There’s been a cluster of news items this week that point in the same direction: Vermonters are really uncomfortable with racial issues. To wit:
- Rutland Aldermen split on a resolution condemning the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol
- Barre Council puts divisive flag measure on Town Meeting ballot
- Business owners of color feel unwelcome in the Chamber of Commerce
- House Republicans introduce a bill that would prohibit public schools from flying the “Black Lives Matter” flag
- The Vermont Senate’s first woman of color says Vermont has a retention problem with people of color rather than a recruitment problem.
First, we go to Rutland, a city with a habit of shooting itself in the foot. This week, Aldermen worked themselves into a tizzy — and ultimately held a tie vote — on a measure condemning the events of January 6 and blaming President Trump for triggering the riot. A couple of racist or racist-adjacent Aldermen led the charge against it.
Tom DePoy offered a substitute resolution to condemn the Capitol riot, but also the Black Lives Matter movement. Apparently he thought of this as a way to unify the community. It was voted down by the panel. Paul Clifford, who has a history of racist social media posts, voted against the original resolution. Sam Gerusso courageously walked away from his computer before the vote, saying “I shut off my camera and volume and went and used the restroom, got the mail, checked on my wife.”
He forgot washing his hair and walking the dog.
Among those speaking for the resolution was former mayor Chris Louras, who lost his 2017 bid for re-election over his proposal to allow Syrian refugee families to settle in town, in an earlier indication that city residents (well, most of them) are deeply uncomfortable with diversity.
Perhaps the most curious of the four “no” votes was from
Chris Ettori Rebecca Mattis, who claimed to “100 percent support” the measure, but said she voted “no” because Aldermen were divided on the issue. So, in order to prevent division, her vote essentially split the body right down the middle. Riiiiight.
*Note: With apologies to Chris Ettori, it was Mattis who cast the curious vote.
Barre, which saw its city council tie itself in knots over flying a “Black Lives Matter” flag, was at it again this week. Councilor Michael Boutin offered a charter amendment to limit official flag-flying to four: the American flag, the Vermont flag, the city flag, and the POW/MIA banner. Councilors unanimously agreed to pass the buck to Town Meeting Day voters. Ah, leadership.
If Boutin’s intent was to keep politics out of official flag-flying, the POW/MIA banner is problematic. Its original message was okay, but it has come to represent Americans who can’t get over losing the Vietnam War. For at least one Barre resident, it has unpleasant connotations:
Luekhamhan is a Laotian refugee. I see her point. The Barre measure isn’t openly racist, but it reveals a deep discomfort with confronting racial issues and a tone-deafness in how non-white Vermonters see certain issues.
On to a new survey of BIPOC business owners, which found that a majority don’t belong to local business organizations because they just don’t feel welcomed or respected.
“Never occurred to me,” one respondent explained.
“Too GOP-centric, too white,” said another.
“Didn’t feel like I fit,” said yet another.
I doubt the Chambers are overtly racist. But if they’re trying to be inclusive, they’re failing. Curtiss Reed, Jr. of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity conducted the survey; he’s planning to start a new statewide business organization. Because “not overtly racist” isn’t good enough.
Next, the opening of a new legislative session has brought the customary blizzard of bill introductions. Among them is H.92, which would ban the flying of any flag on public school property aside from the U.S. flag and the Vermont flag. I guess it would be too direct to simply ban the “Black Lives Matter” flag, but that’s obviously the intent. BLM is the only flag “controversy” in recent memory. The eight sponsors, all Republicans, are among the GOPers who voted against a resolution condemning the January 6 insurrection.
H.92 isn’t going to go anywhere. But its presence on the books is one more little stain on our reputation.
Finally, to put a nice bow on all of this, we have brand-new State Senator Kesha Ram writing an essay that strikes directly at the heart of Vermont’s complacency on race issues.
Many well-intentioned Vermonters bemoan the state’s strikingly monochromatic population, and toss around ideas on how to recruit more people of color.
Well, Ram says that recruitment isn’t the problem. It’s retention. Because many people of color move here only to find that Vermont isn’t a welcoming place, and eventually move away.
“Unfortunately, our institutions and communities often fail them after they arrive — or even if they’ve grown up here,” she wrote, citing Vermont’s “well-documented disparities in Vermont’s health care, housing, and policing.” She concludes the essay with, “Our public policy efforts to retain Vermont’s racial diversity will not go far without a change in everyday attitudes that exclude and exhaust BIPOC Vermonters.”
I like the word “exhaust” there. It’s not a firehose in the face. It’s things like a traffic stop for no apparent reason, or sidelong glances as you walk down the street. Or city officials who keep tripping publicly over their own racism. Or local governments that shrink away from race-tinged controversies.
All the above happenings underline Ram’s central point: “Eradicating racism means challenging white colleagues and institutions when they fail to see BIPOC Vermonters in their humanity.”
We’ve got a long way to go.