By Ellen McGirt
Updated: December 11, 2017 1:45 PM ET

I used to dread going to up to Boston. It was always something with that town and me, none of it good.

I lived in Providence, RI for many years, first as a college student in the 1980s, then as a young entrepreneur and budding museum curator. Providence had its own serious problems with race, and so did I. But I loved it there. The city was so small, it felt like barely a smudge on the way to more glamorous New England locations. Because it seemed so familiar, most incidents I experienced felt manageable. I typically never felt hated, exactly, just misunderstood. I mostly felt embraced.

But travel up the turnpike to Boston, with its working-class tensions and impenetrable Brahmin entitlement, and even a mundane encounter could leave a permanent mark.

On Sunday, the famous Boston Globe Spotlight investigative team published the first of seven installments in a series on race, seeking to discover whether the city’s reputation for racism was fair and still deserved.

All signs point to yes:

The Globe Spotlight Team analyzed data, launched surveys, and conducted hundreds of interviews, to answer just that question. Spotlight examined the core of Boston’s identity: our renowned colleges and world-class medical institutions; the growth that keeps expanding our skyline; business and politics; and our championship sports teams.

And the Spotlight reporters, to get a sense of how much black residents are part of the mainstream of the city, did something decidedly old-school: They visited a number of iconic Boston places and simply counted the number of black people they saw.

All told, the findings were troubling. The reasons are complex.

But this much we know: Here in Boston, a city known as a liberal bastion, we have deluded ourselves into believing we’ve made more progress than we have.

They literally counted black people. That’s a pretty big clue as to what’s coming next.

The Spotlight team became nationally famous for their 2002 series on sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston-area parishes. They won a Pulitzer the next year. The film based on their investigation won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscars in 2015, and once again helped bring their work to a national audience.

While openly racist violence may be on the decline, other markers remain troubling.

In their introduction, they shared a quick comparison of economic stats from a report on racial inequities in the greater Boston area published by Globe reporters in 1983:

Then: Just 4.5 percent of black workers were officials and managers.
Now: That number has barely moved, to 4.6 percent in 2015.

Then: The “Vault” — an organization of Boston’s most powerful business leaders — had no black people among its 20 members.
Now: The “New Vault” — the 16-person Massachusetts Competitive Partnership — has no black members.

Then: This area’s unemployment rate was about twice as high for blacks as whites.
Now: The gap remains, with black unemployment more than double the rate of white workers in 2014.

So, there is lots of room for improvement.

Thinking about Boston made me suddenly realize how much of an impact the city had on me in my twenties. The times I’d been called racist names on the street. Sexually harassed by cops on Mass Ave. Racist questions asked by potential business partners —“Did you know who your father was?” Asked to leave establishments that were suddenly “whites only.” (Although one was in Newport, RI, to be fair.) And then there was the time I was physically barred from entering a friend’s Back Bay condo by a neighbor who hissed that the “janitor’s daughter didn’t belong here.” She literally sank her nails into my arm. Yes, she left a mark, inside and out.

I suppose I’ll save the really bad stuff for another column.

I’ll give the last word to Bridgit Brown, who speaks to the Boston of today. She’s a communications specialist in Dorchester, and told the Globe that her experience is characterized by a distinct form of loneliness. Most places she goes, including as a leader at work, she’s the only one who looks like her. “You’re aware of the racism. You’re aware of the subtleties. It’s like the air we breathe, if you’re black,” she says.

Not the progress I was hoping for.

On a side note, I’d love to be the business journalist who profiles the first black professional who makes it into the New Vault. But that would require going back to Boston, wouldn’t it?


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