Commentary: There's an existing 'blueprint' that will secure racial equity in Massachusetts

Although sparked by extraordinary events and circumstances, movements are born out of decades of inequity and injustice. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has laid bare the systemic inequity prevalent throughout the region. Coupled with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the growing unrest felt by black communities and communities of color across the region, people are demanding real change and policymakers across the region have the opportunity to do just that.

They also have the beginnings of a blueprint to get there.

In 2018, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) released an updated version of its State of Equity policy agenda, laying out a series of policies across various topic areas to build a more equitable region over the following five years.

In an equitable region, everyone has a chance to grow up healthy, receive a quality education, achieve economic security, have a home in the community of their choice, and enjoy life. In order to get there, however, we must dismantle the systems built to favor one group over another and rebuild our communities through a lens of racial equity and restorative justice.

It is abundantly clear that the conditions that contribute to inequity are persisting or becoming more severe: discrimination, whether overt or systemic, continues to limit opportunity for some residents; income and wealth disparity is increasing, dimming the prospects for upward mobility; and residential segregation, especially segregation by income, is becoming more severe, contributing to intergenerational poverty.

We have a law enforcement system that enforces the laws unequally; a justice system that often provides no justice; an economic system that actively transfers wealth from poor people to rich people; and a social system that demonizes people of color and immigrants as a strategy to keep other people in line.

To make progress, the region must act urgently to address the observed health, educational, economic, and quality of life disparities documented in the State of Equity report. If we hope to achieve these changes, the region must also tackle income inequality and segregation through economic, housing, and land use policies. We must understand and reckon with our history of discrimination. Inequity was not born out of benign neglect, but deliberate action.

A prime example is the history of housing segregation in the region, which has a profound impact on the health and wellness of communities of color. Housing discrimination was written into the laws of Boston area communities in the 1800s and the metro region has a history of de facto segregation in the form of the socially sanctioned racial violence against people of color moving into white neighborhoods well into the middle of the 20th century.

In addition, people of color still face overt discrimination when trying to buy or rent throughout the region. In fact, a recently released study by Suffolk University Law School, “Qualified Renters Need Not Apply: Race and Voucher Discrimination in the Metro Boston Housing Market,” found that Black renters experienced discrimination by real estate brokers and landlords in 71 percent of the cases tested. Couple that with a recent MAPC study showing that Greater Boston residents of color are more likely to live near high-polluting roadways, putting them at increased risk of the heart and lung diseases linked to higher death rates from COVID-19, and it becomes apparent how these types of discrimination, both systemic and personal, play a large part in yielding the unhealthy and inequitable society we see today.

We find ourselves in a unique moment to enact real change. White people have joined recent protests and vigils in unprecedented numbers, and these demonstrations of support have occurred not only in Boston and Cambridge, but also throughout the metropolitan region. These are positive signs, but they will have lasting impact only if the same people actively support state and local legislation to dismantle the restrictive zoning laws and other practices that keep our region segregated, and people of color disproportionately poor.

The State of Equity policy agenda provides us with the beginning of a blueprint, but new and different ideas are welcome. It’s time to lay the foundation for racial equity and justice and greater prosperity for all.

Marc Draisen is the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.