Why Boston will need to wait longer for its first elected Black mayor Asian American Michelle Wu is Boston's first elected mayor who isn't a white man. While many celebrate the milestone, others lament that all the Black candidates failed.

Why Boston will need to wait longer for its 1st elected Black mayor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1055972179/1056082155" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Today, for the first time in its history, Boston will inaugurate a newly elected mayor who is not a white man. Michelle Wu, who is Asian American, is the first woman and the first person of color elected to lead the city. Some people see this as a major turning point. Other people are kind of disappointed. NPR's Tovia Smith explains what's going on.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Hope was high this year in this time of racial reckoning, with three Black candidates running, that Boston might elect its first Black mayor, like most of the nation's 30 largest cities have already done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please welcome the 55th mayor of the city of Boston, Kim Janey.


SMITH: One of the Black candidates even had the advantage of running as acting mayor after temporarily inheriting the job when former Mayor Marty Walsh left to become President Biden's secretary of labor. And yet neither Janey nor the others even made it to the final two.

DANNY RIVERA: I got home and I cried. I cried my eyes out because I don't know the next time we'll see a Black mayor in our city.

SMITH: At Janey's farewell address last week, supporters like Danny Rivera were wistful, especially, he says, because of Janey's personal history in Boston, as a girl in the '70s bused into white neighborhood schools where Blacks were pelted with insults and rocks and as a teenage mom struggling to make it when she was all but written off.

RIVERA: I believe that its lived experience that matters the most and what really separated Kim from every other candidate, you know, that's all super powerful, and I thought that we missed the moment.

NIA ASHLEIGH: Yeah, very disappointing, for sure.

SMITH: But not surprising, says 20-year-old student Nia Ashleigh.

ASHLEIGH: It's just one of those things where it feels like what else is new, you know?

SMITH: Indeed, in the preliminary election, the three Black candidates combined got about three-quarters of the vote in areas of the city with the least white voters, while in the whitest areas, they won only about one-quarter of the votes.

MARIE ST FLEUR: I mean, the data speaks for itself, and it's troubling.

SMITH: Especially, says former state representative Marie St. Fleur, for a city still straining under a longtime reputation as racist.

ST FLEUR: For those of us born or raised in Boston and who lived through some of the, you know, darker days, the fact that we blinked at that moment is sadness. It was for me, at what point in this history of Boston will we be able to vote - and I'm going to be very clear - for a Black person in that corner office?

SMITH: But to be sure, there were other factors and fault at play, says Reverend Eugene Rivers, a longtime Black community leader.

EUGENE RIVERS: We can only play the race card so many occasions, right? I mean, Black leadership failed to produce success with an incumbent. We failed. Now that's not on white people.

SMITH: Black leaders are already talking about taking lessons from the successful campaign of incoming Mayor Wu to improve their own political organizing and to increase Black turnout in future races. Some are also calling for a more coordinated strategy to coalesce behind a single Black candidate to avoid splitting the vote, as happened this year. But others bristle at the idea of expecting a Black candidate to drop out of a race because there are too many of them. Civil rights activist Imari Paris Jeffries is one who also feels grief that a Black candidate didn't make the cut this year. But while important symbolically and psychically, he says, a candidate's race should not be a determinant factor.

IMARI PARIS JEFFRIES: In this anti-racist discourse, I don't think we're going to find identical twins of our experience in order for them to even be able to empathize with me. It's just not possible. And so I think we have to start creating a larger tent and find common ground together.

SMITH: It's a theme incoming Mayor Wu has struck throughout her campaign and also while attending Janey's farewell address.

MICHELLE WU: I have heard and want to continue acknowledging the disappointment of many in our community who wish to see a representative from the Black community. And we will continue working to meet this moment to take on systemic racism and the barriers that have been perpetuated for far too long.

SMITH: And Boston voters will be watching, as will Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who endorsed Wu in the final.

AYANNA PRESSLEY: She earned my endorsement, but she earned it because she is prepared to be honest about the disparate outcomes across every issue. And I expect that the Black community will hold her accountable.

SMITH: For her part, acting Mayor Kim Janey insists her short but historic term did push Boston forward, as she approached every issue through a lens of racial equity, as she put it. Still, there's a lot more work to do, she says, when it comes to all of our isms in Boston and around the country. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.