On The Myth That The Northeast United States Isn't Racist

In the four years I lived in Boston I discovered an undercurrent of racism that I never expected from a metropolitan city in the northern United States. And my experience is unfortunately not unique.
Publish date:
September 5, 2013
racism, Boston

When I graduated high school and moved to Boston for college, I had a dream of living in a city full of open-minded, progressive intellectuals - a place far more sophisticated than my humble urban roots in northern New Jersey. I imagined myself discussing philosophy in charming coffee houses with friends straight out of a Benetton ad, a veritable United Nations meeting over lattes.

That is not what I found.

In the four years I lived in Boston I discovered an undercurrent of racism that I never expected from a metropolitan city in the northern United States. And my experience is unfortunately not unique.

It started during freshman orientation. Part of the festivities included a harbor cruise. As we sailed along the Boston Harbor, I remember sensing something slightly different about the 200 or so students on board. Eventually it dawned on me: the group was majority white. Having attended a high school with a predominantly minority population ranging from black and hispanic to Indian, Filipino, and Egyptian, I was used to seeing a full spectrum in any school related crowd. On the boat only a few brown faces dotted the landscape.

I’d had the luxury of taking for granted the diversity of cultures at my high school. During a typical lunch period, a group of girls might get a crash course in belly dance in exchange for teaching the belly dancers Irish step dance. Cultural exchange was organic, through food, music, and dance - when you go to school in a city where more languages are spoken than in all of New York City it’s hard for that to not be the case.

My naivete about Boston’s racial landscape was party me being a teenager and partly because New England has distanced itself from its history of racism, at least in terms of what you read in history books. Not many people know about the widespread practice of slave ownership in New England states, which occurred through the 1800s up until 10 years before the civil war. The idea that the north was always anti-slavery, or that emancipation of slaves was the primary reason for the Civil War, is basically a myth.

In modern day Boston, I soon learned, class and privilege were still intertwined with racism in ways that ranged from subtle microaggressions to blatant racism. For example - it was seen as acceptable to live in Allston, a largely student occupied neighborhood known for its huge rats, or Southie, the working class Irish section of town. But if you got an apartment somewhere like Roxbury or Dorchester that was thought of as a black neighborhood people would raise their eyebrows, even though recently crime is down in Roxbury and up in Allston.

When I moved to the North End, a predominantly Italian neighborhood, a coworker commented after a few glasses of wine at happy hour that I lived in “such a nice, white neighborhood.”

Another time, at the first punk show I went to in Boston, there was some guy wearing white power regalia in the audience. I remember looking around for other people’s reactions. I’d spent many a weekend in the East Village, where “Nazi punks fuck off” patches were sold on every corner. The scene I came from was multi-ethnic and there was no way you could show up wearing your racism literally on your sleeve and expect to not get kicked out of a show. But in Boston, in a sea of white faces, no one seemed to care.

I was stunned into non-response during both of these incidents partly because I was young and less assertive, but mostly due to being totally unprepared for situations in which people assumed I was complicit with racism. Nowadays I am much better at piping up with “that’s an offensive thing to say” or “please don’t use that language.”

Others friends dealt with bias through smart ass-ery: a member of a friend’s Islamic punk band the Kominas relayed an anecdote about a conversation he had right after 9/11. Someone had the gall to ask him “What have your people done?” His response, “Which of my people? The ones from Boston, or from Cambridge?”

Then there are the experiences of my fiance, who is a member of the Penobscot tribe and grew up in New England. He has had people complain to his face about the government “letting” casinos be built by other tribes. On land that belongs to them, which is part of their own sovereign nation, which they had to fight to reclaim from the government that stole it from them in the first place. Apparently he is pale enough that they never even consider they might be talking to one of “those people.”

Being white doubtlessly afforded me the privilege of not encountering racism even more frequently. But microaggressions about class were common even if I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me about them at the time. Since microaggressions are, well, micro, a bit of background about the history and culture of New England helps is necessary.

First, while Boston is actually highly ethnically diverse, its neighborhoods are some of the most segregated in the nation according to 2010 census data. This is along racial as well as income based lines (the two often overlap). Second, Boston is a city known for its educated class. There is a long history of manual labor jobs being mainly the province of freed slaves, recent immigrants, and those without the resources to go to college. A lot of the city’s economy comes from students paying $50K a year tuition. There are definite perceived stratifications based on factors like where you grew up, where you went to school, or what kind of job you have.

In Boston questions about your hometown, alma mater, and current employment seemed to happen much earlier in conversation than I was used to. It finally clicked the time I overheard two people arguing outside a bar because they both claimed to work at a certain Ivy League university, but they didn’t recognize each other, so they were both accusing the other person of lying. It was only settled when they compared university IDs.

In contrast, living in the NYC metro area, I couldn’t tell you where most of my friends went to college, or if they even went. As for where they work, I might know what field they’re in but not the name of their employer or their job title unless I needed to know for some reason, like to meet them for a lunch date. What I could tell you is their favorite type of music or the recipe of their favorite cocktail. The rest seems like background noise.

Recently I asked someone “what do you do?” and immediately felt like the question came off as prying - I meant what kind of art they made, not how they make a living, but I could tell from their reaction that they were wondering why I cared about their job. In Boston, I had people ask me where I worked before they even knew my name, almost like a screening question.

I lived in New England until 2010, and while I certainly hope that race relations have come leaps and bounds in the last few years, evidence suggests otherwise. There was the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates for “breaking into” his own home. More recently, there are these racist twitter reactions from when a black player for the Washington Capitals scored the winning goal against the Boston Bruins. This editorial was written in 2012 by a black Harvard Divinity School student who was accused of stealing and running from the cops by white bystanders while running to catch a bus.

And if you google “most racist city in America,” Boston will come up in many of the lists, thanks in no small part to it making the Top 5 ranking via lists on Deadspin and Gawker.

My point, however, is not that Boston is the “most racist” city - it’s that it is a racist city, period. Almost every place is to one extent or another, because we do not have the luxury of living in a post-racial society. Racism may manifest differently in different places - in one place it might be a cluster of microaggressions that lead to larger systemic problems like racial inequalities in hiring. In another it might be racial slurs and bottles thrown out of car windows. It’s still racism, regardless of the form it takes on.