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Column: Vermonters, racism is here in our own backyard

Published: 7/2/2020 10:10:21 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 10:04:32 AM

You’ve probably heard it before: “Hatred doesn’t grow well in Vermont’s rocky soil.” It’s a powerful and catchy phrase, and certainly an ideal to live up to. We saw it for years hanging in the window of Dan and Whit’s in Norwich. Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen it again on signs across Vermont, at demonstrations where thousands of us have gathered to protest police violence.

At rallies, open mics and even online, we’ve heard from Black Vermonters about the difficulties they faced growing up here. The everyday racism they experienced from fellow Vermonters, in addition to the systemic racism within their schools, police forces and town politics, left them feeling vulnerable and even fearful. Many ultimately left our state in search of a larger Black community.

We are at a moment of reckoning. Many of us have mobilized. We’ve come out into the streets to protest, or donated from home, to insist that Black Lives Matter. Whether in our small Vermont towns or in more diverse places like New York, Los Angeles or Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter.

But to truly get behind these words, we must confront the myth that our state is an exception. When we tout Vermont as a haven from violence and bigotry, we neglect the racism rooted in our very soil.

Vermonters, it’s here in our own backyard.

Growing up in Thetford, both of us witnessed overt anti-Black racism. Several classmates wore and defended the Confederate flag. White youths routinely shouted the n-word to break the confidence of athletes on opposing teams, or in our own hallways to show their contempt for Black classmates. The administration claimed it tried to stop the hate speech, but it was always treated as an isolated disciplinary issue, with little done to confront the racism behind the verbal assaults.

And that’s just the overt racism. Very little was said about the underlying anti-Black attitudes that white people share. Some of our history and English teachers made sure we discussed race. But without a 20th century U.S. history requirement, we were left with huge gaps in understanding how racism has evolved over the past 100 years. To us, “racism” only existed in other states, in the past, in textbooks. We never grappled with how even “progressive Vermont” makes it hard for Black people to live here, go to school here, walk on our streets and drive on our roads without being harassed and threatened by everyday bigots and armed police.

We cannot speak to the experience of growing up Black here because we are white. But we know this: We must listen as our fellow community members speak out about their experiences growing up Black in Vermont, and we must take a hard look at the statistics to understand that these stories are not isolated.

In Burlington, a 2018 study found that police are far more likely to aim a gun at a Black person than at a white person. In 2018, Vermont State Police searched Black and Hispanic drivers twice as often as white drivers during routine traffic stops. In Burlington, it’s six times as often. This has happened to too many friends and beloved members of our communities.

Racist policing leads to racist incarceration. One in 14 Black men in Vermont are in prison right now. That’s roughly seven times the rate of white Vermonters. Our “Freedom and Unity” state incarcerates Black men at the highest rate in the country. How have we let this happen?

Our state funding is badly skewed, as well. This year, Vermont allocated nearly $74 million to the state police. That’s more than Vermont has given to all of its state colleges. We spend less for our in-state college students than any other state in the U.S. Rock bottom. No. 50. And all this while our state continues to lose young people at an alarming rate.

How can we claim to care about the next generation of Vermonters when we invest significantly less in education than in a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and imprisons Black men and women?

Imagine the services we could provide if that money were reallocated with our entire community’s safety and well-being in mind. Affordable housing, improved mental health services, better schools, healthy and accessible food, support for small businesses — the possibilities are abundant.

We hope things are changing. In just the last month, Vermont lawmakers have drafted bills to ban police chokeholds and restrict the use of deadly force. The Chittenden County prosecutor has vowed to review all pending criminal cases against Black Vermonters to see if they’ve been afforded equal protection under the law.

We appreciate these steps, but we know that surface-level reforms in policing can’t overturn ingrained systems and attitudes. It’s going to take our whole community fighting for justice, long past when the news cycle has forgotten. That includes being actively anti-racist, engaging with our families and peers, teaching our children when our schools fail to.

That also means reevaluating what it means to keep our communities safe. We are made to believe that police are the only route to achieving safety, and so in times of uproar we are encouraged to advocate for more humane policing, even to thank the officers around us who haven’t explicitly abused their power. But when we really look at the history, the facts, the stories, we should see that the safety of all of our community members is not possible through reliance on the police. It is up to us to take action.

There are still protests going on throughout Vermont and we encourage you to show up. Beyond this though, it is important to follow up with your own research, donations and activism.

Here are some suggestions of where to start:

■ Educate yourselves and others on alternatives to policing. The “Community Safety For All” campaign by Showing Up for Racial Justice (showingupforracialjustice.org/surj-faith) offers an extensive resource list.

■ Use your voice (and money) to make change. You can find resources, including petitions, organizations and bail funds to donate to and readings to help you learn more at theradicaldatabase.com.

■ Check out the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance website (vtracialjusticealliance.wordpress.com) and its legislative agenda, including H.478, an act to establish a task force to study and consider a state apology and proposal for reparations.

■Support local Black-owned businesses.

■ Support “Safe Spaces for BIPOC and Allies,” run by local activists Alicia Barrows and Asma Elhuni, and follow their social media accounts.

George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade. We say their names, and we remember. We protest and we rally and we cry because we know that Black Lives Matter. But they matter when they are alive, too, when they face racism in our towns, in our schools.

Let’s show our support for our Black friends and family now, not just after their lives have been senselessly taken.

Let’s weed out the hatred that has been growing in Vermont’s rocky soil for far too long.

Emma Glazer and Raphael Orleck-Jetter, both of Thetford Center, graduated from Thetford Academy in 2017.




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