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Missing from the next City Council for the first time in decades: men of color

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 12/8/2017 By Meghan E. Irons
A farewell bid at Boston City Council Chambers by city councilor Bill Linehan on his last day. L-R City councilors Michael Flaherty, Tito Jackson, and Salvatore Lamattina with other members gave a round of applause. © David L Ryan/Globe Staff A farewell bid at Boston City Council Chambers by city councilor Bill Linehan on his last day. L-R City councilors Michael Flaherty, Tito Jackson, and Salvatore Lamattina with other members gave a round of applause.

The infusion of six women of color to the City Council is triggering celebrations across Boston, even as a new concern has arisen.

The next council session will mark the first time since 1981 that no men of color will have a seat in the chamber. The sole African-American man currently serving, Councilor Tito Jackson, gave up his position to run unsuccessfully for mayor.

Kevin Peterson, who runs the civic advocacy group the New Democracy Coalition, said there is much to extol about the number of women of color on the council. Women make up more than half of the city, and “their representation speaks to the progress the city has made toward creating diverse leadership,’’ he said.

“At the same time we should be concerned that no black or Latino men will be seated on the council,’’ he added.

Peterson said black and Latino men in Boston are disproportionately affected by violence and unemployment compared to other people. He added that having a man of color represent those concerns should be critical on the council.

Census data show that black men 18 and older represent 8 percent of the city’s population, compared to white men at 20 percent. It’s 7 percent for Hispanic and 4 percent for Asian men in that same age group, the data show.

Black men have had a long and storied history on the council. More than a dozen black men served — some multiple times — from 1876 to 1905 on what was known at the time as the Boston City Common Council, according to a list maintained by the city archives.

But it would take another six decades before a black man — Thomas Atkins, the former head of the NAACP — was elected and served from 1967 to 1971. Roxbury produced a steady string of other black men on the council — Bruce Bolling, Anthony Crayton, Gareth Saunders, and Chuck Turner. Charles Yancey, who hails from Dorchester, represented parts of Mattapan and his home neighborhood since the council’s district system was instituted in 1983.

Through the years the council has had an Asian man, Sam Yoon, and two Latinos — Felix D. Arroyo and, later, his son, Felix G. Arroyo.

In fact, the only racial diversity on the council for decades was introduced by men of color, said Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who broke a race and gender barrier when she was elected in 2009 as the first woman of color in the council’s 107-year history.

She noted that the men of color who were elected to the council were among the most ardent voices on issues affecting women, including access to jobs and city contracts, safe communities, and quality education. And the six women of color who will be seated on the council will be just as strong in their advocacy of men as well as women, Pressley added.

Council President Michelle Wu acknowledged there is “real power” in a young person being able to look at an elected body and see himself or herself in that role.

“We know it. We see it at every single hearing or community event that we’’ attend, she said vowing the council will continue to ensure that it advocates for every voice in the city.

Advocates who follow council issues said the absence of men of color on the council is reflective of workplaces across the country, where stories abound about the lack of black males in professional settings.

Black males are underrepresented in executive office suites and in six-figure blue collar positions, such as on the fire force, these advocates say. One recent study noted “the invisible” black men in higher education.

During his unsuccessful council bid to replace Jackson, candidate Rufus Faulk highlighted that impending loss of a black male voice on the legislative body. The doctoral candidate and anti-violence advocate said that as a Roxbury native he felt he was in a unique position to fill the black male vacuum on the council.

“It wasn’t just about gender [politics],’’ he said, later adding: “I wasn’t just laying it on the fact that I was a black man. I was laying it on the fact that I was a black man who was qualified.”

Voters picked his rival, Kim Janey, an education advocate from Roxbury. Janey would not comment for the story.

Pressley said that the council has made great strides in both gender and racial parity through the years, partly because of the diversity of the candidates running for office and the multicultural city as a whole.

“Representation matters, without a doubt,’’ she said.

She said she and her colleagues are keenly aware that black men face some serious issues, including being at the bottom of most socio-economic issues.

“The work of improving those outcomes is not only for black men to do,’’ she said. “It needs to be the priority . . . of every elected official’’ and residents who advocate, lobby, and press for change.

Saunders, a councilor from 1994 to 1999, said he hopes the women of color are strong advocates on the council.

“People are nitpicking about this,’’ he said. “The women — councilors elected and returning councilors, they earned it. They deserve to be on the council at this time.”

Turner, a former councilor for a decade, said that it makes sense that the women councilors will have a dominant presence in City Hall.

“There were a number of black men who have served on the council and have served the community well,’’ said Turner. “To me, the significant story isn’t that there are no black men. The story is that that there will be three black councilors.

“We really ought to be proud,’’ he said.


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