This past weekend, community members and activists packed a room in Dorchester to hear Roxbury City Councilor Tito Jackson discuss his vision for Boston at a mayoral forum hosted by the We Decide Coalition, a community organization.
“We had a police officer who made a racist video. One that basically threatened the black community,” Jackson said at the event. “Mayor Walsh, as well as the commissioner, allowed that individual to only be suspended for six months. Under my administration, when something like that happens, that individual will be fired.”
Mayor Marty Walsh, who faces Jackson in the Nov 7 Boston mayoral election, declined the coalition’s invitation to attend the forum. Also during this race, he declined opportunities to face constituents of color by not attending the Matahari Women Workers’ Center mayoral forum and by not initially responding to an ACLU questionnaire on policing.
Walsh and Jackson have clashed on race issues long before Jackson announced his mayoral candidacy: namely, about racial tensions at Boston Latin School, as well as around the formation and composition of the city’s Black and Latino Men’s Commission. Now these issues have been pushed to the forefront—displacement that disproportionately affects communities of color, racial inequity in the education system, escalating tensions between police and people of color, and large racial disparities in life expectancy.
To address these concerns, Walsh released a report titled Resilient Boston in July. “We’ve commissioned a new study to explore expanded possibilities for using city policy to reduce race- and gender-based disparities. We’re expanding our implicit bias training to all city departments,” Walsh told DigBoston. But during the second mayoral debate, hosted by WGBH on Oct 24, Jackson hit back at the mayor for commissioning studies about race but not taking adequate action.
All of which only further suggests that while both candidates have positioned themselves as the best choice for addressing racism in a city that is 53 percent people of color, their outlooks on related issues and strategies regarding how to fix things differ substantially.
Activists who gathered outside of the WGBH studio in Allston for the mayoral debate last week held a banner that read “The next mayor of Boston must end our displacement + affordability crisis.” Mass evictions have hit Dorchester, East Boston, and Roxbury the hardest. According to American Community Survey, 43.5 percent of Dorchester residents are black or African American.
Walsh outlined his administration’s plans to address affordable housing in Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030. The report states that 19 percent of Boston’s housing units are reserved for low- and moderate-income residents. In a press release from the Walsh campaign, they note the “record-setting production of middle income housing.”
Not everybody sees the situation through such rosy lenses, though.
The NAACP Boston chapter released a report card on Oct 22 to evaluate how well Walsh is doing with communities of color, and gave the mayor a “D” in affordable housing. Ronel Remy, a community organizer at the housing advocacy organization City Life/Vida Urbana, said that despite Walsh’s stated goals to increase the number of affordable units, Boston is manipulated by big investors that control development.
“The city will be flexible to their [big investors’] needs against the needs of the diverse community,” Remy said.
Kowtowing to corporations is on-brand for Walsh, according to Remy, who said Walsh has directed too much energy to things like landing an Amazon headquarters here.
“What do you think is going to happen with such a big, big corporation coming into the city?” Remy said. “Your city is going to be nicer, bigger, richer, and everything. At what cost? Every single person we lose, every person who lives on the streets or shelter.”
Jackson said that he would take housing equity seriously.
“This issue of gentrification is huge,” the councilor candidate told DigBoston. “There are thousands of luxury condos being built, and people are being gentrified out of their neighborhoods and communities. That is happening around racial lines. The city of Boston is becoming less diverse rather than more diverse.”
In addition to raising the requirement of affordable housing in new developments from 15 percent to 25 percent and creating a city-funded housing voucher program, Jackson said that he would dissolve the Boston Planning and Development Agency in favor of a people-centered planning department.
“We should have a planning board that is independent,” Jackson told DigBoston. “I will dissolve the [BPDA]. We will have those funds roll back over to the community.”
Housing problems affect students in a major way. With an estimated 4,000 homeless students, up from 1,500 four years ago, Jackson said he is invested in an equitable system that ensures all the opportunity to learn in a safe environment.
“At the epicenter of racial inequality are the Boston Public Schools,” Jackson said. “And the inequities in the Boston Public Schools have led to the achievement gap. We really need to deal with those issues. First by fully funding the Boston Public Schools. Stopping suspensions of young students.”
Walsh also said he is committed to the wellbeing of BPS.
“Superintendent Chang and I worked closely together to install a trusted leadership team, and [to] hire Latin’s first headmaster of color in its 382-year history,” Walsh told DigBoston.
Michael Johnson, professor of public policy and public affairs at University of Massachusetts Boston, said that “white Bostonians have largely abandoned the public school system except for Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy, which they consider their preserve.”
According to a 2014 study, black students in Massachusetts are almost four times more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts. In a similar vein, the ACLU and other groups report that the school-to-prison pipeline is driven by policies that target people of color.
“I have grown up understanding and interacting with the racism in the city,” said Segun Idowu, lead organizer of the Boston Police Camera Action Team. Recalling how police have treated him and his friends, Idowu said that people of color are regularly pulled over, yelled at, and randomly stopped on the street. That behavior is seemingly reflected by a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, conducted in June, which found that 57 percent of those who call themselves black—and only 37 percent of those who call themselves white—viewed Boston as racist.
Walsh has said that he is working on improving the relationship between cops and residents. For example, he told DigBoston, “BPD has partnered with YWCA Boston to hold youth-police dialogues for over a decade.” Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who endorsed Walsh, said that he is confident in the mayor’s handling of policing issues.
“When an incident happens in a community of color, this mayor calls in the community leaders, clergy, and they talk about what’s going on,” Tompkins said. Piggybacking that sentiment, Jamaica Plain Progressives wrote in their endorsement for Walsh that he has made strides on race issues by hosting conversations and diversifying the BPD. (JP Progressives did not respond to DigBoston’s request for comment for this article.)
Despite these promises, Amanda Bissaro, a volunteer for the Jackson campaign, said that Walsh’s actions contradict his words.
“If [Walsh] was serious about racial equality, he would’ve fired racist cop Joseph DeAngelo Jr. instead of calling his video foolish. Meanwhile, Mayor Walsh did fire a city worker for participating in a Black Lives Matter protest on her own time.”
Jackson himself said that Boston is lagging on policing issues.
“We should have a city that is leading on body cameras instead of following on body cameras,” the councilor told DigBoston. “We should have a city that has a civilian review board where people’s voices are heard that is independent from the police department and actually looks at every case in the city of Boston that is a complaint.”
When it comes to how Walsh and Jackson approach race issues in Boston, Walsh points to his main strategies—Resilient Boston and hosting dialogues—while Jackson says that he wants to fight systemic racism by lifting voices from the outside, from the neighborhoods.
According to Idowu, the Boston Police Camera Action Team organizer, communities of color are being placed under a microscope to be studied and talked about.
“These are not new issues for us,” Idowu said. “There’s always been an achievement gap. There’s always been higher rates of poverty and unemployment in our community. There’s always been police issues. All he [Walsh] wants to do is talk about it, and we’re ready for action. We have been ready for action.”
In response to such calls from community members and advocates, Jackson said his approach to crippling systemic racism would be to weaken the power of the mayor’s office and to empower the community at large.
“I will show up at [public events and forums] and actually listen,” Jackson said. “It is critical that we democratize city government … The mayorship is too strong.”
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.