Welcome to Vermont. Please step out of the car.

Ah, leaf peeping season. Prime time for tourists, who come from far and wide to enjoy the autumnal beauty of our state.

Most tourists, anyway. If I were a person of color, I think I’d give it a skip. Especially if my car had New York or Massachusetts plates.

A few things conspire to put me in this frame of mind. First was a revealing, and disturbing, front-page spread in last Sunday’s Times Argus:

Racial profiling spurs state to action

And the sidebar:

“Invislble” racism in a mostly white state

The T-A is paywalled. If you’re not a subscriber, I recommend you find the paper in your local library. The stories are kind of eye-popping.

The first article chronicles the statistical and anecdotal evidence that in Vermont, Driving While Black can get you in trouble. A few highlights: a study from a few years ago that showed black drivers in Burlington and South Burlington were twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites. Many stops were for minor offenses, like a dead tail-light or failure to signal. There’s also the persistent, obvious racial issues in the Rutland City Police Department, including a damning claim of workplace discrimination by a former officer who’s now a state trooper.

The story kicks off with the tale of a black man pulled over in Hardwick for failing to signal while exiting a gas station — which hell, nobody ever signals while pulling out of a gas station. He was then detained for two hours “because a 16-year-old warrant for another man popped up when they ran [his] driver’s license.”

If you’re a black person, how much of that bullshit do you have to hear about before you decide to give the Green Mountain State a pass? Indeed, how many potential tourists stay away from Vermont because of its reputation?

The Legislature did respond to the problem last year, by passing a bill requiring all law enforcement agencies “to collect data by race and make it available to the public; have a fair and impartial policing policy; and provide ongoing training to new and existing officers.”

All well and good, but (a) how long does it take to change institutional cultures, especially in communities that rarely see a black face, and (b) how much longer does it take to change Vermont’s reputation among people of color?

Especially with our continuing War on Drugs, many of whose highest-profile targets are black and brown people from cities in New York and Massachusetts. In today’s Times Argus, Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos cites “direct ties” between local residents and “members of gangs like the Latin Kings and the Bloods.”

It’s true that big-city dealers see opportunity in Vermont. We offer brisk demand, higher prices, and less competition than places like New York City or Springfield, MA. But isn’t this likely to lead to baseless traffic stops and arrests? When you’re a cop in a lily-white small town and you see a black guy driving through, what goes through your mind? Good grief, if we have solid evidence of bias in our most urban area, how bad do you think it is in rural Vermont?

A long and sordid heritage

Through virtually all of America’s history, the mechanisms of law and justice have been used against people of color. We all know that was true before the Civil War. But afterward? Yup.

I’ve been reading Ian Haney Lopez’ book “Dog Whistle Politics,” which is about the use of thinly-disguised appeals to racism in American politics. There’s a passage in the book that illuminates a horrible fact about American history that I’d never known.

After the Civil War, the South was contending with freed slaves AND the economic consequences of losing all that slave labor.

What happened? An explosion in arrests and detentions of black people, who were then leased out as, effectively, slave labor. “Convict leasing” was a revenue source for Southern governments, it kept a foot on the neck of African-Americans, and it was a cheap labor source for farms and industries. (Some of America’s largest corporations benefited from inmate labor.) Between convict leasing and sharecropping, the vast majority of Southern blacks were economically, if not legally, enslaved.

This wasn’t just a last gasp of the Confederacy. Convict leasing continued until World War II.

After the War, as the civil rights movement awakened, police were used against protesters and activists. After the riots of the 1960s, Richard Nixon was elected on a “law and order” platform, a clear “dog whistle” to those who feared a black revolution. And an equally loud “dog whistle” of warning to Americans of color.

Cut to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared the War on Drugs. Who ended up in prison as a consequence? Overwhelmingly, people of color. There was no particular difference in drug use between blacks and whites, but there was a huge difference in who wound up imprisoned for long periods of time. That remains true to this day.

If I’m a black American, I see today’s incidents of police harassment and violence in light of that long and sordid history. The cops and the courts have always been used as instruments of repression. They are still acting that way. Do I have any reason to believe that Vermont is any better? No. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to believe otherwise.

The War on Drugs is alive and well in Vermont. Despite Governor Shumlin’s desire to enhance treatment, the response to drugs is still primarily a matter of law enforcement. And people of color are the bad guys.

So why come here for a vacation? For that matter, why consider relocating to Vermont? I wouldn’t.

7 thoughts on “Welcome to Vermont. Please step out of the car.

  1. Brooke Paige


    I remain unconvinced that Vermont is a hot bed of racism ! My unanswered question is what portion of minorities stopped and questioned were found to be committing a crime or wanted for prior “bad acts” compared to the portion of “non-minorities” who were stopped and questioned and were found to be committing a crime or wanted for prior “bad acts” ?

    If the percentage of minorities who were stopped and subsequently found to be law abiding is greater than the percentage of “non-minorities” stopped and subsequently found to be law abiding – then we have a problem. It is this comparison that is not studied statistically and it is the real measure which would reveal whether the police are “targeting” minorities or in the alternative that there is just a higher proportion of those being stopped who happen to be minorities who are committing a violation or are wanted for prior “bad acts.”

    Your “readers” can get past around “pay wall” through the link: http://www.timesargus.com/article/20150920/NEWS03/709209901

    Best Wishes, Brooke

  2. NanuqFC

    The Vermont ACLU has been pushing for police departments to have the data they’ve been collecting analyzed — without which, it’s lumpen data not available to the public. So we don’t quite know what the data really show. Feel free to add your voice to the call for real information instead of hidden collections of isolated numbers.

  3. Michelle Fay

    Good post, John. I’d suggest that “convict leasing” didn’t really go away, the profits have just been privatized with prison labor now part of many corporations’ business plans.

  4. gyrfalcon7

    I’m not sure there’s a straight line between bias and rural folks in this state. I live in a very rural part of the state in a very small town, and we have several black residents and two African-American kids who went through the town’s elementary school, and the annual arrival of the hard-working Jamaican guys who pick the apple harvest. I’ve never heard a soul express any anxiety or bias against any of these folks.

    On the other hand, like many small VT towns, we have no police department, nor do any of the adjoining towns, to unduly harass black Vermonters on the roads.

    I’m wondering if the problem isn’t overall bias here but more of a law enforcement mentality combined with urban living. I’m told by a friend in another state who works on immigration issues that Vermont is considered pretty much the best place in this country for seasonal laborers from the Caribbean and Latin America largely because workers don’t come back home with tales of bias and harassment the way they do from many other areas, but of fair treatment and a welcoming atmosphere.

    Rural Vermont is a very, very different place than rural Kansas or Alabama or anywhere else I’ve ever heard of. I’m not sure why that is, but I do know that the conventional wisdom about knee-jerk conservatism and insular, biased attitudes can’t be automatically applied to rural Vermont like this.

  5. Cliff

    I am an African American man who moved recently from Vermont, where I had lived for 2 years. Only a few months ago my wife and returned to the southwest where we met in 1989. In the 2 years I lived there I worked as a teacher at 2 colleges and as a dj performing in the 3 state area. I was stopped more by police in the 2 years living in VT than in 25 years living as a resident in Tucson, AZ where we lived previously. I was never charged and had never commited a crime except, to quote the essay above, driving while black. One of these stops included 3 police officers, one at each window and one near the front of my car. Again, no crime had been commited. My wife, who is white, was quite upset by this particular stop since it happened only a few weeks after events in Ferguson. I won’t go into more details, but I do want to point out that the reasons we left had everything to do with feeling constantly “unwelcome”. We could no longer live with the ignorance, fear and polite contempt we were regularly received from the good people of Vermont.
    I sincerely appreciate the support and understanding expressed by the writer of this article. I’m also very used to the relativley knee jerk reactions that suggest that what is being said regarding inequity in VT MUST be an exaggerated claim. I’d like to share with you the briefest possible slice of my experience in the southwest to contrast it with what our lives were like in VT. Please understand it as less than a “slice” of our lives. Let me just say that diversity and integration are the key to really changing things in the state. And I don’t merely mean diversity of people. Even diversity of imagery helps. Here in the southwest, we shop at Smith’s a Kroger-owned chain similar to Hannafords. Throughout the store are pictures of people from different cultures including an African American man with tiny dreads that greets customers in the front of the store. I saw more public images of black people when I visited Japan than I saw in my 2 years in New England. The lack of exposure to diversity in VT contributes to comments like one I received just before we left where I was told that I would have likely had a better experience in the state if I’d simply cut my hair ( I have dreads). “People in this state associate that hairstyle with the thugs they see on TV”, I was told. And because there is not a prevalence if diverse imagery, his statment is accurate. But sad nonetheless. “Acceptable” behavior and appearance for a person of color in the state seemed to be defined by whether or not that image appeared in The Andy Griffith Show. Forgive the snark, and….
    Those of you in VT that care at all about social justice need to stop defending and insisting that you’re good people, there must be some mistake. Look around you. I know from experience that it is possible for a person of color to have a pleasant living experience while residing in the state. And, while they are apparently pleasantly abiding with life there, there are vast arenas of contempt that they simply have to ignore. VT is, accordign to the Southern Poverty Law Center one of the states fastest growing in participation in hate groups. One can ignore the evidence of this kind of factor but it does not make it less true. Those “happy” migrant workers? I bet they’re glad when the season is over and they can return to a place where they feel they can be who and what they really are.

  6. Brooke Paige

    Cliff, I am sorry that you had such a difficult experience while living in Vermont. I know only a few African Americans who live here and they have never shared experiences like yours .(They well may have had such experiences and choose not to mention them to me)

    I believe that evil resides in all parts of our country (and throughout the world) however prejudice and hatred only succeed when good fails to resist and gives up (or is blind to the deed). Being from the south and having worked in W. Philadelphia for nearly 30 years – I have seen enough prejudice to last several lifetimes. I believe that the vestiges of prejudice exist because of a lack of familiarity and interaction with people of different races and cultures. I have found that experience teaches respect and compassion. I would like to believe that your experiences in Vermont were just an aberration, however I know that your experiences were real and indicate that I am clearly too hopeful about the thoughts and minds of my fellow Vermonters !

    God Bless and Best Wishes, Brooke


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