This week, a local activist said I should be whipped.

At Monday’s public hearing of the Zoning and Planning Committee of the Newton City Council covering zoning changes for West Newton, a number of people used language like “preserving neighborhood character” to oppose proposed changes or argue for more modest change. That’s not atypical at a zoning or land-use meeting.

I used my two minutes before the committee to request that the community avoid such language.

But, I would like to make a request of everyone that we recognize in our language and in our tools that there is deep history to the kinds of conversations we’re having here and that when people use terms like “preserving neighborhood character” … those are terms that have historically been used as code for racial segregation. 

The full text of my comments is below. The audio is here. The full meeting audio is here. My testimony begins at 2:52:18.

You can hear in the audio that I did not get a warm reception from a big section of the standing-room-only crowd. 

Forty minute later, West Newton lawyer and activist Peter Harrington testified. After his time was up (all those speaking see a countdown timer), he responded directly to my testimony. The audio of this portion of his testimony is here. The audio of his full testimony is here. The full meeting audio is here. His testimony begins at 3:32:45.

I see that my time is up, but, Madam Chairman, as a point of personal privilege, I would like to say that that man that good … stood up and talked about people who are opposed to development being racist is someone who should be whipped.

I have been to countless public hearings. I have never heard anyone — anyone — suggest physical violence in response to someone’s testimony. 

But, that’s not the worst of it. For the crime of asking that we consider the racial history and racial impact of zoning, Mr. Harrington would have me “whipped.” Whipped. While practically shouting his outrage at being accused of racism, the form of punishment he suggests is the slavers’. Yeah, we don’t have any lingering racial issues we need to address.

And, what was the response to Mr. Harrington’s racially-charged call-to-violence? Crickets. He didn’t get gavelled. He didn’t get rebuked or even interrupted by any of the councilors in attendance. He didn’t get booed. Nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I was or am in any actual physical danger. But, it is instructive that a white man, outraged at the thought that he was being accused of racism, would call for violence, even for rhetorical effect, and that nobody stirred. It’s hard to rebut the conclusion that, despite our country’s horrific racial history and deep structural racism, to certain white men there is still no greater injustice than being accused of racism.

He went on.

I think that to introduce that kind of talk into this kind of discussion and I would have to say that this evening this discussion has been very civil and I would like to say that I am very offended by that and I would … I don’t know who he is but I would be willing to match my record on supporting affordable housing and being opposed to racist talk, actions, and activity against his and I tell you, he would lose.   

Zoning has historically been used as a tool of segregation. Historically, there have been folks all over this country whose opposition to development in their neighborhoods has been animated by racism. Facts. Undeniable, indisputable facts. And, the racial impact of zoning continues to be felt in the African-American community, where household wealth is a tiny fraction of white Americans’ wealth, largely due to home ownership. If a zoning public hearing is not the place to raise concern about the potential of zoning to have a disparate impact, where is?

The call to civility is also telling. Civility is a virtue to those who wish to maintain the status quo. But, what was uncivil? This man who proclaims his opposition to “racist talk, actions, and activity” does not appear to be upset at how I spoke, but by the fact that I requested that we as a community wrestle with the legacy of racism that pervades zoning and how we talk about it.

Also, I was not the one who called for someone to be whipped.

White privilege is a hell of a drug. 

My comments

Sean Roche, 42 Daniel St.

Generally, I speaking I am in favor of more development across the city on the basis of environmental, social, and economic justice. And, I recognize that change is hard and that there are a lot of folks that have legitimate concerns about change.

But, I would like to make a request of everyone that we recognize in our language and in our tools that there is deep history to the kinds of conversations we’re having here and that when people use terms like “preserving neighborhood character” … those are terms that have historically been used as code for racial segregation. 

I don’t think anybody here in the audience is necessarily racist or necessarily is looking to segregate. [Crowd noise.] These are terms that have historically been used and to make arguments in favor of racial segregation.

Zoning itself has been a tool for racial segregation and I urge the City Council to listen very carefully and discourage these kinds of terms and understand that zoning is a very, very powerful tool and that when we use it …

We have inherited zoning. Nobody can be faulted for that. But every step forward we make with zoning we should be very, very careful to understand the historical significance and the historical damage that zoning has done and to be very careful about its use.