I'm not really a hometown booster, and I've bitched about Boston enough to be told "Then why don't you leave?" many times. But my parochial pride has been stirred several times in the past few days by one thing that drives me battier than the Hub's famous rudeness: Sloppy statistics.
Here are five examples of knocks (or faint praise) against Boston, Massachusetts, and the Northeast that don't stand up to scrutiny.
As reported in USA Today, Boston is only the 12th "most literate city" in America, behind St. Louis and Cincinnati.
The complete survey by Central Connecticut University is here. Note that Boston ranks 3rd, behind only New York and Washington, in the number of periodicals published here. We're 4th in newspaper circulation. (My hunch is that New York, Los Angeles, and many Western cities rank poorly in this category because of the large number of people who don't speak English as their primary language.) And we're 5th in "Internet resources."
So why aren't we in the Top 10 overall? Mostly because Boston ranks a terrible 61st in bookstores per 10,000 people; New York City is tied for 65th. I suspect that this has more to do with the high cost of real estate than with locals' reading habits. There aren't many places in Boston or Manhattan where you can pay for a storefront in a busy retail district by selling used books (as opposed to clothes, wine, jewelry, or other easily marked-up items). Second-place St. Louis has a mystery bookstore; we'd probably still have one on Newbury Street rather than just online if tourists stopped coming to that trendy address.
Also, bookstores in Boston and New York are probably bigger, if less numerous, befitting a geographically compact metropolis. And the survey is apparently limited to the city proper, which means it doesn't count bookstores in Cambridge -- where many Bostonians shop.
But neither are New York or Chicago. Minneapolis is No. 1, and the list skews toward urban islands in conservative areas (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis again) and tourist destinations (Orlando, Las Vegas). Advocate writer Mike Albo explains the process:
Using a completely unscientific — but still strangely accurate — statistical equation, The Advocate has come up with a diverse and surprising list of where gay people are living, loving, voting, and creating communities.
I think "surprising" is the key word there, and the objective of the whole exercise. The Advocate doesn't share data on the cities that didn't make its list, but Boston (and New York) were probably sunk by several factors. "Number of lesbian bars" couldn't have helped; as with bookstores (see above), the high cost of real estate discourages this sort of thing, and it's not as if lesbian couples can't find hundreds of "regular" bars where they feel welcome. "Number of gay-friendly religious congregations" seems to have given Minneapolis a big boost in the survey, but Boston isn't as religious, period. (Plus, we tend to have large Catholic congregations, a few of which actually are gay-friendly, as opposed to many smaller Protestant churches.)
Finally, Boston suffers again from a survey that's limited to the city proper; thus, US Rep. Barney Frank of Brookline and state Rep. Carl Sciortino of Medford don't get counted among openly gay elected officials.
Massachusetts is only the 18th "most tolerant state" in the US, according to The Daily Beast, two places behind Louisiana.
Really stupid. Louisiana gets a "0" on gay rights, as opposed to the Bay State's perfect 10. Louisiana also ranks lower on religious tolerance and the percentage of the people who believe that "many religions lead to eternal life." So why is it ranked higher overall? Because Massachusetts is 43rd in hate crime incidents: 5.1 such incidents per 100,000 residents each year, as opposed to Louisiana's commendable 0.5 incidents. Does anyone believe that Louisiana's official hate crime statistics are as accurate and comprehensive as those in Massachusetts?
Similarly, we get demerits for the high number of discrimination cases filed in the Bay State (21.1 per 100,000 residents, as opposed to Louisiana's 14.8). Again, might this have something to do with a judicial system that takes such cases seriously, as well as state and local officials who encourage people to do something when they feel victimized on the basis of identity?
Finally, one commenter on The Daily Beast pointed out one possible explanation for Wisconsin's No. 1 ranking in the survey: There aren't too many non-whites in that state, so the limits of tolerance aren't tested as frequently as in more diverse places.
Boston is too racist to elect a black mayor.
A generally fair Boston Globe article by Russell Contreras on the city's bad image among African-Americans included this squishy sentence:
Others also point out that Boston, where around half the residents are people of color, has never elected a black mayor, unlike cities including Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
A quick read of that sentence might lead you to believe that half of Boston is African-American. In fact, only 24 percent of the city is black; the city is almost exactly half "people of color" only if you include Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
Contreras does go on to correct the implication that Boston won't vote for African-Americans by pointing out that Gov. Deval Patrick has carried the city (by landslide margins, I would add). He might have also pointed out that President Barack Obama has also won Boston overwhelmingly, and that two African-American local officials (former DA Ralph Martin and current Sheriff Andrea Cabral) didn't have any trouble winning citywide.
Boston undoubtedly has a lot of work to do in diversifying its leadership -- its reputation as being "old, cold, and closed" still has a lot of truth, especially in the private sector -- but I don't think it's fair to blame the electorate as a major source of the problem. The fact that we've never had a non-white mayor has a lot to do with the lack of competitive elections since Tom Menino took over City Hall in 1993; there's no reason to believe a black candidate couldn't win in the near future.
The Northeast isn't friendly toward gay couples with children.
OK, this is really about a well-meaning human-interest story in the New York Times -- "Parenting by Gays More Common in the South, Census Shows" -- that has been shoehorned into the "today's big trend" slot. Nothing really wrong with it except this out-of-context stat graph:
In addition, the data show, child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other region of the country, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gay couples in Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are more likely to be raising children than their counterparts on the West Coast, in New York and in New England.
I'm sure the data are true, but child rearing among all couples is more common in the South. The four states the Times mentions are well above average in the percentage of the population that is under 18, while New England and New York are near the bottom. Various studies suggest that religious, less-educated, and politically conservative Americans are more likely to have children (and have them earlier and more often), which correlates with a large number of households with children in the South and a low number in the Northeast. It's not really surprising that this holds true among households in the South headed by same-sex couples.