Editorial: Racism in the Upper Valley

Friday, February 03, 2017

We suspect that many in the Upper Valley would like to think that racism is not a problem here, but they need only open their eyes, ears and hearts to know that isn’t true. Two recent events remind us all of the challenge of racism, which has been called America’s original sin and remains as difficult to root out as some ancient toxin in the soil.

First, a hopeful sign: A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Kilton Library in West Lebanon on a recent Saturday to face the realities. They heard from people of color about ever-present racism, a background noise they can never ignore and white people seemingly cannot hear. The event, sponsored by Upper Valley Young Liberals and Showing Up for Racial Justice, attracted more than 150 people, which surprised the organizers. No doubt the turbulence of the recent election campaign and the first days of the Trump administration are driving many people to seek some path forward.

It seemed that those who attended were willing to take the first step in dealing with racism: admitting its existence, even in themselves. Americans in general have made a grave error by wanting to declare the war on racism over, to blot out the Black Lives Matter banner by covering it with All Lives Matter. Both slogans are true, of course, but Americans need to hear why the former has such urgency. At the Lebanon gathering, it was pointed out that black people are just 1 percent of Vermont’s population, yet are 10 percent of the state’s prison population. It’s also been reported that Vermonters of color are stopped in their cars far more often by police, even though white people who are stopped are more often found with contraband.

This week’s Hartford Selectboard meeting was an unlikely place for the issue to erupt, but it did with intensity. Selectwoman Rebecca White called on Selectman Mike Morris to resign because he had forwarded an email depiction of Barack Obama, Obama family members and former Attorney General Eric Holder that many saw as racist. The Selectboard also heard from residents who insisted that the non-white minority in Hartford continue to face cultural ignorance and hostility. One spoke of having rocks thrown at him; others recounted racial epithets.

Morris reacted more contritely than many who have found themselves in a similar spot. Instead of defending or minimizing his action, he took responsibility. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am for being so naive,’’ he said at the Selectboard meeting. “This past week has been a tough one, but a very educating one for me. I never understood what being a privileged white man was before now.”

It is ultimately Morris’ decision about continuing to serve, as he has indicated he plans to do. He must confront whether he can fairly represent all of Hartford’s residents; it would also help if he would make a commitment to talk to the people who voted for him about his experience and what he learned from it.

Going forward, we applaud the Selectboard for forming a committee to study the issue of racism in the community. It will have hard work ahead, since no easy answers are in the offing.