In December of 2017, The Boston Globe’s vaunted Spotlight Team finally tackled our city’s biggest question: Is Boston racist?
The question has loomed over Boston for decades. Many white residents don’t — or won’t — entertain it. They point to their liberal politics and progressive values as proof of their enlightenment. Many black residents, however, describe an environment of isolation and a lack of opportunity unlike anything in the country.
Boston’s reticence to discuss race is what made the project so challenging — and ultimately so rewarding. The Spotlight Team’s seven-part series, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” offered what is possibly the deepest, most nuanced, and most reflective look at how racism manifests itself in a 21st Century Northeastern city.
The team found that racism — cultural and structural — was no longer as overt as confederate flags and n-words. Instead, the core tenets of discrimination had over the years insidiously seeped into virtually every aspect of Boston: housing, health care, politics, sports, and education. These myriad factors create an environment where opportunities are scarce and margins are thin for Boston’s African-American population — for example, the Globe’s reporting discovered that the median net worth for African-Americans in the city is only $8. (That’s not a typo.)
The stories were richly reported and delicately written, immersive multimedia experiences that portrayed the black experience in Boston in a way that residents — black and white — told us they’d never seen before. More than 600,000 people — roughly akin to the population of Boston — read the series in the first week.
But this project wasn’t just about the stories. Early on, we determined that we wanted to make this about more than just a series of articles. We wanted to finally spark the public discussion on race that the city needed to have.
This required a deft touch. Online commenters don’t have a great track record on controversial topics.
We created a Facebook Group to foster an online community that swelled to about 3,000 members in a matter of days. The group took on a life of its own, with members posting hundreds of times a day and even forming a weekly offline meetup to discuss issues of race.
We didn’t merely point out the problems, we asked for solutions, too. Partnering with The Coral Project, we prompted readers with targeted questions about how to improve Boston’s racial problems, and received 1,400 responses, which we moderated and ran alongside our stories.
The discussion spilled out into the public square, inspiring dozens of events around town. The mayor launched an equality and diversity initiative following the series.
After the impact set in, many who worked on the project began to call it the proudest moment of their careers — not for what it meant to them professionally, but for what it meant to their city. We proudly submit “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.” for the 2018 OJA in Explanatory Reporting.