By Lauren Sampson and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal
Given the authority vested in our local elected officials, Tuesday’s election represents a critical turning point for Boston. For the first time in the city’s history, women and people of color will represent a majority on the City Council — 7 of its 13 members will be people of color; eight will be women. In one of the least affordable cities in the country, many of the winning candidates touted their records as housing activists, running grassroots campaigns focused on housing affordability, racial justice, and economic inequality.
Boston has been a majority-minority city in the last two censuses and children of color make up more than 85 percent of the students attending Boston Public Schools (BPS). We shouldn’t be surprised that diverse candidates won on platforms that prioritized issues pertinent to communities of color and communities of immigrants.
We should be shocked that it took so long for Boston to get here.
The absence of Latinx representation in City Hall has been striking, and last Tuesday’s election results are an important corrective. Regardless of whether Julia Mejia or Alejandra St. Guillen prevails in a recount, it will mark the first-ever election of a Latina councillor, as well as the first election of a Latino, Ricardo Arroyo, in several years.
Even though the push to reduce racial disparities has long been portrayed in Boston as a struggle between black and white residents (the busing battles of the 1970s are emblematic of that), Latinx residents now constitute about one-fifth of Boston’s population.
Just over 42 percent of BPS students are Latinx. Indeed, Latinx population growth is responsible for 92 percent of Boston’s population growth since 1980. Over the next two decades, this growth will be fueled more by domestic migration and natural population growth than international immigration, in part because the median age of these residents is more than 10 years younger than the population at large. Latinx residents make up just shy of 15 percent of all workers in Suffolk County and 10 percent of all Boston business owners. And this population is incredibly diverse, encompassing Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Guatemalans in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Despite these contributions to Boston’s population and economy, Latinx residents in Boston and the state fare worse than their white counterparts on almost every metric, from household income and homeownership, to education and access to leadership roles. Indeed, in early 2018, Massachusetts was ranked the worst state in the country by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, for economic and social disparities between white and Latinx residents.
If Latinx communities are shut out of political decision-making and civic leadership roles — and if they are unable to afford college tuition or a mortgage — these disparities, along intertwined racial and economic lines, will only worsen. Representation matters. When debating solutions to the crisis facing minority- and women-owned businesses (who receive less than one percent of city contracts), who has a seat at the table matters. When developments such as Suffolk Downs impinge on the Latinx community in East Boston, who is deciding makes a difference.
Given the primacy of housing to candidates’ campaigns, we would not be surprised if this council prioritizes affordability, pushing for increased community engagement and transparency in development projects under Boston Planning and Development Agency review, which disproportionately displace immigrants and people of color.
Since 2013 alone, 19 large residential projects have been approved in East Boston, of which Suffolk Downs is the latest and largest. These projects cannot be considered in isolation, but must be analyzed in the context of community needs in order to avoid yet another Seaport.
That two Latinx representatives will sit on the City Council means the growing Latinx community will have more allies, and more authority figures dedicated to correcting our lack of representation. The urgency cannot be overstated. Boston’s Latinx community is suffering. Consider the “severe” representation gap between Latinx students and teachers at BPS, or the Boston Police Department’s entanglement with federal immigration officials to apprehend and deport Boston residents.
We can no longer treat diversity and inclusion in terms of the black-white binary that has plagued Boston’s racial politics for decades. Instead, we must ensure that our political institutions fully reflect the communities they serve, so that Latinx students, workers, and business owners can have a meaningful voice and full participation in Boston’s political and economic life.
Lauren Sampson is the civil rights fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights. Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. This article was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on Nov. 8. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.