Drama in the People's Republic of Cambridge: Boston Has Two Faces
July 22, 2009 0
Richard M. Benjamin
in the Huffington Post
Q: What do you call a black man with a PhD?
Q: Where do liberal white people go to socially die?
These two jokes come to my mind when contemplating the horrific Skip Gates arrest. The Harvard scholar was handcuffed having been accused as a thief on his own property.
The first joke reveals an age-old truism: All the credentials in the world do not protect black men from police abuse.
The second joke, well -- that's the New York take on Cambridge. My friend Chester, a white, cutting-edge architect who had a cushy professorship at Harvard's graduate school, nevertheless fled Cambridge, since he feared he would die of either boredom or conformity. Chester complained that Cambridge's upscale, vanilla lifestyle would condemn him to a life-sentence of smug liberal orthodoxy. Chester noted that Cambridge is the most socially conservative politically liberal bastion in America: The town's p.c. doctrinaire ways of thinking and living -- oh, the dull dinner parties discussing The Nation -- exact a stifling, conservative effect.
"Cambridge is where fancy white people go to spiritually die," Chester likes to say.
Having lived in Cambridge for six months in the mid-1990s, and visited several times in later years, I have similar opinions of Cambridge.
Liberals in Cambridge, in my experience, like to make big statements about improving the status of black people. But they don't have much use for ordinary blacks themselves. Hands down, Cambridge is one of the most racially hostile places I've ever lived.
And I am not exactly imagining things.
Sudhir Venkatesh, the William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and bestselling author of Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin Press), named Boston, in 2008, "America's Most Racist City."
"The city puzzled me. I knew about the strong liberal sentiment among the populace, but I didn't have to look far to see that racism was part of its historical core. For example, school integration was violently resisted by many of its white ethnic residents. In sports, the city has been home to some of the most extreme forms of racism -- check out Howard Bryant's terrific book, Shut Out, in which he explores the longstanding bigotry in the Red Sox baseball organization."
A paradox reigns: Next to the racism of theTom Yawkey Red Sox syndicate is the forward-thinking, inclusive racial legacy of Red Auerbach's Celtics.
Even sports expose the two faces of Boston.
Cambridge was ranked "The Most Liberal City in America" by a 2005 national study. Residents even call it "The People's Republic of Cambridge." Yet Skip Gates got reported by a neighbor and arrested by the police in an apparent bit of racial profiling.
Gates's arrest revives Cambridge's, and greater Boston's, two faces: the bastion of liberalism and the fortress of prejudice. After all, Cambridge's mayor, E. Denise Simmons, is a black woman who even grew up there. Before that, Cambridge was the first city to elect an openly gay black man as mayor, Kenneth Reeves. What gives?
Aggravating Boston's racial turmoil, of course, are class divides. The Cambridge police force that arrested Skip Gates is charged with keeping the upscale enclave "safe" from some decidedly downscale neighborhoods nearby. Wealthy communities abutting poor ones often produce a class anxiety that borders on paranoia. Gates' white neighbor who failed to recognize him works at Harvard magazine. This "neighbor" so evidently suffers from said class anxiety, at least as much as racism. Such community anxiety - every "outsider" is a suspect - often demands "tough" policing, which curdles into abusive policing.
Poor Skip Gates. He likely experienced racial profiling.