State of the State of the City

Posted: January 15, 2015 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized
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I know from my own life that you can’t move forward unless you reach out and deal honestly with the past. The truth is that when it comes to race and class, Boston has a lot of unfinished business. We must not be afraid to talk about it.” -Marty Walsh, State of the City, 1/14/14

The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, mentioned BBDP’s work on Tuesday in his State of the City address. Well, I’m not sure if that’s what he intended, but he did nonetheless. In the quote above, Walsh namechecks the title of our report, Unfinished Business: 7 Questions, 7 Lessons, while speaking of lingering issues of race and class in the city. Now, would we have liked him to mention us specifically when he uses our language? Sure. It also would’ve been great if, a few moments later, when discussing the City’s brand new grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to hold community conversations around race and class issues, he mentioned organizations like the YWCA, which have been holding similar dialogues for years. But this isn’t really about us or our work. It goes deeper. Mayor Walsh’s speech the other night serves as another way to highlight the recurring patterns that keep us stuck– particularly, the pattern of those in power to talk about race and class sympathetically, while, at the same time, strengthening the barriers that uphold those categories.

Just as an example, early in the address, Walsh gives his administration credit for having the most “diverse” police department and cabinet in Boston’s history. He later spends some time honoring a number of people specifically. The firefighters who died on the job in March. Tom Menino. The police and others who helped guide his response to the protests led by Black Lives Matter and We Are the Ones. All but two of his honorees are men. Mostly white men, individually, though through singling out the Boston Police and Fire Departments, he also signals an allegiance to two traditional strongholds of white male political and economic power. So here we have a place where the Mayor simultaneously celebrates a surface “diversity” while, on a deeper level, re-affirms existing power dynamics.

To circle back, Walsh touts his relationship with Rockefeller over acknowledging the work of BBDP and the YWCA, among others, while still using the language of those groups. This is erasure. His comments (and the initiatives he’s speaking about) overwrite the contributions made, and labor performed, by organizations led by women and people of color in favor of the new programs of his administration (which have no track record). This is not nothing. This is, and long has been, critical work in maintaining the system. Crossing out smaller groups is an effort, conscious or not, “intentional” or not, to retain and increase control of the narrative around racism and class in Boston. By co-opting not only the language and the concepts but also the process, the City and its partners can limit the questions and shape the conclusions drawn, while also appearing responsive publicly. His comments and actions around the Olympics play similarly.

I say all this not to attack Marty Walsh or his administration, but to look at how his address works as an example of how the system we live in can repurpose the work and words of marginalized groups to reinforce its white supremacist pillars. It’s great that, apparently, people at City Hall have read BBDP’s report and liked some of the ideas in it. But Unfinished Business was not to be used as a cloak. If we are to make real headway in resolving issues of racism and class in Boston, as the Mayor so desires, then we need to speak honestly and interrogate thoroughly the words and actions of those in power. What do they mean? Who do they signal? Why can Walsh tout the billions in new construction in town and get applause, while at the same time say next to nothing about the displacement of whole communities happening because of those same billions? How does the idea that Boston is “strong and getting stronger,” as he put it, read to those being pushed out of town? The Mayor told us one story about our city on Tuesday, but, as he must have realized from his familiarity with our work, it is far from the only one.

Comments
  1. Emily Berg says:

    Exactly right, and no surprise, either. No politician will do any differently, unless there is a LARGE grassroots movement that he has to answer to, as he is now answering to established power bases and big money. A friend of mine once said that Marty “sold his soul to the unions” long ago; I thought at the time that there are worse things to sell your soul to…but it seems there are quite a few buyers, and they can work together with business to paint rosy pictures, perpetuate elites, and drown out the voices and interests of everyone else. The Olympics, for example, would provide a lot of construction jobs for several years, bring a lot of money to hotels, and put us on the front pages all over the world. Too bad if we lose what little affordable housing still exists, a walkable city of neighborhoods – and Franklin Park. Don’t get me started.

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