By Steve Berman
Calvin Hennick is white, his wife is African-American, and his son is cute as a button. The Boston Globe reported about the incident, which got the man who uttered the slur ejected and banned for life from Fenway Park. But that’s not enough.
Boston has a problem. I have personal knowledge of it. I was born about 10 minutes north of Boston, in Lynn. I did much of my growing up in southern New Hampshire, about 45 minutes up the coast. For comparison, I live twice as far from Atlanta now as I did from Boston then.
Studying history, I learned how northerners handled race relations versus southerners. In the south, we have whites and African-Americans living in close proximity, working with one another, and sometimes literally living across the street or across the tracks. The term I heard was “close but not high.” That’s how racism manifested in the south.
Black nannies can raise the white kids, or even become mistresses to the master of the house, but they can’t ever hold high positions. That’s why in the south, there was Jim Crow and the KKK. The federal government, during reconstruction, forced racial integration of government institutions, which means that once federal troops left, things went back to the way they were. It took a lot of blood and bravery to win back rights that were granted in the nineteenth century.
In the north, it’s the opposite: “high but not close.” African-Americans could hold any position, and were venerated as free people for as long as we had a republic. But they could not mix or live among the racially and ethnically divided neighborhoods. New York City has Harlem, but has long ago abandoned most of its racial and ethnic segregation. Money is the new dividing line in the Big Apple.
Boston, however, still has a core of ethnic enclaves. The Italian North End, Irish Southie. Mattapan, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain were always the African-American areas. Some neighborhoods have morphed through cycles of rot and are now roaring back, such as Dorchester, where my aunt lived for 50 years (her house, if she kept it, would be worth well over a million dollars). Revere, where my dad and his family grew up, went from Jewish to Hispanic, and the Jews moved west and south.
When forced school integration—“busing“—came to Boston, residents fought it tooth, nail and fist. You’d think the KKK landed in Government Center.
Describing opposition to busing as something other than resistance to school desegregation was a move that obscured the histories of racial discrimination and legal contexts for desegregation orders. In covering school desegregation in Boston and other Northern cities, contemporary news media took up the busing frame, and most histories of the era have followed suit. Americans’ understanding of school desegregation in the North is skewed as a result, emphasizing innocent or unintended “de facto segregation” over the housing covenants, federal mortgage redlining, public-housing segregation, white homeowners associations, and discriminatory real-estate practices that produced and maintained segregated neighborhoods, as well as the policies regarding school siting, districting, and student transfers that produced and maintained segregated schools.
In short, the north covered up their racism, especially in Boston, and never truly dealt with the issue because only southerners were true bigots in their eyes.
When I was growing up, it was very common to hear racial epithets and slurs, even in my own household. I hated it, and I cringe when I hear the N-word, even when uttered by rappers or casually tossed around by the “gangsta” culture.
Most people, even in ethnically segregated Boston, are smart enough not to blurt a racial slur at a Red Sox game, but there are plenty who simply don’t care. One of those hurled the N-word at Orioles outfielder Adam Jones Monday night. Tuesday, Jones was cheered by fans embarrassed by their city’s descent into racism. But then the incident with Hennick and his young son ruined it.
“It’s disheartening, saddening, maddening,’’ [Red Sox President Sam] Kennedy said of the racist behavior. “That said, we have to recognize that this exists in our culture, it exists in Boston, and it exists in other cities around the world. It’s not an indictment on Boston and this marketplace, it’s an indictment on the ignorant people and intolerant people who utter these words and say these things and they need to be held accountable.’’
Sorry, Sam. It is definitely an indictment on Boston. In March, SNL cast member Michael Che called Boston “the most racist city he’s ever visited.” When I wrote about it, I was tongue-in-cheek and focused on the Boston Globe’s hunt for homophobia and Trump-supporting neo-Nazis. Those aren’t really problems in Boston. But skin color and ethnic racism is alive and well in The Hub.
All the government intervention, marches, programs, and liberal bedwetting isn’t going to solve this problem. It’s deeply embedded. But living in denial, and passing it off as “ignorant people and intolerant people” (code words for Trump supporters to liberal ears) is never going to solve this.
Boston has to own it: the city has a large and generally ignored problem with racism. The first step toward healing is admitting there’s a problem. This problem is not tied to party politics. It’s historical, social, and deep. The sooner the city and its residents face it, the sooner it can begin to heal. Or the Red Sox can keep banning fans for life and continue to live in denial.