The new black

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 15, 2010

Business and political leaders, who sometimes find it difficult to work with old-guard bomb-throwers, are proving eager to work with the new crowd. Boston City Council is a great example. Not only did white councilors unanimously refrain from showboating over Turner's ouster, but they have been signing up to help with traditionally "black" issues.

The reaction to the Cure nightclub incident was another example, as was the recent uproar over allegations of police brutality near the Roxbury Community College campus. Old-guard black leaders have typically responded to such events with loud public demonstrations and quick finger-pointing. This time, white and black leaders triggered investigations, which have enough backing that they can't easily be brushed under the rug.

Selling the brand
Those old-guard black leaders have also, at times, been more focused on highlighting the city's racial problems than in spreading word that the city has changed for the better.

That has contributed to the continuing perception of Boston as America's most racist city. Just a few years ago, Kevin Garnett was reportedly loathe to be traded to Boston because of that reputation — which put him in a long line with Barry Bonds, Gary Mathews Jr., and others in professional sports.

"Outside of Boston, there's this myth that Boston doesn't have black folks at all, never mind black professionals," says Rousseau.

Now seems like a window of opportunity to change that, with the nation's only black governor (and one black chief of staff, Mo Cowan, replacing another, Arthur Bernard), newly-appointed black Supreme Court Justice Roderick Ireland, and other ready ambassadors for the city.

It is no accident that the rosters of key offices are suddenly teeming with black personnel: Michelle Antonio Shell and Colleen Richards Powell at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority; Carole Copeland Thomas and Toshiba Bodden at the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau; Betsy Wall at the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism; and others.

And a wide range of Boston's leaders are on board. Menino, Patrick, and both US Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown have been eager to help make the upcoming conferences successful. Key area businesses, including CVS, State Street, EMC Corp., and Bank of America, have collectively pledged more than $2 million to the Urban League hosting effort, according to Darnell Williams, president of Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

For many city leaders, it's the perception of bias and segregation, more than the reality, that has them worried about the Urban League and Blacks in Government coming to town. They fully expect that attendees will arrive wondering whether Boston is as racist as they've heard — and might easily interpret minor slights as supporting evidence. Which is why many are going to remain awfully nervous until the attendees have all left town.

David Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com.

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