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News and Features: Features

No seat at the table

Despite talk of ‘valuing diversity,’ as well as the encouraging ways that Boston has opened up, the region’s power structure still largely excludes blacks and Hispanics

BY: Bruce Mohl and Colman M Herman
Issue: Fall 2013


Boston has come a long way since the days of school busing in the 1970s. The city is far more racially diverse, with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other minority groups now accounting for more than half of the city’s population, up from less than a third in 1980. Signs of that diversity are growing. We have a black governor in the State House. Half of the 12 candidates for mayor in the recent Boston preliminary election were people of color. South Boston, the epicenter of the anti-busing movement, is represented by a black state senator of Haitian descent who is scheduled to host the city’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast roast next year.

James Rooney, who heads the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, says he believes Boston’s racist image is starting to fade, with black convention groups slowly returning to Boston for their meetings. What these groups find, says Rooney, who grew up in South Boston, is a city no longer cordoned off by color.

“You can walk up and down Broadway and Castle Island and you’ll see a wide range of people of different races,” he says of two South Boston landmarks. “You didn’t see that 25 to 30 years ago. It was a more racist city then. A lot of those barriers have been broken down.”

J. Keith Motley, a 6 foot, 8 inch black man, says he steered clear of Southie when he came to Boston in 1973 to attend Northeastern University. But now he says he drives through South Boston and by Carson Beach nearly every day on his way to work as the chancellor of UMass Boston in Dorchester. He says he even has “aunties” in Southie, people who have adopted him as one of their own.

“I never dreamed in 1973 that I would be sitting over here on this oceanfront by one of the beaches that was used as a symbol of division back in the day,” Motley says, sitting at a table in the UMass student center. “Our students make it feel like South Beach in Miami now when you go over there because it’s so culturally diverse. It’s a changed place in that regard. You know, I’m sort of a symbol of some of that change by having the role that I have.”

Yet for all the highly visible progress on race in Boston, there is still a long way to go. In that regard, the symbolism of the mayor’s race is unmistakable: A campaign that started with many candidates for color is ending with two white, Irish-American men running against each other. Blacks and Hispanics represent two-fifths of the city’s population, but they are largely absent from Greater Boston’s power structure, which continues to be dominated by whites. Employment information filed with the federal government by area employers indicates blacks and Hispanics tend to be underrepresented at the highest levels of business and overrepresented on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. Minorities are underrepresented in law firms, on college faculties, in unions, and city newsrooms.

Diversity lacking at Boston law firms The picture that emerges is similar to what the Boston Globe reported in a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in 1983 documenting the lack of blacks in Greater Boston’s workplaces. The series began by pointing to the all-white makeup of The Vault, the city’s most powerful business group at the time; the deans of Harvard University; the group of leaders representing the Boston construction trades, and the Globe’s own team of senior editors.

Little has changed over the last 30 years. The group of union leaders, until recently headed by Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh, is still all white. The Globe’s team of senior editors now has one Hispanic. The Vault is gone, replaced by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, which is made up of 16 of the state’s most powerful CEOs — 15 of them white, one Asian. Harvard today has 15 deans instead of the 10 it had in 1983; all but two are white. Those two deans are both Asian.

Rep. Byron Rushing, a black lawmaker from Boston, says the racial climate has changed for the better in Boston since he was first elected 30 years ago, but some things have not changed. The number of black residents has held steady, while the Hispanic and Asian populations more than tripled. The percentage of the city’s population that is white has fallen from 68 percent in 1980 to 47 percent today, but Rushing says the heavily white power structure has barely changed at all over that time period.

“All you need to tell this story is to send a photographer to take pictures at meetings,” Rushing says, referring to the city’s boardrooms. “It’s all white.”

Recurring theme? A Fall 2003 cover story in CommonWealth
asked why Boston has so little black political power.

Rushing exaggerates, but only slightly. The 26-member board of the Massachusetts High Technology Council is all white. MassBio, which represents biotech, has 24 board members who are white, three who are Asian, and one Hispanic. The board of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has 108 members, of whom five are black, one is Asian, and the rest are white. Associated Industries of Massachusetts, another major business group, has 100 board members: three are black, one is Asian, and the remainder are white.

The boards of the city’s major hospitals don’t reflect the communities they serve. Partners Healthcare, the corporate parent of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has one minority on its otherwise all-white 17-member board. Beth Israel Deaconess has 20 whites, one Asian, and one black on its board. The Children’s Hospital board has 18 whites, two blacks and one Hispanic.

Diversity on the boards of publicly traded companies in Massachusetts lags well behind the Fortune 500. Research conducted by the Alliance for Board Diversity indicates minorities fill 13 percent of the board positions at Fortune 500 companies. By contrast, minorities represent less than 6 percent of the board positions at the 100 largest publicly traded companies in Massachusetts. Of the 845 directors at the 100 companies, there are 16 blacks (2 percent), four Hispanics (0.5 percent), and 26 Asians (3 percent).

Carol Fulp, president and CEO of The Partnership, a Boston-based nonprofit that’s been working for 25 years to create greater diversity at the top of the corporate ladder, is not discouraged. She says diversifying boards is a challenge across the country and adds that the Great Recession a few years ago had a tremendous impact on the ability to move more minorities up the corporate ladder. “Boston certainly has its challenges, we all know that, but we are making progress,” she says.

Little color in top ranks
Minorities tend to be underrepresented in the management ranks of Greater Boston businesses and overrepresented in the lower-skilled positions. The trend holds true for law firms, colleges and universities, and most industries.

The best information on the racial makeup of businesses comes from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which collects data from employers with more than 100 workers and any federal government contractor with at least 50 employees. The information in the Boston area is aggregated for the Greater Boston commuting region, which includes five counties in eastern Massachusetts and two in southern New Hampshire.

The data for 2012 indicate that blacks represent 9 percent of the overall workforce, which is roughly equal to their share of the region’s working-age population. Similarly, Hispanics represent 8 percent of the workforce, about the same as their share of the region’s working-age population. Both percentages are up significantly from 30 years ago, when blacks represented 5 percent of the workforce and Hispanics 2 percent.

"We are far better than this," says Thomas Saltonstall, the
former head of the Boston office of US Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission.

But those numbers mask the fact that blacks and Hispanics tend to be concentrated in lower-skilled jobs. At the top of the region’s corporate ladder, a category of jobs identified as officials and managers, blacks hold 3 percent of the positions. At the bottom of the ladder, the service worker category, they hold 24 percent of the jobs. The numbers for Hispanics are similar.

A benchmark commonly used by federal officials to assess minority hiring confirms the imbalance. The measure, developed by the US Census, uses information gathered from worker surveys to provide an indication of the availability of workers of various races in each of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s job categories. The benchmarks for the Greater Boston area indicate blacks are slightly underrepresented among top corporate officials and managers (they account for 3.6 percent of the available workforce but 3 percent of the actual workforce) and heavily overrepresented among service workers (they represent 12 percent of the available workforce but 24 percent of the actual workforce).

In many specific industries, blacks and Hispanics represent a tiny portion of officials and managers. In life sciences, for example, blacks account for 272, or 2 percent, of the 14,600 officials and managers in the Greater Boston area, while Hispanics account for 2.4 percent. In high tech, 501, or 1 percent, of the more than 32,000 officials and managers are black, while 4 percent are Hispanic.

At Greater Boston’s hospitals, 5 percent of the 10,400 officials and managers are black and 3 percent are Hispanic. Nationally, the percentages are 7 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic. Similar patterns hold true at insurance carriers, financial services companies, and securities firms.

At seven of Boston’s largest law firms, 97 percent of the partners and 84 percent of the associates are white. Blacks and Hispanics each represent less than 1 percent of the partners and 3 and 2.6 percent of the associates, respectively.

Wendell Taylor, a black partner at Wilmer Hale, says associates represent the pipeline of legal talent for law firms. He says that law firms have attracted a bigger pool of minority candidates over the last 15 years, but so far that bigger pool hasn’t translated into minority gains at the partner level. “The kids that stay at the firms long enough to be considered for partner are typically gone in years four and five,” he says.


The Globe reported in 1983 that the percentage of black full-time faculty members at 30 colleges and universities in Greater Boston was half the national level: 2 percent in Boston compared to 4 percent nationally. Thirty years later the numbers haven’t changed much. Blacks represent 3 percent of the full-time faculty, half the national average of 6 percent. Hispanics account for 3 percent of full-time faculty versus the 4 percent national average.

Schools such as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Bentley University had a lower percentage of black faculty than the area average, while Wheelock, Emerson, and UMass Boston, all institutions headed by blacks, had percentages that were much higher.

Marsha Chery of Roslindale chats with J. Keith Motley, chancellor of UMass Boston,
where minority faculty hiring exceeds the area average.

Officials at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shared their data on employment patterns in Greater Boston, but did not make any assessment of the information. Thomas Saltonstall, who headed the Boston office of the EEOC 30 years ago when the Globe wrote its series, was not so hesitant.

In a statement, Saltonstall said the data from 30 years ago were appalling. He said the latest data for 2012 gathered by CommonWealth suggest the problems from the 1980s have not disappeared. “These continuing patterns of job segregation are deleterious to our economy and damaging to Greater Boston’s people, communities, and reputation,” his statement says. “It is long past time for us to move off the dime with respect to discriminatory employment practices. The world has changed. Let’s move forward. We are far better than this.”

The politics of race
Back in July, Boston mayoral candidate Marty Walsh was asked by a middle-aged black woman at a Jamaica Plain forum how he would address racism in Boston. Walsh seemed caught off guard by the question, responding that it was the first time the issue had come up during the campaign, but adding quickly that he would not tolerate racism in his administration.

In September, just before the preliminary election he would go on to win, Walsh sat down with CommonWealth and offered a very different answer. He says he has come to realize during his travels around the city that race remains a very important issue in Boston.

“You see the challenges that people face,” he says. “You see some shortfalls in hiring and lack of opportunity for folks.” It also hit him at the fundraisers he held with the business community; he would look around the room and realize the people there didn’t reflect the racial makeup of Boston.


Walsh’s rival in the race for mayor, John Connolly, says race remains a major issue in Boston because there are such wide gaps between whites and people of color on virtually every economic, health, and education indicator. Talking as he left a campaign event at City Hall Plaza in early October, Connolly said the power structure in Boston is still ruled by whites. “We have a lot of barriers to entry for people of color on all fronts,” he says. “While we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go.”

Mayor Thomas Menino declined to comment, but his spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, says the mayor would be the first to say that more needs to be done to address racial issues in Boston. But she said the city has made a lot of progress. “There isn’t the racial tension that was there before,” she says. As for the power structure in the city, she suggested the atmosphere is changing. “It’s not black and white anymore,” she says. “This is more of a global city now.”

The numbers for the state, Boston show improvement In some ways, it’s hard to understand why it took Walsh a campaign for mayor to realize the challenge of diversity in Boston. When he took over as head of the Boston Building Trades Council in 2011, the problem was staring him in the face. The 19 union leaders sitting around the table at council meetings were all white, and the leadership of their individual unions was roughly 90 percent white. Rank and file members were predominantly white as well, although exact numbers are unavailable.

“There’s an issue with lack of opportunity to get into the trades,” Walsh says. “Part of that was due to the fact that we had a down economy. But you can’t run away from the fact that five years before we had a down economy it was still difficult to get into the trades.”

Boston mayoral candidate John Connolly says Boston still has a long way to go on
minority issues.

Walsh says he recognized the problem and moved to address it by launching a program called Building Pathways, which was designed to usher women and people of color into the city’s trade unions. Participants need a high school or general equivalency degree to qualify, but if they are selected they are given training and a pathway into the unions. The program has graduated 54 people so far, 90 percent of them minorities.

If he is elected mayor in November, Walsh says he plans to appoint a chief diversity officer for the city, a cabinet-level person whose job would be to recruit minorities as teachers and police officers and also press private sector employers to boost their minority hiring.

“It’s not just an issue in construction. It’s an issue in other industries,” he says. “The issue has to be addressed, and that’s part of running for mayor of Boston, to really promote and try to advocate for employment opportunities for communities of color. In 30 years, Boston has come a long way, but I don’t think we’re where we should be.”

Rival Marty Walsh says he would appoint a chief diversity officer for Boston.

Asked why the city has been slow to change, he says: “Some of it’s race. Some of it’s education. Some of it goes back to poverty. All of these challenges go back to two things—poverty and lack of education.”

James Jennings, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, says the available statistical data suggest Boston is plagued with “structural inequality that is racialized.” Minorities lag behind whites in education attainment and grapple with unemployment rates that are twice as high. The median income of white households in Boston is $65,502, nearly double that of blacks ($36,654) and Hispanics ($30,562).

Jennings says the racial disparities don’t receive as much attention as they should in Boston. He also doesn’t think that the inequality can be explained away by simply blaming it on poverty and lack of education, since history has many examples of poor, white ethnic groups battling their way to equality in Boston.

“I don’t think that’s an adequate answer,” he says of Walsh’s view. “I think the answer is who has wealth and who doesn’t, and how they hold on to it.”

Diversity doesn’t just happen
Ruben King-Shaw Jr. is the managing partner and chief investment officer at Mansa Capital, a Boston private equity firm that specializes in the health care area. King-Shaw is black and Hispanic, with dual citizenship in the United States and Panama. After a career inside and outside of government at the state and federal level, he came to Boston about 10 years ago because the area was on the cutting edge in health care. He admits he came to Boston excited professionally but apprehensive personally.

Editor's Note: A long way to go “Boston for a long time had a fairly negative perception. It goes back to busing,” he says. “If you didn’t live here, if you’re not from here, you don’t think of it as a place that’s open and welcoming to people of color, particularly African-Americans.” But he says he’s been pleasantly surprised by Boston and its residents. He says the city doesn’t exhibit what he calls “southern hospitality,” but it has been more welcoming than he thought it would be. “I didn’t find meanness here,” he says.

One thing he has noticed in Boston is the lack of diversity on boards and in corporate management, nothing like what he witnessed in Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, DC. He says the private and public sector in each of those cities pursues programs to bring women and minorities into the power structure. “I don’t think diversity at the higher levels happens by itself,” he says.

“Pretty much everywhere I go I will be one of the very few women in the
room and the only African-American,” says Susan Windham-Bannister,
who heads the state’s Life Sciences Center.

Similar initiatives are underway in Boston, but the lack of progress over the years raises questions about their effectiveness. King-Shaw, for example, read about an initiative by the Massachusetts pension board to steer investment money to smaller firms, particularly those headed by women and minorities. He says similar programs have worked well in other states, but he hasn’t heard much about the Massachusetts program since it was first launched in 2011. “It makes you wonder about the commitment,” he says.

Steven Grossman, the state treasurer who chairs the state pension board, acknowledges a nearly two-year delay in implementing the so-called emerging manager program, but he says the delay doesn’t reflect any backing away from his commitment to level the playing field for women and minorities. He says staff turnover caused the delay, but now that the right people are in place, the board voted in August to steer an initial $100 million of pension fund assets to a company that will select smaller firms to manage the money. Over time, the pension board plans to shift 5 to 10 percent of the fund’s $55 billion in assets to smaller money managers. The board is also leveraging its stock portfolio to promote corporate diversity by voting against the election of any company slate of directors that includes no women or minorities. “A diverse board produces better decision-making,” Grossman says. “We have zero tolerance for zero diversity.”

Fulp, of The Partnership, is approaching the problem of diversity from a slightly different angle. Her primary focus is an initiative that takes minorities referred by participating companies and runs them through a leadership training program. The minorities learn the skills they need to move up the corporate ladder, and the companies fill out their executive ranks with more minorities. “We try to position diversity as a business imperative as opposed to a social imperative,” Fulp says.

The Partnership’s first class 25 years ago had 31 individuals, including Diane Patrick, the governor’s wife who is now a partner at Boston’s largest law firm, Ropes & Gray. The most recent class had 250 members. There are almost 3,000 alumni.

Fulp is also working with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on the Internship Collaborative, an effort to steer internships to minorities at local universities so they develop business relationships that will make them more likely to stay in Boston after graduation. “You go where your relationships are,” Fulp says.

She also is about to launch an effort to steer more high school students into math and science, using The Partnership’s alumni network to mentor them. The goal is to build a pipeline of minority students preparing for the innovation economy. “That’s where the future is,” she says.


Gov. Deval Patrick is also trying to increase diversity in life sciences and tech fields. “Look,” he says at a conference at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge in July, “the life sciences sector [in Greater Boston] is the most important life sciences super cluster on the planet.” He points to Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister, a black woman sitting in the front row of the audience who heads the state’s Life Sciences Center. The governor says Windham-Bannister has all the skills needed to do her job, but he says that’s not the only reason she was hired. “It’s also important to me that she looks the way she does.”

Asians do better than their numbers would suggest In an interview, Windham-Bannister says she spends a lot of time with life science companies trying to help them arrange funding and build their workforce. She knows from first-hand experience that the workforce is not diverse. “I like to say it’s a story of few and fewer,” she says. “Pretty much everywhere I go I will be one of the very few women in the room and the only African-American.” She says corporate executives need to understand that diversity is good business. “This goes well beyond a social issue,” she says. “This is about the fact that the demographic profile of our workforce is changing.”

She says the biggest problem is that minorities and women in general lack exposure to math and science and are rarely encouraged to go into tech fields. While the Life Sciences Center is best known for its efforts to bolster the finances of life science companies and build academic research facilities, Windham-Bannister also devotes a lot of her time and some of the center’s money to programs that encourage women and minorities to get involved in science. The Life Science Center donates money for lab equipment to vocational technical schools and to schools in the state’s Gateway Cities, which have high minority student populations. It runs an internship program and it even donates to the Museum of Science and the Children’s Museum.

“We’re trying to open this up in as many ways as we can,” she says. “We can help build a pipeline, but we have to look at ourselves collectively to make Boston and Massachusetts be more welcoming places. This is still a challenge that we’re dealing with.”
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Recent Comments View all 1 Comments
MrCollins
Says on 10.16.2013
at 4:56 PM
Should I feel sad or angry? As a lifelong Boston resident, graduate of the public schools, BPS teacher, business owner and African American man, what often baffles me when I read articles like this or studies like the Boston Foundation Indicators is that the people most surprised by the data are white folks.Racial minorities in Greater Boston have recognized and been working against these statistics, as pointed out, for over 30 years! When this situation becomes an issue for the decision makers, things will change.
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