Recently I saw a photo on Facebook of a young black man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Dear Police: I am a White Woman.” It was funny, since he was so obviously not a white woman, and then not so funny when I thought of what would prompt him to wear that t-shirt.
I am a white woman, and while my heart pounds if a police officer pulls me over, being killed is not one of the things I fear. I’ve been horrified by police killings of black men. A twelve-year-old boy playing with a toy gun was shot to death. A man whose only crime was selling cigarettes continued to plead “I can’t breathe” while he was choked to death. But it was Philando Castile’s murder – it is now officially a homicide – that put me over the edge. He carefully complied with the officer’s requests. He was shot dead. You may have seen the video his girlfriend posted: she was desperately calm as she responded to the officer. Their young daughter was in the back of the car, and her tiny voice is heard comforting her mother, “It’s OK, Mommy.” Philando worked at a Montessori school. He had made it his business to learn every child’s name. He was pulled over for a broken taillight and the officer thought he might be someone the police were looking for because he, like the suspect, had a wide nose.
Vermont has a history of supporting racial justice, for which we can be rightly proud. Many Vermonters hid escaped slaves as they made their way to freedom; the Rokeby Museum documents the Underground Railroad in Vermont. Harriet Tubman spoke in South Royalton and Frederick Douglass spoke in Ferrisburgh. Alexander Twilight was the first black person to earn a college degree when he graduated from Middlebury. In 1836 he was elected to the Vermont General Assembly, the first black American elected as a state legislator.
Vermont was the first state in the nation to outlaw slavery in 1791. We were leaders when it was not popular or easy, when it took bravery and a passion for what was right.
We have done less well in recent years. Nationally, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. Vermont is one of five states in which the rate is more than 10 times the rate of whites (The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in State Prisons, Ashley Nellis, The Sentencing Project, 2016). The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that students of color in Vermont were more than twice as likely as white students to have been threatened at school and to have missed school because they felt unsafe. Research done by UVM analyzing traffic stops shows that blacks and Hispanics are pulled over, searched and arrested far more often than whites, even though white drivers are more likely to be carrying illegal contraband. When stopped, black drivers were 4.6 times more likely to be searched than white drivers; Hispanic drivers four times more likely. These racial disparities have widened in recent years. Bias is not reserved for our African-American citizens, as the recent backlash against Syrian immigrants in Rutland has shown. These are just a few examples of the situation in Vermont for people of color. What has happened to us?
As we enter this recent surge of the civil rights movement, Vermont has an opportunity to become a national leader in racial justice. White people, 95% of Vermont’s population, must take a stand.
It’s easier to leave the problem to someone else because it doesn’t seem to affect us directly. We may feel scared of sounding ignorant. We may feel uncomfortable with the topic of race; we may know few people of color. We may feel helpless in the face of something so big, and don’t know what to do. Can we learn together? It’s worth a little awkwardness. Too much is at stake for our state and the nation.
If real change can happen anywhere in the country, it can happen here. I call on Vermonters’ innate sense of fairness. I call on us to remember our courage and our history as leaders in racial justice. I call on Vermont to become, once again, a national leader for racial justice.
Take one small action. Talk with one neighbor or family member about race. Start the conversation by talking about this essay, or by talking about the recent killings of black men. Speak out against bias and bigotry. Tell of Vermont’s history in terms of racial justice and tell everyone you know that Vermont can lead the country again.