Why does Boston continue to have a racist reputation?
For decades, Boston has been plagued with the dismal superlative of being the most racist city in America. Sure, there’s been progress—Boston is now a majority-minority city—but the perception persists. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League found that Massachusetts ranked second in the nation for white nationalist propaganda activity, just behind Texas.
But many see this weekend’s 114th NAACP National Convention as a step in the right direction. The last time Boston hosted the convention was back in 1982. Now, in 2023, Boston has a chance to reintroduce itself.
Ken Cooper, Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran journalist and former senior editor for GBH News, joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss Boston’s reputation. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: You and I have talked about race in Boston a lot over the years, so I’m excited to talk with you. Tell us—that statistic about Massachusetts being second in the nation for white nationalist propaganda activity… Did that surprise you?
Ken Cooper:It did. I had never heard that before, and it does surprise me. But it doesn’t represent the city’s politics if you look at the city council and who’s in the legislature representing the city.
Rath:I should be clear. We’re talking about Massachusetts as opposed to Boston, so I think the regional point is important.
Cooper: Yeah, even about Massachusetts. You look at our legislature, where Republicans are an endangered species, but certainly, there are pockets in the outlying areas of Massachusetts where that kind of sentiment prevails. Small pockets, I think. But to me, it’s a little curious that there would be so much of that kind of propaganda in this state.
Rath: Looking at Boston, we’ve seen some change, especially when it comes to people of color and representation in city politics. It seems kind of strange that this idea with Boston persists.
Cooper: True. I think the popular image of Boston among Black people across the country is dated. It endures because of the power of the images of the hostile white reaction to school desegregation in the 1970s. Those photographs are seared in many minds, and there have been no images to replace them. And that’s why the image—50 years dated—still persists.
I think it’s a bit of an illusion to think that a convention with as many as 10,000 visitors coming into the city, most of them Black, that they come away with a favorable impression. And I’ve seen that happen with other conventions that somehow those 10,000 people can change an image that persists in the minds of millions of African Americans. It’s kind of an illusion to think that it will change that.
Rath: It’s profound to hear, now that you’re saying it, because I think that, even when I think of Boston or images in particular, that one you talked about, I think it was titled The Soiling of Old Glory. It was anti-immigration protesters, and there was a man who was about to impale an African American man with an American flag.
Cooper:Yeah, and that image is deeply symbolic if you think about it. You know, it looks like a white man is giving a Black man a shove with an American flag in the Cradle of Liberty. I mean, that’s a profound, stark symbolism.
And it’s a little misleading because I have talked to the man who was being attacked. His name is Ted Landsmark and, at the time, he was a civil rights lawyer. And, actually, his attacker wasn’t trying to impale him. He was swinging the flag back and forth.
And when Stanley Forman, then of the Boston Herald, snapped the picture, it was pointed straight at Ted Landsmark. But he broke Ted Landsmark’s nose swinging it back and forth, as opposed to jabbing at him.
Rath: So how do you think Boston can reclaim itself and, I mean, substitute another image or get a more realistic image out there for people of color and for everybody?
Cooper: I know one way that it could happen, but it’s not going to happen any time soon: if the city of Boston elected a Black mayor. Elected. We had one acting Black mayor. That would be a substitute image.
When Deval Patrick was governor of Massachusetts, that might have been a substitute image. But the fact of the matter is that Barack Obama’s rise in the Democratic primaries, Democratic nomination, then election to the presidency, overshadowed Deval Patrick’s governorship as an image of Blacks in politics during that time period.
So, I’m not sure how it’s done, and I actually don’t think that the NAACP’s significance coming to Boston has that much to do with the city’s image, as opposed to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization formulating a counterattack against the kind of decisions that a supermajority of conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court have been making, and certainly, Republican governors like DeSantis in Florida have been making. What they formulate is a plan for a counterattack. That, I think, is the significance of the NAACP’s meeting in this time, whether it was in Boston or somewhere else.
Rath: Well, Ken, you actually bring me right to the question I wanted to ask you: Looking nationally with the NAACP convention being here, it’s hard not to have a certain cognitive dissonance with the rest of the country, particularly the South. You mentioned Florida; Governor Ron DeSantis is going to be here campaigning in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, we’re now having colleges add Black studies degrees, and in Florida, they’re taking that kind of stuff away. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around these two things.
Cooper: Well, I was actually at a reception last night hosted by Michael Curry, who, as you know, used to be president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and is now on the national board of the organization. He listed two things that he thought the NAACP needed to figure out in terms of policy.
One was how to respond to the Supreme Court decision, basically eliminating the formal, systematic consideration of race in college admissions. And the second one was what you just mentioned about the decision down in Florida that somehow, some way—imagine that—slavery was a benefit to enslaved people, including my own ancestors. So those are things that they’re gonna think about.
I know they have a resolution with respect to the teaching of Black history in schools. They don’t have a draft resolution with regard to the Supreme Court decision because my understanding is that the NAACP’s internal process for proposing and vetting resolutions for a vote at a national convention seems to be pretty thorough and extensive, and the decision just came a few weeks ago. So I don’t think they’ve had time, but I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about it at the convention once the business part of it gets going.