Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There is a significant gap in the earnings of white employees and people of color. A new racial equity strategy for the city plans to correct that.
When it comes to working in the city, the most reliable employment prospects for African Americans have been to work for the city. As the Economic Policy Institute pointed out in a 2012 report: “Historically, the state and local public sectors have provided more equitable opportunities for women and people of color. As a result, women and African Americans constitute a disproportionately large share of the state and local public-sector workforce.”
But Boston must have missed this memo. There, African Americans hold more of the city government jobs that pay less than $40,000 a year than any other race. But as soon as jobs start bringing in more than $40,000, the racial disparity kicks in with full force, but in the other direction, with most of those jobs going to white workers, and far less of them going to black workers. The racial wage gap only worsens as the salaries increase. Boston’s median household income is $78,800, but only around 20 percent of African American city government workers are earning salaries in that range compared with around two-thirds of white workers.
Latinx and Asian city workers consistently earn far less than their white and black counterparts no matter what the salary range is. Meanwhile, Latinxs are one of the fastest growing populations of the city. Latinxs and Asians are both underrepresented in city staff compared to their shares of the city’s population—by as much as half for both groups. African Americans and white city staff workers are both overrepresented compared to their population shares.
This racial pay disparity is not unique to Boston. The Urban Institute reported in 2013 that whites have historically made up the bulk of high-salary city jobs in large cities. while African Americans have disproportionately been given the lowest-wage city jobs. (Martin Luther King highlighted this issue in his final protest, when he advocated for better pay and work conditions for Memphis’s mostly black sanitation workforce.)
Still, while these racial pay gaps in the public sector persist, Boston still lags behind peer cities such as San Francisco and New York City, as this city workforce report pointed out in 2015. Latinx and Asian workers come in last place in pay in Boston, but in the cities of Philadelphia and Seattle these groups are much closer to parity with white city workers.
All of which is to say, Boston has a huge racial equity problem when it comes to paying its non-white city employees. Which is why the city has prioritized resolving this in its new resilience strategy plan, released to the public this month. Boston is one of the cities selected by The Rockefeller Foundation for its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which helps local governments devise strategies that typically are focused on protections from shocks and stresses related to natural disasters. Boston, however, chose to focus on racial equity in its resiliency strategy, and it is the first of the 100 Resilient Cities to do this. Solving the city government racial earnings gap is a central goal of its plan.
“This idea that we're all human beings, therefore we all have implicit racial bias, well, it’s also about power, because we have to look at who’s on the receiving end of that implicit racial bias, which is peoples of color,” says Dr. Atyia Martin, the Chief Resilience Officer in Mayor Martin Walsh’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity. “How do we make sure that we're helping people to understand that and give them the tools to manage it better? It's not enough just to say, ‘This is a thing and that's the way it is.’ It's, ‘This is a problem we created that we can solve for,’ but we have to be collaborative."
This is what Martin means by collaborative: Her office gathered input from some 11,000 Boston residents to help devise the 154-page strategy entitled, “Resilient Boston: An Equitable and Connected City.” Much of the heavy lifting for that was conducted by the Boston Resilience Collaborative, a group of about 100 local experts in issues like race, climate change and public health to guide the discussions and mold them into a workable plan for the city.
Martin points to the development of the Racism, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) Resilience Program as crucial to the work around closing racial income gaps among city workers. The REAL program requires city departments and agencies to incorporate racial equity considerations into “all facets of decision-making,” as the strategy report reads. Boston’s Mayor Walsh is currently working on a similar executive order that would require city agencies to perform racial impact analyses on a range of decisions from city planning to city hiring.
The city has developed an online interactive employee demographics application that allows the public to track progress it’s already made since 2015 (as seen below). The city also launched the CityScore online application, which allows the public to track and evaluate other equity and resiliency issues the city is working on. All that’s left is the implementation and execution, which Martin is confident will happen given the foundational framework created in this racial equity resilience strategy.
“Let's just say, hypothetically speaking, that for some reason tomorrow, none of this stuff happens,” says Martin. “The framing, the tools that are in there, the context, the historical perspective, the things that are in the way of advancing equity in Boston—the framing is all there. So, we’re reframing the issues of resilience and racial equity to make sure that with infrastructural resilience, economic resilience, environmental resilience, and social resilience, that we are embedding these concepts in this so that we're not perpetuating those inequities.”