Moving beyond racism

Governor Patrick signals change in black professionals' view of Boston

As the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick has changed the conversation about race in the state.
As the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick has changed the conversation about race in the state.

After Dr. Lisa Owens moved to Boston in 1994 to work at Brigham and Women's Hospital, the African-American internist was struck by how often patients mistook her for food service staff, despite her white coat embroidered with "MD."

Dr. Owens found the internal medicine program at the Brigham welcoming and supportive but says peers outside her profession found "residual negativity toward blacks in Boston."

"They would say, 'I like my job, but I hate Boston. I'm going someplace else,'" the doctor explains. "People felt isolated and not connected to a group."

Lawyer Travis McCready recalls his own hesitancy about relocating to Boston from Minneapolis in 2000. As a young black man, he did not feel welcome or comfortable in the 1980s, when he came to watch his brother play basketball at Boston College. Since moving here, McCready says he's found the city more inviting, "an acquired taste."

McCready and Dr. Owens are among the growing ranks of black professionals who are enthusiastic about staying in Boston after school and training. Today, Dr. Owens is well-established with a job as medical director of Brigham Primary Physicians, a husband, Darryl Settels, owner of Bob's Southern Bistro (formerly Bob the Chef's), and two young children. McCready has gone from chief of staff of the Boston Foundation to chief operating officer of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Nothing is more emblematic of the change in attitude toward and among black professionals than the election last fall of Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of the Commonwealth.

"How bad can it be here," asks Dr. Owens, "when we have the second black governor in the country?" In fact, she knows black professionals who have moved to less expensive, and supposedly more welcoming, cities who regret leaving the dynamism of Boston behind.

"There's a buzz, an energy in Boston," says Dr. Owens, who grew up in Washington, D.C. "It's an intangible that people have not found, that they realize retrospectively when they leave."

Patrick's campaign themes of improving education, attracting business to the Bay State, and changing the status quo on Beacon Hill resonated with Dr. Owens and her husband, who held a fundraiser for Patrick during the campaign. Dr. Owens says, however, the optimism she senses in Boston is not just about race, it's about change. "Having a new governor like Deval Patrick is part of the modeling to be better, to do better, to push, push, push," she says.

Patrick's election is a milestone that African-American leaders hope will help soften Boston's old image on race issues. Certainly, that image was raised several notches when Gov. Patrick was sworn in holding the Bible from the Amistad, the schooner whose African slaves were freed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841. Fading now is the negative impression many outsiders had of the city based on the busing-era photo of a white mob attacking a black businessman with an American flag.

"It's a new day in Boston," says Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "There has been a melting of the iceberg." Surely, there are still race problems, says Williams, from the achievement gap in schools to underemployment of people of color. While the black population of the city has held steady at about 24 percent, the rising Hispanic and Asian populations have raised the minority population to 50.5 percent, according to the last census, creating a majority of minorities. The melting pot of immigrants has brought change to static neighborhoods and made people more familiar, if not comfortable, with differences.

"We passionately believe that every person should have the opportunity to contribute, to be able to use their skills in a meaningful way." - Jim Cassetta, CEO of Work, Inc.

With progress comes a new reality for black leaders, Williams says. That means the tactics and approach of the civil rights era must evolve. It's no longer enough to highlight problems. "Now we have to have solutions to deal with the problems," he says.

Ted Landsmark has spent his career working on solutions. Landsmark holds a doctorate in American studies from Boston University. He was a dean at the Massachusetts College of Art, the first African-American on the MBTA board, a board member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and for a decade he has been president of the Boston Architectural College.

But Landsmark is also the man in the flag photo. Despite his achievements, the media calls he takes still focus on that "10 seconds at City Hall plaza in 1976." He'd rather focus on today. "We can say that change has come to Boston when we see more people of color at the upper level of corporations, nonprofits, universities, and hospitals," he says.

Joan Wallace-Benjamin, the governor's chief of staff, says they have no illusions: Unequal education, unfair lending practices, and housing discrimination persist. Patrick has appointed an accomplished and highly diverse cabinet and signed an executive order to restore affirmative action as a principle of state government. He also plans to lead by example, using his bully pulpit to advocate for change, she says.

Wallace-Benjamin, who headed the Urban League here and was executive director of the Home for Little Wanderers, says that she and Patrick have benefited from the civil rights era but are not totally defined by race. "Both of us have a broader perspective about what it takes to lead in the 21st century, what qualities it takes to move a set of agendas forward. Now that is represented in our government," she says.

Yet many in the African-American community do not sense progress, according to a recent statewide survey. In fact, only 16 percent of African-American respondents in 2006 thought the situation for blacks had improved in the previous five years compared to 24 percent of those surveyed in 1998, says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the McCormack Graduate School's Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the UMass.-Boston. And 60 percent said people of color have a long way to go before they will be treated the same as whites.

Wallace-Benjamin says the perceptions are real, but she hopes the infusion of new and young voters who turned out for Patrick will attract businesses here that previously steered away from Boston. And she hopes young black professionals will see Boston as a city that will help them get ahead.

Business and civic leaders formed the nonprofit Partnership Inc. in the post-busing doldrums 20 years ago to help Boston draw and develop professionals of color. Beverly Edgehill, president of the Partnership, says as invigorating as Patrick's election has been, "We work with hundreds of Deval Patricks every day, all with the same potential, enthusiasm, commitment, and intention around making a difference in the community of Boston."

Of the 1,700 professionals of color who have participated in the Partnership since 1987, three-quarters have remained in Boston and attribute that fact to the Partnership. "They're here." Edgehill says. "We have them, now we need to help them leverage their full talent" to progress locally.

An alumnus of the Partnership, Travis McCready says that through the years, and with some effort, he found his way in Boston. "This is a city of overlapping networks. You have to find them, navigate them, and plug into them. When you do, things start to happen."

McCready says his experience is hopeful. "The people I know and the people I’ve met, everybody unquestionably and undeniably has their hearts in the right place. Boston is in the process of turning the corner."

Pop-up DIVERSITY GRAPHIC: Ethnicity change in Boston