On Wednesday night, Boston's six mayoral candidates met for a forum to discuss systemic racism at the city's Museum of African American History. Callie Crossley, host of GBH's Under the Radar with Callie Crossley, covered the forum and spoke with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: This forum's emphasis was on issues of systemic racism and the biases embedded into systems and processes in city government and city life. It's a pretty big theme. But generally, how did the candidates dive in to tackle it?
Callie Crossley: This is a reminder that the six candidates who are running for mayor in a very historic moment all identify as people of color. This is not a subject matter they are unfamiliar with. In fact, they know it through lived experience. So they come at talking about it in a little bit of a different way than you might hear from other people who have some distance from the subject matter. I think for them what it means is if you're in a forum as they were, which was sponsored by a Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and the Museum of African American History, then what you want is a higher level from those people who are looking to hear from you, a higher standard of your answer about this — more specificity, more ideas about what you're going to do, because they're assuming that they share that lived experience. So they want more than you saying, "we should be, we should be." It's like a "what are we going to do?" kind of thing.
Rath: I almost want to pause on that for a moment, Callie, because usually watching these things — and saying this as one person of color talking to another — usually there might be one person of color up there. Or you might hope for a person of color moderating, someone to get that perspective. It's quite a moment that they're all people of color up there talking.
Crossley: That is true. Now, the only thing I will say is that this was billed as a community conversation. So this was not a debate or even a forum in that way. They asked them questions that were formulated by a committee, and there were no follow-up questions, as you and I might have followed up to some of their answers.
Rath: So a little bit easier on the candidates,
Crossley: I would say.
Rath: Maybe more more congenial, at least. So whoever ends up as Boston's mayor will be responsible for the school system, which is something we talk about all the time in so many ways these days. Boston Public Schools have been in the news for issues from race on the school committee, to how students will be selected for the exam schools, to basic infrastructure like air conditioning and proper air circulation in some schools. What were the issues that came up when it came to the schools?
Crossley: All of the above. Very specific details, particularly from some of the candidates, about what needs to happen, but all of them about sort of understanding what the history and where this comes from and why one should know it. John Barros was really quite emphatic about teaching systemic racism and what it looks like in the schools.
"We absolutely need to mandate the history of teaching the true history of America," Barros said. "And that includes Black history. It includes indigenous history. People need to understand, in fact, as we look at history, what has happened and where we are today."
Rath: I don't want to sound too political myself here, but it's great not having somebody up there shouting stuff about critical race theory. It's actually just a reasonable discussion about what we teach in schools.
Crossley: He was sort of going right at that, saying that these are kind of discussions that we have to have so everybody's on the same page and we can have some sense of what the context for what systemic racism is all about. That's where he was going.
Rath: Something else that I imagine everybody at least is starting out on the same page about is police reform, something which everybody has been talking about, especially in the context of this race. And especially with the termination of the acting police commissioner, Dennis White, by Acting Mayor Janey. I'm assuming that everyone agrees generally on the principle of wanting police reform, but how did it break down in terms of the details among the candidates?
Crossley: You assume correctly about what most want, but not from this forum. Each of the candidates were asked different questions, and there was only one question, actually, about police reform, and it went to Annissa Essaibi George.
"Every one of our neighbors deserves a safe city," said Essaibi George. "It is a critical and central responsibility of municipal government, of local government. Here in the city of Boston, it is no different."
So she made the case for everybody having safe neighborhoods, and she mentioned that there are challenges within the police department that we need to deal with. No real specific reforms. And to me, what was most surprising is no reference to all of the scandals that we've been hearing about over the last few days. Now, that's probably a smart move on her part, but it would seem that you would sort of reference that in talking about how are you going to meet the challenges of police reform.
Rath: Yeah, kind of a glaring omission. I guess "safe neighborhoods" is a safe answer, right?
Crossley: Right, exactly.
Rath: There was also talk of climate change and how that connects to both systemic racism and job opportunities, right?
Crossley: Right. The candidates were very animated about this. At the end of the formal community conversation, there were questions from both the Zoom audience and the in-person audience. A professor in the audience at the museum asked a question about his concern about missed opportunities for folks of color getting into the industries related to climate change, like solar and wind. All of the candidates were animated about how that cannot happen, and that they had to prevent systemic racism being a part of that. I think that Michelle Wu was quite animated in her response.
"The scale of what we need to get done to attack climate change is enough to close the racial wealth gap and then some. Right?" Wu said. "We are talking about more than 90,000 buildings in the city of Boston that need to be retrofitted in the next decade or so. We're talking about how we build sea barriers and sea walls."
So her point was, there are so many opportunities — and this is a billion dollar industry — that there is no excuse for having any inequities, both for the people who might work in the industries and also for the people who would be benefited by it. Acting Mayor Janey made the point earlier on that she lived in a community where communities of color were already impacted disproportionately by bad environmental issues, and this was an opportunity to turn that around on two fronts.
Rath: Stepping back, overall, what are your big takeaways on how the candidates made their cases or didn't, and maybe which candidate seemed to have the best handle on all these issues?
Crossley: Well, I have to say that in terms of each of the questions given to them, both from the committee and from the audience, people were looking for specificity. And now, you know, you can ask it, but the candidates don't have to respond. There were some, though, who always had details: Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu. In answering a question, they said "here's my three point plan,"and they outlined it — ba boom, ba boom, ba boom. This is not to say that other people didn't have have specifics. I'm just talking about the volume of specificity that Andrea Campbell particularly seemed to have with regard to this subject matter.