Persistent racial disparities begin early. Cambridge is a higher education and innovation mecca, with the highest share of adults with advanced degrees among the 25 innovation cities. Yet its racial disparities in education are stark and persistent, and the city is unable to retain young Black populations.
Compared with other groups, Black Cambridge residents do better than the state average for their peers, with 33.5 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, but not as well as other racial groups in Cambridge.
The imbalance begins in K–12, where the city’s income polarization is reflected in its racial makeup and in where the children live. Though Cambridge’s public schools have the state’s second-highest per-student expenditure, racial inequities remain. As the country in general and Cambridge in particular move away from an industrial economy and toward a world of innovation and high tech in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), these inequities are even more life-altering than in the past.
Residents commented extensively on this topic. “A lot of very inflamed, explosive issues come up around the schools,” said one, “but my frustration is with our failure to do the deep, thoughtful, creative work that’s required to level the playing field — generating more opportunity and strengthening the academic, career, and life prospects of all kids.” STEM initiatives, according to a city employee, are “trying to create pathways, but we’re up against the powerful cultural reality of institutional racism. There’s been an awakening recently that the status quo — patting ourselves on the back and saying we’re doing well relative to everyone else — is not good enough.”
She wasn’t the only one to link education inequality to a larger problem: “Racism is America’s great flaw,” said a local business owner. “It’s been there since the beginning. America will never be what it promised, the aspirational parts of our history, until we reckon with that legacy, and Cambridge is not free of that — it’s there structurally in the school system, the police force, city government, and in many of society’s private, business, and civic institutions.”