'Vermont Is Racist Too': Racial Justice Leaders Say Bennington Incidents Reflect Statewide Problem

Sep 12, 2018
Originally published on September 13, 2018 6:09 pm

Many Vermonters were shocked last month when the state’s only African-American female lawmaker announced that, after years of racial harassment, she was withdrawing from her re-election campaign.

Tabitha Pohl-Moore, the Vermont director of the NAACP, was less surprised.

“We’ve tended to rest on our hundreds-of-year-old laurels that Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery — we’re a liberal bastion, you know? Can’t happen here,” Pohl-Moore said. “Well, one of the things that people forget is that Vermont is racist too.”

The harassment of Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris started back in 2016, in the form of a racist cartoon posted on Twitter. From there, Morris says things “cascaded.” And in a recent interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition, Morris said the situation had become untenable.

“I had a home invasion, vandalism, even the woods near my house where we’d go and walk frequently as a family had swastikas painted all over the trees there,” Morris said.

Vermont Edition: Rep. Kiah Morris Details 'Pervasive' Threats, Decision To Withdraw From Election [Aug. 30]

Morris’ story is hardly an outlier.

In February, a report by the Vermont Human Rights Commission detailed rampant racial harassment allegations at a state-run psychiatric hospital.

Back in June, posters with the words “Black Lives Don’t Matter” began appearing in downtown Brattleboro.

And just last month, a summer camp for children of color in Stowe was canceled, after it was reported the kids were subjected to racial slurs by people shouting from passing cars.

Pohl-Moore says she’s detected a pattern.

“It’s the same kind of story that unfolds every time there’s a sensational level of racist behavior or rhetoric happening, and that’s: ‘I can’t believe it’s happening in Vermont. I can’t believe it. What do we do?’” Pohl-Moore says. “And then it fizzles out and nothing is really done about it. And then it continues to simmer.”

The episode in Bennington is the latest to spur questions about how Vermont is dealing with the problem of racism.

Pohl-Moore and other racial justice advocates — like Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission — hope Morris’ story will engender a more lasting response.

“My concern is that a lot of what I’ve been hearing from white people — and these are white people who mean well and want to do the right thing — is, ‘This is not who we are, this is not our state,’” Richards says. “But the reality is that it is who we are, and it is our state. And we need to own that.”

Richards sat down recently with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson to plot a course of action in response to the episode in Bennington. Richards says one possibility is a structured series of community conversations about racism.

“Conversations about race are fraught and people have a very difficult time engaging in them,” Richards says. “But until we begin to engage those conversations as white people, primarily, we are not going to move this ball.”

Pohl-Moore says lawmakers and the Human Rights Commission would be right to focus on the role of white people in combating the problem of racism.

“I’m so done waiting for white people to get to this place where, you know, they’re comfortable enough to deal with it,” Pohl-Moore says. “I’m like, ‘Come on, just come on.’ We don’t have time. We don’t have time.”

During the last legislative session, Vermont lawmakers created a new panel, housed in the Attorney General’s Office, to examine racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott have also created an executive-branch panel — called the Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Equity Advisory Panel — to look at the issue of systemic racism in state government.

Pohl-Moore says both are worthwhile initiatives, but that they likely aren’t enough to get at the root of the problem. In order for that to happen, Pohl-Moore says the racial justice movement needs more faces — white ones.

“I think what we need if we’re going to be successful … is more people in majority positions joining us, because we are exhausted,” Pohl-Moore says. “I’ve been saying this a lot lately: Asking black people or people of color to fix racism is like asking the environment to fix global warming. It’s not our problem. We didn’t create it.”

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP, says white people don’t need to wait for some kind of formal policy initiative to begin their process of self-reflection.

He says they can start with what he calls “radical empathy.”

“Which is where you kind of put yourself in the shoes of another person and then you respond accordingly,” Gillom says.

By trying to imagine the world through the eyes of a person of color, Gillom says white people might begin to see things that had been previously been invisible to them.

"So you realize that, 'OK, there is an issue here. How can I respond in a way that makes sense for the person who is the most impacted by this issue, and not myself?'" Gillom says.

Gillom says white people should be asking other questions too, “about the rigidity … of how we define ourselves as Vermonters, and who’s included in that and who’s not.”

From there, Gillom says people can begin to form small coalitions, and do the “proactive work” needed to identify structural hurdles to racial equality in their own communities. And then, he says they can bring their findings to local boards and commissions, and ask elected officials to make those problems a priority.

“That’s my advice,” Gillom says. “It starts with self-reflection, and then it goes up from there.”

Gillom and Pohl-Moore say they hope it “goes up” quickly.

“If we can’t protect one of the most visible people of color, and the only female black representative that we have in Vermont, how are we going to protect the everyday person of color?” Gillom says. “If the systems are failing her, then they’re definitely going to fail others. And their stories will not even be heard, so we have to figure it out.”

Disclosure: Steffen Gillom is an occasional VPR commentator.

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