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Racism: What BU and Boston Can Do about It

Initiative on Cities forum tackles a deep-rooted problem


As a high school junior in Boston, Karilyn Crockett included BU among her college options. But when she visited the campus, woven around Commonwealth Avenue without any gates separating it from its city, it felt too open, unlike the academic “cloister” she was seeking, she told a University audience Monday at the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom.

“Where is the front?…Where is the campus?” she recalled thinking. She wound up at Yale. Today, Crockett is Boston’s director of economic policy and research, and her opinion of gates has changed: she marvels at how BU “is so much a part of the city in terms of the design, the actual ethos.” That physical integration of town and gown is a metaphor for what Crockett called the University’s essential role in Boston’s efforts against racism and the inequality it promotes.

Crockett and Atyia Martin, the city’s chief resilience officer, addressed about 55 students and staff at the third forum in a series called Reducing Disparities: Advancing Toward Racial Equity, sponsored by BU’s Initiative on Cities. They gathered to talk about what Boston is doing—and what BU can do—to encourage equality.

Among the themes of the forum, moderated by Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), associate provost and dean of students, was that Boston, where most residents are people of color, needs institutions like BU to address inequality. Elmore told the group that “it is so easy for us to be in a monastery here,” and Crockett acknowledged that Boston too can isolate itself.

“We can be very, very inward-facing and parochial,” she said. “The city needs you,” despite the persistent push-and-pull of city-BU relations. “We have lots of struggles over land, struggles about where to put you all to sleep at night,” she said with a smile.

Martin stressed the importance of individuals’ expanding their social networks to include members of other races. Among whites, she said, 90 percent of their social circles are exclusively white.

“The research is showing us…you have to have cross-racial interactions in meaningful ways,” beyond just “Hi—how was your weekend?” for racial discomfort to melt, she said.

Martin, the city’s first chief resilience officer, is charged with leading efforts against both catastrophes, such as natural disasters, and common day-to-day stresses, including inequity. The job is one component of the city’s participation in the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities program. Both women credited Boston Mayor Marty Walsh with making inequity a front-burner issue on his agenda.

“We’re all infected with the ingredients of racial bias,” Martin said. “That is part of the human condition.” Keeping in mind the racial component of problems is essential, she added, offering as an example a Boston program that stumbled in trying to address that problem: the city’s free test prep for students seeking admission to competitive exam schools such as Boston Latin.

While the program did raise black and Latino enrollments at the respected Boston Latin School, it was revamped this year following revelations that most of its participants are white or Asian, even though three quarters of all Boston Public Schools students are black or Latino.

Daniel Bluestone, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history of art and architecture and director of BU’s Preservation Studies Program, suggested that a fitting University partner in the city’s racial inequity efforts would be his program, whose students visit Boston neighborhoods to study culture and history.

The IoC’s Reducing Disparities series was created after Robert A. Brown, BU president, asked the IoC to tackle inequity following this summer’s nationwide racial tensions, according to Graham Wilson, IoC director. Those tensions included police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and ambushes of police in Texas and Louisiana.

“President Brown’s thought was we should engage in the national conversation that resulted from those events,” said Wilson, a CAS professor of political science. More than 100 people attended each of the first two forums, demonstrating “a large number of people at the University who are interested and committed to working around racial justice,” he said. One goal of the series is to identify those people and brainstorm with them about the best way to keep the momentum going.

“We aim to continue dialogue with the city next semester,” Wilson said, in particular with community organizations as well as the municipal government. He said he also plans to “work with both the hundreds of people who have been involved in this series, and with the University’s leadership, to make sure that all the energy and commitment…has an enduring institutional legacy.”

More forums in the Reducing Disparities series will be scheduled in the new year; find a list of related scheduled events here

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

One Comment on Racism: What BU and Boston Can Do about It

  • Don on 11.09.2016 at 9:48 am

    What’s up with BU Today today? No election news?

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