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Why Boston’s Sports Teams Can’t Escape the City’s Racism

6 minute read

America doesn’t want for racist sports fans. And yet when an abhorrent display of racial animosity takes place in Boston — as it did Monday when Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said he was “called the N-word a handful of times” at Fenway Park — the response is anger, but not necessarily surprise.

The reasons are plenty. Jones, who also had a bag of peanuts thrown at him and said he’s been taunted before while playing in Boston, is just the latest pro athlete to experience discrimination in the city. In his 1979 memoir, Second Wind, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, who won 11 championships as a player with the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969, called the city “flea market of racism.” Boston, Russell wrote, “had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists.”

The Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to field a black player, in 1959. Several historical reports paint the team’s management at the time as openly racist. K.C. Jones, who played for the Boston Celtics in the sixties and coached the team to two championships in the 1980s, has said that while he was player, residents of a Boston suburb told him they did not want him to move into a house in the community. In 1990, police in nearby Wellesley, Mass. pulled over Celtics rookie Dee Brown and held him at gunpoint, thinking he was a bank robber. (Both Jones and Brown have emphasized that, on the whole, they enjoyed their time in Boston).

Read more: What Jackie Robinson Said About The Red Sox and Race

Former NFL defensive lineman Garin Veris played for the New England Patriots from 1985 to 1991. He moved from the Boston suburbs to the city during his playing career. “I’d grown up in Ohio, gone to school in California and been in just about every state in the country, and I’d never been called ‘n—–‘ or ‘colored boy’ or any of that,” Veris told Sports Ilustrated in 1991. “Until I went to Boston. I suppose you can say those comments could happen anywhere, but what I have to say is they happened here. In Boston.”

In his 2002 book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, sportswriter Howard Bryant writes that “many black ballplayers over the years, starting with Jackie Robinson and funneling down, from David Justice, Albert Belle, and Tim Raines, to Gary Sheffield and Dave Winfield, have all either expressed hesitancy about playing in Boston or inserted language into their contracts that expressly prevented them from ever being traded to the Red Sox.” In 2007, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. said that Boston fans were “loud,” “drunk,” and “obnoxious,” and that Fenway is “one of the few places you’ll hear racial comments.”

The behavior apparently extends to hockey. Boston Bruins fans showered Washington Capitals winger Joel Ward, who is black, with racist epithets online after he scored a game-winning goal against the Bruins back in 2012.

Of course, many black athletes have had an overwhelmingly positive experience in Boston. Nor is it clear that the racists who taunted Jones and other players over the years are Bostonians. But the latest incident shows the city’s ballparks and arenas haven’t shed their dim reputation.

“Boston has an issue with racism,” the city’s mayor, Marty Walsh, admitted during a public conversation on race, at Boston University, in November 2016. On Tuesday, Walsh took to Twitter to decry what happened to Jones:

To some, the vile taunts are a manifestation of a deeper cultural problem. Strains of racism are “embedded in the city’s DNA,” says Ceasar McDowell, a professor of the practice of community development at MIT’s department of urban studies and planning. Byron Rushing, a Massachusetts state legislator who’s represented Boston since 1982, points out that African-Americans were more likely to likely to migrate from the South to Northeastern and Midwestern cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century, given Boston’s status as a relative economic backwater. “So what you had in Boston,” says Rushing, “is a longer period where white people were the supermajority.”

When African-Americans moved into the city once Boston’s economy expanded after World War II, the city’s racial resentments boiled over. They were broadcast to the nation in the 70s, when black school students were bused to white districts in an effort to integrate the city’s schools. Protestors threw bricks at buses that carried black children. Signs reading “N—– Go Home” hung out of buildings. One black man, of Haitian descent, was beaten; black students stabbed a white student. A white anti-busing protestor wielded an American flag at a black lawyer, as if it were a spear: the lawyer’s nose was broken in the attack. “People still haven’t figured out how to heal from that experience,” says McDowell.

Even as it diversifies, Boston remains more segregated than the average American city, according to a 2016 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “The Boston metro is quickly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,” the report states. “Individual neighborhoods, however, do not reflect that diversity.”

Rushing also wonders if the taunts are less a relic than a symptom of intolerance that has sprung up elsewhere recently. “Do people feel they can do that now and get away with it?” says Rushing. “Is this a piece of that, or a piece of old time Boston?”

That view was reflected in a response to the incident from Orioles COO John Angelos. “It is a tragic reflection of the sickness that today afflicts aspects of our society that we are reminded seemingly every day now of the demented hatreds, prejudices, and biases expressed in certain circles of our community around race, sex, national origin, ethnicity, religious following, sexual orientation, and other coincidences of birth and of living life,” Angelos told The Nation.

The Red Sox have apologized to Jones and the Orioles. “The Red Sox have zero tolerance for such inexcusable behavior, and our entire organization and our fans are sickened by the conduct of an ignorant few,” the team said in a statement.

These ignorant fans don’t truly represent Boston. But patching up the city’s racial wounds is still a work in progress.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com