Boston fights racism with the tools of academia

When Robert A. Corrigan took over as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 1979, he discovered a strange phenomenon: drivers running evening shuttle buses between the harborside campus and the downtown classrooms were turning off their inside lights when they drove through Andrew Square.

When Dr. Corrigan asked why, he was told that Andrew Square is in the heart of South Boston, a rough-and-tumble, solidly white area. Many UMass students are black. The drivers turned off the lights so their buses would not be stoned.

The buses now take a different route and leave the lights on - because of road construction, UMass officials say.

Whatever the reason, most observers agree that racially motivated violence in Boston, which exploded into national prominence during the public-school busing controversies of the 1970s, has waned.

And now a group of Boston's top business and community leaders says it sees even more light at the end of the tunnel - in the form of a process for combating racism.

The group, known as The Boston Committee, was formed in 1980 to help reduce racial tensions in a city that now has a 30 percent minority population. Led by such figures as Mayor Kevin H. White, First National Bank chairman Richard D. Hill, Boston Globe publisher W. Davis Taylor, and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, it has embarked upon what its president, Frank N. Jones, describes as its ''most important activity to date.''

Its approach (typical of New England's strongly academic traditions) consists of a series of four seminars examining the racial aspects of education, employment, housing, and neighborhood development.

Each is centered on a research-based working paper presented to a select number of community leaders with particular interest in the topic under discussion.

Each aims to produce what Boston Committee assistant director Sylvia A. Weisenfeld describes as ''an accountable action agenda for initiatives to address racial tension.''

''I know of no community that has ever tried to use research in this systematic way to address race relations,'' says UMass Prof. Floyd J. Fowler, who prepared a public-opinion survey last spring on black and white perceptions of quality of life in Boston.

Another paper sponsored by The Boston Committee - a broad-brush overview of race relations in Boston by UMass Profs. James E. Blackwell and Philip Hart - was presented to a broader audience at the John F. Kennedy Library in February. It minced no words in describing the extent to which racism permeates the city once famous for 19th-century antislavery activity.

Quoting from their book ''Cities, Suburbs and Blacks,'' the authors note ''blacks in Boston were 13 times more likely than blacks in Los Angeles and Atlanta (and) 12 times more likely than blacks in Houston and Cleveland to be distrustful of the power structure (in the city).''

The solution, they say, requires ''fundamental changes in attitudes and behavior'' best brought about by strong leadership.

But the authors criticize both public- and private-sector leaders for failing to ''articulate a firm public policy'' and for their ''calculated inattention'' to the problem.

They also blame religious and educational institutions and the news media for failing to be ''forthright'' in addressing the problem. And they note ''a reluctance on the part of Boston's black and minority leadership to identify and include new faces'' in community affairs.

The initial report, presented to scores of business and community leaders at the John F. Kennedy Library, struck some observers as slightly pedantic in approach and somewhat strident in tone. But most were encouraged by the attempt to embrace a wide spectrum of the community in efforts to combat racism - and by the strong turnout, suggesting a broad commitment to the process.

Mr. Jones, who frankly describes the seminar series as ''an experiment,'' told this audience that ''what is lacking is not the will of the people, but the degree of leadership necessary to bring it together.''

And Professor Hart, focusing on the national implications of the experiment, agreed that ''if it can be done in Boston, it can be done anywhere.''

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