The city of Boston has a lot of work to do to truly address its racial divisions — that’s a clear sentiment that emerged from many people taking part in the opening session of a city-wide dialogue on race organized by Mayor Marty Walsh.
A multi-racial crowd of close to 1,000 people turned out for the first session on Saturday.
For 19-year-old Nate McLean-Nichols, the police’s treatment of young African American men is his number one racial priority.
McLean-Nichols said he’s been stopped and interrogated by police in his neighborhood in Dorchester, and he has friends who’ve been stopped and and searched too.
“For young people of color it can be almost like a traumatizing event that takes place, living in a society where we’re almost being looked down upon just because of the way we look,” he said. “And so that’s another reason why this is very important to me because if I can’t exist in a society that appreciates me then where can I be?”
Racial injustice faced by African Americans was at the core of the presentation organized by city leaders. The city featured two youth mentors from the Center For Teen Empowerment: 16-year-old Kendra Gerald and 20-year-old Dante Omorogbe were easily the stars of the program.
Omorogbe spoke about the historical wounds of racial injustice and their present manifestations.
“Today, too many people believe that as long as you tried hard enough, everyone has an equal opportunity,” Omorogbe said. “But this is not true and this has never been true.”
Omorogbe went on to say for young black men, very little has changed since Jim Crow. He recalled the well known lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.
“From the murder of Emmett Till, to the murder of Trayvon Martin: two boys who look like me and did nothing wrong. American society has made it clear to me that racism isn’t just a word,” Omorogbe said. “It is a reality that the color of my skin limits my opportunities, my health, my safety and my right to express myself. It limits my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that is supposed to be guaranteed to all of us by the Constitution.”
Some attendees of the first dialogue session wondered whether an honest conversation about race can actually happen.
Monica O’Neal is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School who lives in the Fenway. O’Neal says the biggest challenge to an honest conversation is asking white people to recognize their complicity in racism.
“If there is a way that we could help Bostonians re-frame this piece,” O’Neal says, “so that it’s not something that they are ashamed of, but to actually say ‘This is a challenge.’ If you could somehow create that spirit of winning the same way you have with sports when it comes to the Red Sox: this idea of ‘We’re going to be champions in this.'”
Others are more optimistic about the conversation — and more concerned with how the city might deliver on a promise of bringing racial equity to every aspect of its policies.
But at least one attendee, a white woman who grew up in Boston during school integration, was overwhelmed with optimism.
She recalled racial animosity she felt growing up in Boston — including the frequent use of the n-word. She stressed how little confidence she had in Mayor Marty Walsh, but says she believes he has already learned something and thinks the city can too.
The mayor is proposing similar race relations conversations around the city over the next year. None have yet to be scheduled, though.