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Lawrence Harmon

The hopeful state of black Boston

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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A BLACK kid with his pants riding low and looking thuggish caught the eye of the Rev. Eugene Rivers during a recent meeting between police, clergy, and local teens at the Ella J. Baker House in the violent Four Corners section of Dorchester. Rivers asked the boy for the name of the last book he’d read. “The Iliad,’’ the boy shot back, and suggested that Rivers host a party at the Baker House on the theme of Greek legends.

Yesterday, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts published the “2011 State of Black Boston’’ report. Like the Dorchester teen, the report offers a contradictory but hopeful picture of the city’s black community. Blacks, who number about 150,000 in Boston, are showing consistent gains in education, business ownership, and political influence. The report praises “increased amity’’ between the city’s ethnic groups. But poverty rates, infant mortality, and imprisonment among the black population still outstrip the general population.

The report coincides with the arrival this week of thousands of black conventioneers for the national conference of the Urban League. It will be the first visit by the civil rights group to Boston in 35 years. Back then, they came to show the flag during violence over efforts to desegregate the city’s schools. This time, conventioneers should be comfortable in every corner of the city. And if they care to spend time in the city’s minority neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, or Mattapan, they should come away with a positive impression of the housing stock, commercial activity, and parks.

The report, prepared in collaboration with the Boston NAACP and William Monroe Trotter Institute, cites a quadrupling of black-owned businesses in Boston since the 1970s. Still, only 27 percent of black workers in the city are employed in management and professional positions, half the rate of whites. The high numbers of minorities working in service industries might be explained, in part, by the fact that nearly 30 percent of Boston’s blacks are foreign born, and still finding their way economically.

Education is the obvious route to better jobs. The report notes the stubborn achievement gap that still exists between the city’s black and white students. Yet some of the highest-achieving schools in the entire state are charter schools that cater almost exclusively to low-income, minority students in Boston. A lot of good careers will be launched in black Boston if and when the city’s teachers’ union embraces the charter school philosophy of a longer school day and strict evaluation of teachers.

The conventioneers won’t find an active arts and entertainment district in the city’s black neighborhoods. Black Bostonians, as a rule, spend their entertainment dollars downtown. But there is great artistic potential in the city’s black neighborhoods, evidenced by April’s Boston premiere of Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha’’ performed by Mssng Lnks, a nonprofit group that trains minority singers for careers in classical vocal music.

Crime remains the biggest barrier to the economic development of Boston’s black community. Nobody avoids doing business in Roxbury, Dorchester, or Mattapan because the percentage of blacks with bachelor’s degrees lags behind that of whites. It’s the fear of violent crime. And it’s not just on the part of whites.

“A lot of folks in our community are afraid of our kids,’’ said Rivers, who works with gang-involved youths. Boston Police often stress that violent crime in the city’s minority neighborhoods is largely limited to a few “hot spots.’’ But that’s still a few too many for some investors.

The Urban League report didn’t try to measure the tolerance for lawbreaking in Boston’s black community. But assume it’s too high, especially among young people who lack insight on how their individual actions shape perceptions of an entire community. At Rivers’ recent roundtable, for example, a black teenager confronted a transit police officer for issuing a ticket to a group of his friends for fare evasion. The youth acted as if he were the aggrieved party, not the passengers who pay their fair share. It may seem trivial, but police consider fare jumping the kind of crime that creates an atmosphere of urban chaos, leading to more serious crimes, including gang violence.

Once the gangs are at peace, the state of Black Boston will improve greatly.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.