Study lists inequities blacks face

Urban League also cites Boston’s progress

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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A report released yesterday on the state of the black community in Boston tells a story of progress and problems, with broad-stroke portraits of improvement that still include disparities and inequities.

Infant mortality has decreased, but a significant gap remains in rates for black and white infants. College enrollment has increased, but black students from Boston remain underrepresented in college classrooms. Blacks with the same income as whites were denied home loans at a rate nearly twice as high. And while the achievement gap is narrowing, a wide gulf remains between the numbers of black and Latino students who are at or above grade level and their white and Asian counterparts.

The 358-page report - a collaboration of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Boston branch of the NAACP, and the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston - was released at “the State of Black Boston’’ Town Hall that served as a prelude to the National Urban League’s convention, which returns to the city this week for the first time since 1976. The study, which contains no fewer than 184 recommendations for improvement, examines key areas in the lives of black Bostonians, including health, housing and economic development, K-12 and higher education, criminal justice, arts and culture, civic engagement, and media.

The report does not dwell on what is wrong in the black community, but places the problems within the context of the progress made in the 35 years since the civil rights organization was last in Boston, said Darnell Williams, head of the Urban League’s local branch. “We’re focusing on what we need to do to make things better,’’ he told the crowd of about 1,100.

That number is expected to swell by several thousand in coming days, with convention-goers expected to spend $3.3 million during the three-day conference with the theme, “Jobs Rebuild America.’’ It begins tomorrow and features members of the Obama administration, international executives, and magazine editors.

“It is so critical that you focus on the state of black Boston today, because as we move into the week, we are indeed going to be focusing on the state of the nation,’’ said Marc Morial, president of the national civil rights organization. “We are going to be exploring and examining how we can enhance economic advancement.’’

For Boston, the convention serves as an opportunity to help remake the city’s reputation as unwelcoming to people of color. “Progress’’ was a word used repeatedly.

“Today, Boston is smarter, more diverse, younger, more dynamic, prettier in many respects,’’ said Governor Deval Patrick, who was a junior at Harvard College when the Urban League was last here. “There are places where my niece and her pals hang out that were off limits in 1976. We even have a black governor, the first in Massachusetts and the first in America ever reelected.’’

To help underscore Boston’s progress, a video was shown before the group split into sessions based on the report’s key areas. Archival footage of the city’s struggle to desegregate its schools was interspersed with interviews with today’s politicians and community leaders.

In a segment reflecting the current era, the video shows the Grove Hall Mecca shopping plaza and says it “revitalized Blue Hill Avenue’’ and contains the only major supermarket in the neighborhood.

“As Boston continues on a path of progress, it may struggle along the way,’’ the video’s narrator says, “but this is a city that is far from over.’’

It is, however, a city of paradoxes, according to the report.

Boston is home to 12 world-renowned teaching hospitals, 26 comprehensive health centers, and 97 percent of city residents have health insurance. Still, access to health care remains a problem, often with fatal results, the report said.

For example, black Bostonians were twice as likely to die of heart disease in 2008 than their white peers, and the mortality rate from diabetes was more than triple, the report said.

Combating such inequities, panelists said, requires decreasing cultural stigmas and improving cultural competency among health care providers and patients.

It also means understanding that access to health care is more than proximity to a building and the ability to pay for services.

It means that health care workers can communicate with patients in their own language and that patients feel comfortable with their physician and have transportation to and from the hospital.

“Access, access, access,’’ said Dr. Karen Winkfield, a physician in the department of radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I think we have a long way to go.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at