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.