Georgianna MelÚndez and Robert L. Turner

The unfinished work of equality

By Georgianna MelÚndez and Robert L. Turner
July 22, 2009

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN residents of Massachusetts gave a startling answer to researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 2006 when 75 percent said that race relations in the state were only fair to poor, and 17 percent said they had personally experienced overt racial discrimination from police in the past year. It was startling, at least, to some people who at that time were witnessing Deval Patrick’s steady elevation to the governor’s office.

But a confrontation on Ware Street in Cambridge on Thursday - and vociferous public reaction to it - betray a stark truth: that the election of a black governor, and president, have hardly put Massachusetts and America “beyond race.’’

It is not our place to sort out the discrepancies between the versions of events supplied by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley in his report and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a statement released by his lawyer. Did Gates accuse Crowley of being “a racist’’ in a manner that “served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed,’’ as Crowley’s report says? Eyewitnesses may bring some clarity. “Racist’’ is an ugly word, but if a person is in the process of being victimized by racial profiling (would a white professor in his home have been treated the same?) or other overt discrimination, then the word should be shouted from the rooftops. No euphemism will do.

If the word is applied wrongly, that is shameful, but it is no crime. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh both called Sonia Sotomayor a “racist,’’ but you won’t see mug shots from their booking. Gates’s mug shots, however, are now spread across the country. Even though the criminal charge of disorderly conduct was dropped yesterday, the incident is a step backward for America, especially given Gates’s international prominence, and for Massachusetts, which still suffers from a reputation as being unwelcoming and even intolerant of outsiders, particularly minorities.

As co-directors of Commonwealth Compact, a statewide diversity initiative, we are alarmed that this incident occurred, but hopeful that it will help focus attention on equality’s unfinished work.

A Compact report issued in May showed that many Massachusetts employers are eager to diversify their workplaces, though there is much room for improvement, especially in higher-level jobs. Still, the fact that 111 organizations, including a third of the state’s largest employers, signed on to the Compact and submitted data indicates a strong appetite to make progress on this stubborn problem.

Still, there are widely divergent perspectives that whites and minorities have on racial issues. The 2006 study found that 45 percent of whites felt that race relations had improved in the past five years, but only 16 percent of blacks felt the same.

In the last two days, the outpouring of comment about the Gates incident has been extraordinary. A great deal of it has been knee-jerk on both sides (the Harvard professor was “arrogant’’; the police officer “arrested him because he was black’’), indicating a willingness to prejudge the case, often based on preconceptions and, yes, prejudices, that is itself disturbing. According to, hundreds of overtly racist comments were not even posted.

The fact that minority delegates were persuaded to come to Boston for a political convention in 2004, the announcement that the Urban League convention will be held here in 2011, and the positive response to Commonwealth Compact are among many bits of evidence that the state’s reputation as being welcoming to persons of color - and the reality - have improved considerably since the dark days of forced busing.

An ugly incident in Cambridge forces us to acknowledge there is still a lot to be done, and that progress will be made only if we join together as a community.

Gates is, after all, a teacher - one of the nation’s most noted. Whatever the details, the incident on Ware Street will serve a most legitimate purpose if it causes all of us to stop and take notice, and to commit ourselves to making concrete improvements in a racial climate that clearly needs them.

Georgianna Meléndez and Robert L. Turner are co-directors of Commonwealth Compact.

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