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Hard Feelings Follow Hartford Committee Chair’s Comments

  • Olivia Lapierre asks the Hartford selectboard a follow-up question during a special selectboard meeting about racial justice on Wednesday, February 15, 2017, at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hartford — The community’s nascent discussion on issues of racial inequality just got stickier, after a comment about white people by a committee chairwoman led some town officials to either condemn, or defend, her words.

“I left there kind of feeling I got clubbed over the head. I left there with hurt feelings,” Selectboard Vice Chairman Dennis Brown told the Selectboard on Tuesday, speaking about the October meeting of the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality. “I thought the committee was heading in the right direction, but after that I really don’t know.”

“It’s inevitable that hard feelings are going to come up in this conversation,” Selectman Simon Dennis said during Tuesday’s meeting, according to CATV video of the meeting. “I think we should look at it not as a sign that anything wrong is happening, but look at it as a sign that the right things are happening.”

The comment in question was made during an Oct. 17 meeting by Olivia LaPierre, who was elected chairwoman when the committee was formed in April with a charge to make recommendations to the Hartford Selectboard and School Board to “address and challenge instances of racism.”

During the meeting, LaPierre told Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, who was there to answer questions about race issues in the police force, that he should recognize that racism exists in the department.

“It’s systemic, it’s structural, it’s institutionalized,” LaPierre said, according to CATV video of that meeting. “So there’s no place in which racism doesn’t occur, and I mean all white people are socialized, um, all racially — racialized white people are socialized to be racist, and that’s part of doing the implicit bias training is knowing that like, your — those things exist. No matter how many trainings you go to, you can work to identify these things, but they’ll still exist.”

Committee on Racial Inequality

Within minutes of LaPierre’s statement, it touched off a brief, somewhat heated exchange between LaPierre and committee member Dan Hillard, who is white.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Hillard said. “You’re saying that all white people are racist?”

As LaPierre attempted to clarify, Hillard interrupted her.

“Yes or no,” he said, twice, before allowing her to complete her thought.

“Because we live in a white supremacy society in which there is systemic racism, white people are socialized to be racist,” LaPierre said to Hillard. “That manifests in different ways. It’s helpful to look at it as a spectrum. Micro-aggressions fall on that same spectrum.”

“I have to ask myself, ‘What am I doing here then?’ ” Hillard said.

During the meeting, committee member John Hall sought to clarify a portion of LaPierre’s remarks by helping to define the idea of racialization, which is a social, rather than biological, concept.

“Racialized does not directly correlate with racism,” he said. “Racialized means I identify as black because my family taught me I was black. Michelle (Boleski, a fellow committee member), I assume you identify as white because your family taught you you were white. That’s what racialized means.”

Committee member Allene Swienckowski said on Saturday that she could not speak on behalf of the committee, but offered her own opinion of the comments.

“My experience base is broader than some of the younger members on the committee because I am almost 70. I have lived in major metropolises like Los Angeles and New York City in my lifetime,” she said.

Swienckowski, who also challenged LaPierre’s comments during the Oct. 17 meeting, acknowledged the structural bias that disadvantages people of color. “Yes, there is institutionalized racism. That is undeniable,” she said.

But she drew a distinction between those power structures, and the suggestion that individuals are born different. “The reality in life is that no one is born any particular thing,” she said. “This takes us back to a really ugly time period in history, because black people were assumed to be inferior because they were born that way.”

Swienckowski said she would like for LaPierre to clarify her comments. “I would hope that the statement can be restated in a way that was not done the first time,” she said. Swienckowski also said she would like to see the committee’s charge expanded to be inclusive of other disadvantaged groups in the Upper Valley.

“If you have a whole committee that is just addressing the problems of a small group of people and you ignore everyone else, the exclusion is toxic,” she said. “I’m going to try to help this committee be expansive. Be inclusive. If it doesn’t work, it means I’ve been outvoted.”

In response to a request for comment, LaPierre sent a brief email in which she said she was out of town at a conference.

Selectboard Responds

Since the Oct. 17 meeting, LaPierre’s statement has come up twice before the Hartford Selectboard; members were split on their reaction to the comments, but agreed to take a “wait and see” approach.

First, on Oct. 24, Hartford resident Lannie Collins said he was “deeply hurt” and felt LaPierre was saying “as a privileged white person, I’m inherently racist,” according to CATV video of the meeting.

Collins suggested LaPierre needed to explain her comments in order to remain in her position. “It makes me question the ability of someone to lead a committee when they make a statement that all white people are racist by birth,” he said.

Neither of the Selectboard’s two liaison members to the Hartford Racial Inequality Committee — Dennis and Selectwoman Rebecca White — responded to Collins’ comments at the time.

But during a fresh discussion on Tuesday, Brown shared his thoughts and said he had “serious reservations about the leadership” of LaPierre. Selectwoman Sandy Mariotti said she was offended, and Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said “all of us have feelings about that statement.”

In January, LaPierre was among those who called for the resignation of Selectman Mike Morris after Morris forwarded an email that contained a racist depiction of members of the Obama family and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. On Tuesday, Morris said he agreed with Brown. “This all started with me sending out a cartoon. I got beat up pretty good over that,” he said. “I made a mistake. I didn’t do anything intentional. A lot of people feel that this act was intentional.”

Other Selectboard members defended LaPierre. Selectman Alan Johnson characterized it as an issue with jargon, not intent.

“I saw a fairly young person who knows her subject matter very well, very detailed, and was, you know, fighting a cold at the time and maybe wasn’t at 100 percent of her game and I interpreted some stumbles in terminology in her intent to express a thought,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dennis said that, in a conversation about race relations within the community, there are bound to be some difficult truths, and that individuals can acknowledge their own biases without feeling personally attacked. White was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, and declined comment on Friday.

As Tuesday’s Selectboard discussion closed, Grassi said the Selectboard should “hold back” to see how the Racial Inequality Committee responds during its next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, from 7-8:30 p.m, in Town Hall.

“If it turns out to be more of an issue, then we need to address it,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com  or 603-727-3211.

Correction

Simon Dennis and Rebecca White are the Hartford Selec tboard members  who sit on the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality. Although Selectman Dennis Brown attended a meeting last month of the inequality panel, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described his role.



Update: Three members of the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality resigned at the end of a meeting on Nov. 14.