One Of The Country’s Most Racially Segregated Cities Wants To Get Healthier

Boston, Massachusetts. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Boston, Massachusetts. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

For evidence of Boston’s racially turbulent history, public health official Atyia Martin points to what she describes as the city’s lethargic reaction to the more than 100 incidents of violence that occurred in the weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing made national and international headlines.

“The marathon bombing response was very well-coordinated. Juxtaposed with that, over 50 shootings that happened in the month after the bombing,” Martin explained in a recent interview with the Huffington Post. “You don’t have the same level of coordination and attention focused on people who suffer under chronic community issues like violence.”

Now, in her new role as “chief resilience officer” for the city, Martin has set out to eradicate those racial and economic disparities. The two-year position, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, allows Martin, former head of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Office of Public Health Awareness, to coordinate equitable emergency response efforts during natural disasters, infrastructure fails, and acts of terrorism.

Martin has also announced plans to tackle the daily stress of racial and economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, and employment — microagressions that become exacerbated during large-scale catastrophes.


A citywide analysis conducted by Martin found that Boston’s most vulnerable populations include or have a combination of a host of factors, including disability, limited English proficiency, medical illness, lack of transportation, low income, and no high school education. East Boston, Hyde Park, and other areas with a high concentration of people of color and immigrants share these characteristics, making their needs more pressing during citywide emergencies.

Martin’s data suggests that when the city doesn’t react swiftly to these communities’ needs, residents are more likely than their more privileged counterparts to experience displacement, injury, illness, and loss of employment.

“The people who suffer the most after emergencies are disproportionally those who are considered the most vulnerable — people who are low-income, people with disabilities, the elderly, children,” Martin told the Huffington Post. “Then we have the undercurrent of race.”

These disparities aren’t limited to emergency situations. A growing body of research links income inequality to worsening health outcomes among low-income groups. People living in states with high levels of income disparities increase their risk of mortality by 12 percent. Low-income women also report depressive symptoms and poor health overall at least 60 percent more often than their wealthier counterparts. Economists attribute these disparities to a shallow understanding of the health care system among poor people and higher engagement in risky behaviors — including smoking, binge drinking, obesity, and lack of exercise.

But the source of inequality goes beyond factors that are within one’s control.

Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, place still remains a significant indicator in quality of and access to resources that guarantee a healthy lifestyle. A contemporary system of institutionalized residential segregation, as described by researchers Gregory D. Squires and Charis E. Kubrin in their 2005 report, has relegated poor people of color to communities detached from vital social and economic opportunities that could help break the cycle of poverty.


The 2010 census and subsequent updates have solidified Boston’s place among the nation’s most racially and economically segregated cities. As seen in other major American cities, non-white ethnic groups earn significantly less than their counterparts that live in more affluent neighborhoods. Low-income residents have also felt the pressure of high unemployment, college debt, and skyrocketing rent — subtle reminders that breaking out to the cycle of poverty may be easier said than done.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston highlighted these disparities in a March report that found the median household wealth of white residents in Greater Boston to be more than $250,000 in net assets — including retirement savings, stocks, and checking accounts. None of the non-white groups, on the other hand, had net assets over $18,000. Nearly half of Boston’s white households have private retirement account compared to 8 percent of the metropolitan area’s Dominican population, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s most recent report.

These areas, often occupied by members of the African diaspora, typically require varying levels of public investment. This approach, however, invites gentrification — the displacement of poor residents into other neighborhoods as their once dilapidated enclave improves. In turn, social and economic segregation persists to the detriment of poor people of color, even amid urban revitalization.

It’s no different in Boston, where longtime residents face displacement amid an exodus of millennials and aging baby boomers to the city that has caused a surge in housing prices. The signs of this impending demographic shift appeared years earlier.

“This is not a news flash to us,” Maria Christina Blanco, a community organizer at City Life, a nonprofit that works with Latino home owners in East Boston, told the Boston Globe in March. “Latino and Afro-Caribbean people were disproportionately affected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Haitian, Creole, Spanish-speaking people are our main clients and many ended up losing their homes.”

Martin said she hopes to do her part by hosting community meetings where residents from different parts of Boston weigh in on the city’s current state of affairs outside the comfort of their segregated enclaves. “You have the best discussions when you have a nice mixture of people in the room across all races because it helps people see different perspectives,” Martin told the Huffington Post. “It’s a challenge we’ll be able to overcome, but a challenge nonetheless.”


When Martin starts her tenure, she’ll count among more than 60 chief resilience officers — top-level advisors who establish a vision for their city centered on mitigating the effects of population density, climate change, economic instability, resource scarcity and other problems urban centers face. The Rockefeller Foundation launched this program in late 2013 as part of an effort to help cities around the world address physical, social, and economic challenges of the 21st century.