Race Relations and Immigration in Boston
by Silvia Domínguez, Northeastern University
Stanley Forman’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning
photo of a white man attacking a black man
with an American flag captured the symbolism
of the white-against-black conflict and put
Boston on the national map as a racist city.
Immigration and School Desegregation
Boston has a long history as a point of entry for millions of individuals and families moving to the United States. One of the most dramatic and best-known periods of growth occurred in the 19th and early 20th century with an influx of immigrants from Western Europe. By 1920, 31.9 percent of the Boston population was Irish, particularly in the neighborhood of South Boston where Irish immigrants had begun to concentrate in the late 1800s. With heavy discrimination from the Protestant establishment, the Irish in South Boston developed a defended neighborhood marked by bonding relations and bounded solidarity. Through these close-knitted, patronage based relations, the Irish had considerable success in establishing Catholic institutions and permeating the political channels in local, state, and federal politics. The Irish took over the leadership positions in civil service professions and guarded these secure and well-paid jobs through to the 1970s when past-won civil rights began to be enforced.
In 1974, after 10 years of litigation, the Federal District Court found the Boston School System guilty of deliberate segregation and ordered the busing of students in order to desegregate the schools. South Boston became the hub of protest and the neighborhood’s defensive nature was evidenced through the televised images of racial violence that embroiled the city for the consequent two years of firebombs, shootings, and stoning.
During desegregation, as whites left for the suburbs, they took the social institutions and economic base, leaving blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty. Conditions in inner cities worsened as national priorities supported the move of resources away from urban areas and as the accessibility to handguns increased. Like many other cities, Boston was left ripe for conditions that erupted in the 1980s with high levels of youth violence.
Stuart Incident, Boston Miracle
The second important event occurred in October 1989, when suburbanite Charles Stuart reported that a hooded black man shot him and his pregnant wife as they got into their car after a pre-natal visit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston. Given the prevailing stereotypes at the time of violent minority youth, police felt justified to aggressively pursue the assailant, and, in the process, violated the civil rights of black youth. Prosecutions began against a suspect, but it turned out that Stuart had taken advantage of the racial climate with a manufactured story and a self-inflicted wound to cover up killing his wife and unborn child. This tragic episode, which demonstrated how easily it was for a white man to take advantage of stereotypes to cover up his own homicide, ended when Stuart killed himself.
The Stuart case served as a wakeup call to local officials and the leadership of the black church who began a hands-on policy of responsibility with at-risk youth, which became known as the 10-Point Coalition. This combination lead to a dramatic reduction in youth violence and the Boston Miracle became a national model.
White-Black Dichotomy Ends
At around the same time and after years of litigation, the Boston Housing Authority was forced to integrate by court order. The defensive nature of South Boston rose again to struggle against integration, but this contentious racial event turned out to be different, demonstrating yet another change in the city’s racial and ethnic demographics. It was Latin-Americans who were introduced in the integration of public housing, not blacks. The white vs black frames of struggle that had developed were significantly blurred by the presence of a third group. As a result, Latin-Americans acted as buffers, absorbing racial antagonism and decreasing racial tension.
The breakup of racialized politics moved the racial boundaries. Since the 1970s, blacks have gained access to civil service jobs and have taken on leadership positions as police commissioners, state attorneys general, and, in 2006, Massachusetts elected the second African-American governor in the nation.
Today, the largest immigrant group in Boston is Latin-American. By far the most prevalent language spoken, other than English, is Spanish. In many of Boston’s neighborhoods, such as East Boston, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain, more than 20 percent of the residents speak Spanish and 56 percent of Boston public school students speak Spanish as their first language. At the same time, Latin-Americans are now the majority population in public housing.
Latin-Americans are by no means the only immigrants. There is a substantial diversity in origins of immigrants, who constitute 26 percent of the Boston population and account for 82 percent of the net growth in the labor force. Whites are now a minority in Boston where African-Americans make up 23 percent, Latin-Americans 14 percent, and Asians and Pacific Islanders comprise 8 percent of the population.
The top regions represented in the 26 percent of the foreign-born population include: the Caribbean, with 29 percent; Asia, with 24 percent; Latin America, with 19 percent; Europe, with 17 percent; and Africa, with 9 percent. Immigrants are also changing Boston neighborhoods. While East Boston is the prime destination for immigrants from El Salvador and Colombia, Allston/Brighton is popular for Chinese, Brazilian, and Russian immigrants. Haitian immigrants are settling in Rosindale, Dorchester, and Hyde Park. While immigrants collectively contribute $4.6 billion to the economy, generate $1 billion in state and federal taxes, and create 52,230 jobs, only 27 percent of the foreign-born population has achieved at least a middle-class standard of life. Although immigrants have a low unemployment rate and constitute a large segment of the workforce, they remain disadvantaged, in part due to inadequate English proficiency and low-educational attainment.
A large proportion of blacks continue to live in poverty, and many Latin-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Southeast Asians living in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods join them. Despite the gains that have been made, a majority of the state’s residents rate the quality of race relations as “fair” or “poor” and 42 percent of blacks and 49 percent of Latin-Americans report having experienced discrimination in the past 12 months. The high housing costs continue to be a serious problem. Were it not for immigrants, the city would be experiencing negative population growth. This challenging situation requires that the city and state government capitalize on the richness and energy of its diverse population, dedicating more resources to education and training. They need to realize that this is no longer a white/black issue, and should work to reduce institutional discrimination. This will lead to a more inclusive city that is waiting to be realized.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.