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The new black

Can a new group of leaders help Boston finally shed its reputation as hostile territory for the black professional middle class?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 15, 2010

1112-curry_main
NEW GUARD: Michael Curry is part of a new generation of black leadership schooled more in politics than oppression.

When the Theater District's Cure Lounge ejected a group of black Harvard and Yale alums and grad students last month, many saw it as the latest confirmation of Boston's racist core.

It is a perception — as old as Bill Russell and as current as Skip Gates — that successful, professional-class blacks will find more hostility than welcome in the Hub.

The Cure incident also caused heartburn for city leaders. With two major black conferences coming to Boston this summer, they hope to prove how far Boston has come in terms of race relations. The Urban League conference in July and Blacks in Government (BIG) the next month are expected to bring a combined 13,000 visitors to the city — breaking what has been, in effect, a quarter-century boycott of Boston. If something like the Cure incident were to happen during those conferences, it could do exactly the opposite, setting the city back years.

"We thought Boston was ready for an opportunity," says BIG president J. David Reeves. "Things have changed over the past 20 or 30 years."

Not only has the city changed, but Boston's black leadership is changing, too: from the "old guard" who emerged first from the busing and other civil-rights struggles, and then from the drugs and crime problems of the 1980s and '90s, to a generation whose political savvy and inclusive outlook just might help Boston to finally make room for a vibrant black middle class.

Two important, and symbolic, parts of that transition happened within the past month. In the Boston City Council chamber, Ayanna Pressley and Felix Arroyo Jr. — a 35-year-old African American and 30-year-old Latino, both in their first year of public office — joined nine of their colleagues to expel long-time civil-rights and community activist Chuck Turner from office, in the wake of his conviction on federal corruption charges. It was seen by many as a shift from old us-versus-them black leadership (which includes Charles Yancey, Turner's lone supporting vote), to new leaders ready to do the right thing for the city.

And the Boston Chapter of the NAACP elected 42-year-old Michael Curry over former state senator Bill Owens to be its next president. Curry, who ran with a slate of candidates as "a new generation of leadership," is expected to make the old, increasingly forgotten organization a much stronger partner across racial lines in the city.

These transitions are not without controversy within the city's black community. There are many who have railed against Pressley and Arroyo for betraying Turner, and by implication their side of the racial divide. Many resisted Curry's election, and he was elected by a slim margin in a contentious vote.

But many others see both developments as signs of a much-needed shift toward a leadership better attuned to the problems that keep black talent out of Boston — and much better equipped to work within the system to bring about changes.

Tough crowd
City leaders — in business, government, academia, and elsewhere — increasingly understand that in the 21st century, a city's success depends upon attracting and keeping bright, educated talent of all demographics. That means making the city livable and comfortable for professionals who are gay, female, or members of a racial minority.

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Related: The persecution rests, Kids In The Hall, Interview: Boston City Councilor Matt O'Malley, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Boston, Harvard University, NAACP,  More more >
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8 Comments / Add Comment

Doug Saint Carter

The New Black sounds as divisive as ever. Where is the effort to improve race relations? As long as blacks continue to segregate as an ethnic group and integrate as individuals, there's no such thing as "The New Black."
Where Is Love? Doug Saint Carter
Posted: December 15 2010 at 7:10 PM

Nathan Spencer

David I agree with everything you have said here. One thing you touched upon, Boston being a hard city to get licenses and permits, is something that reinforces the point that Boston is heavily a Connection city. I think it tends to hurt the black community more because there has been less of a connected community. But this old Boston vs. new Boston is prevalent everywhere through the city and is hurting and holding us back. Streamlining the political processes will help.

There are MANY talented black professionals in the city every year, but we offer a sour attitude and few opportunities for growth and it forces them (and many other young professionals, I might add) to look elsewhere. Why stay in a city that makes you prove that you know what you know when you can go elsewhere where they will give you a chance because you're qualified.
Posted: December 15 2010 at 7:15 PM

Wagner Rios

Boston's racism has a convoluted, multi-layered history:

Yes, the Brahmins have historically controlled the city and still do. They had to relinquish some power to Irish and Italians over the years but still maintain key control of finance, the economy, Ivy-league institutions, and strategic areas of government.

Boston is home to world-class universities, hospitals, museums, etc., who have for more than a century kept blacks and other minorities out of positions of power. And other than some window dressing they still do.

Take state government for example. Even though the governor is black, down the power echelon few minorities can be found. This is a time-tried public relations technique: Put a color face up front to give the impression that there is change while everything remains the same (does Obama ring a bell?)

Politicians become sensitive to ethnic communities when these newcomers vote. Boston has been a majority-minority city for more than 10 years now. Apparently politicians have a new-found sensitivity. May this be related to the fact that more minorities are now voting, and are also acquiring economic cloud?

Blacks, the minority population at large, women, and the rest of the disenfranchised, will continue to have to wrestle their way to the top through education and political organizing.

Up-and-coming minority professionals need to be keenly aware that their personal success is only as viable as the political and economic strength of the groups they come from.

Yes, there has been improvement in Boston's racial relations. I have noticed it during my 30 years in the city. Much remains to be done, and now that there is a widespread realization about the economic benefits racial integration affords, we all need to size the opportunity and bring our communities to a new level of not only racial, but civic and economic integration.
Posted: December 18 2010 at 3:50 PM

ArchieBunkerHill

I would like to move to Detroit or Philly . As a white person will I find a tolerant welcoming black majority? Will I be harassed by black thugs?Will affirmative action keep me from a good job? Tolerance is a two -way street. Blacks tend to whine alot but continue to rape rob and murder way beyond the rest of society. If I were in a downtown niteclub and a large group of black males entered i would head for the exit. Would you?
Posted: December 19 2010 at 6:41 PM

Anonymous

Although my first instinct was to ignore your comment, ArchieBunker, I can't. You read this article, clearly read the responses, and still posted. Yes, you have your right to speak, but you do not, however, have the right to be so disrespecful. You claim that tolerance is a two way street... my suggestion is that you take a short detour from your one way street and merge onto the freaking expressway. Avoid "nightclubs" on the way, as I'm guessing the general public wouldn't enjoy your presence anyway. :)

Grow up. Your arguments are cliche. A move to Detriot or Philly won't change your attitude.

Not a fan of this article... what is "the new black?" I think this may have opened doors... for people to become insulted, or for people like ArchieBunker to babble.
Posted: December 20 2010 at 12:13 AM

upepo11

David,
People who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Most people who claimed to have ties to the people of color community know at least one person who can rightfully claim of legal injustice. To applaud Pressely and Felix Jr. on their vote to unseat Turner is to say that the legal system arrived at their decision in an unprecedented fair fashion. I still remember being stopped on the streets of Boston, because police were looking for a black male after a untrue accusation by a white guy that murdered his wife. The main problem with not having a long term black middle class in Boston is that we forget the legacy of history. Not every one that the judicial system deems guilty is guilty of a crime.
Posted: December 20 2010 at 3:07 PM

upepo11

David,
Have you ever heard the expression neo colonialism? What is happening in Boston with black folks is very similar with similar outcomes.
Posted: December 20 2010 at 3:35 PM

Anonymous

I agree with Anonymous...the title is tacky and vague. It doesn't do justice to the content of the article.

That said, I was so happy to read it. I grew up here and recently returned to attend grad school. I've been trying to explain to people how the racism in this city feels as a black person...how's it's so connected to class and history. How I'm so used to being the only black person at many events and how annoying it is to hear that "it's my race's fault." How it's hard to "see" the racism especially in educated and professional settings because people know that outward displays of racism are unacceptable, but white people are free to be racist covertly. How, no matter how much has changed, the racism in this city is as old as the bricks on the Freedom Trail.

I do worry about how this effort to make Black professionals feel more welcome will exacerbate the class separation within the Black community, however. Regardless, thank you for investigating some of the ways in which Boston racism (which is unique due to Boston's history) manifests itself and what's being done about it.
Posted: January 17 2011 at 11:54 AM
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