brooke says. “Like, if you divorce a call for (racial) violence, you’re wholesale exempt.”

Both Brooke and Conan say it’s important to understand that they aren’t judging people over this. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Brooke says she “loved” living in Boston. She only left because she wanted to be somewhere warm, and needed a bit of break after she was mugged in JP a few years ago.

“For the most part, people get more twisted up about (others) pointing out racism than (about) actual racism,” Brooke says. “Like people are more upset at being called racist than the thought they might actually be doing something racist. It’s immediate deflection vs. introspection most of the time.”

In other words, the question of whether or not Boston is racist is not for Kirk & Callahan alone to decide, and it’s not helpful to dismiss that question out of hand. It’s deeply complicated. Talk to a Bostonian. Talk to people of color. If someone tells you they feel racism, consider that they may be right, because you can’t possibly be certain that they’re wrong.

Dave Brown is a writer and an attorney who lives in Boston. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.