Boston Confronts History of Racism

Boston Mayor Marty J. Walsh leads an open forum discussion at Boston Talks Racism at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Photo by Crystal Milner/BU News Service
Written by Zoë Mitchell

By Zoë Mitchell
BU News Service

“Today, too many people believe that as long as you try hard enough, everyone has equal opportunity. But this is not true, and it has never been true,” said 20-year-old Dante Omorogbe, while speaking at the Cutler Majestic Theater yesterday morning.

Omorogbe, of Dorchester, received a standing ovation at the first in a series of conversations about racism in the city of Boston, put on by Mayor Marty J. Walsh.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh speaks during Boston Talks Racism at the Cutler Majestic Theatre November 19. Photo by Crystal Milner/BU News Service

Walsh speaks during Boston Talks Racism at the Cutler Majestic Theatre November 19. Photo by Crystal Milner/BU News Service

“The rules of the game have changed and there are different players, but the game remains the same,” Omorogbe said.  “We cannot understand racism as it is today without looking at the racism of our history.”

Walsh, who also spoke, wanted the conversation series to be a way to acknowledge the racism of Boston’s past and find solutions to move toward a more equitable future. 

Walsh recalled the moment in his campaign for mayor in 2013, when a woman challenged him about the diversity in his own campaign and asked him if he thought racism was a problem in Boston.

“I can’t say we’re better than we were, because that’s not an answer,” Walsh said, stating that he knew then he needed to engage more with difficult topics like racism and segregation. 

The mayor, though repeatedly congratulated by other speakers for tackling the issue of race in Boston, did not accept the compliments.

“It doesn’t take courage,” Walsh said. “This is the right conversation to have in the right city in America at the right time.”

Walsh acknowledged that the results of the presidential election weighed heavily on many in the room and made conversations about the issue of racism even more important.

“In Boston we are not going to go backwards, we are going forwards,” Walsh said.

Others who spoke included Debbie Irving, a self-proclaimed poster child of how not to engage with race and the author of “Waking Up White”; Ceasar McDowell, the president of the Institute of Social Change and a professor at MIT; and 16-year-old Kendra Gerald, of Roxbury.

Gerald, who is biracial, spoke about her own experiences with racism. 

“People’s perceptions of us as Black people are that we are expected to be gang-involved, incarcerated, and/or uneducated,” Gerald said. “Because of those perceptions that are engrained in the history of our country, sometimes we as Black people have the same perceptions of ourselves.”

“It impacts who we think we can be and what we think we can achieve,” Gerald said.

When leaving the theater, the public seemed appreciative of Walsh’s efforts to bring this conversation to the community.

“I’m really happy this happened. I was really encouraged as a Black male by the mayor’s dedication and his willingness to learn,” Rashad Gober said.

Brooke Murphy, another audience member, thought the conversations were a good start but said other issues, like gentrification, should have been brought up by city officials. She also felt the city should not be praised for leading discussions like these. 

“The mayor should not be applauded for being here; he should be here,” Brooke Murphy said. “And I appreciate he acknowledged that.”

Audience members were offered the opportunity to speak directly to the mayor. Monica O’Neal said she was frustrated she had not heard a clear statement that racism existed in Boston today. 

“I was hoping to hear that because one of the only ways to make changes is to acknowledge a problem,” O’Neal said.  

Before she could move on to her next point, she was interrupted by the mayor.

“Boston has an issue with racism,” Walsh said.

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