Three Atonements

Ah, traditional values.

In the same week when a state lawmaker denied the existence of systemic racism in Vermont, there were hearings on three separate bills designed to atone for some of the most racist passages in state history.

Rep. Art Peterson, R-Of Course, opened his yap and revealed the hatred within during a Wednesday hearing on H.210, which would address racial disparities in health care. If you want details, click the link above. I’ll just note that Peterson (also known for opposing the display of a Black Lives Matter flag) entered the Legislature after narrowly defeating one of the most decent men in the Legislature, Dave Potter, last fall. Definitely not an improvement.

Let’s take the three bills one at a time, shall we?

J.R.H.2 is making a return engagement. It was on track to passage in 2020… until the pandemic hit. The resolution was one of many bills sidetracked as a result. But now it’s back.

The two-page resolution ticks off the lowlights of Vermont’s practice of sterilizing those considered unworthy of reproducing. It’s worth reading just for the refresher on what we’re capable of. The second-to-last paragraph contains an apology to “all individual Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed” by the policy.

But it goes even further, closing with this:

…the General Assembly recognizes that further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impact of State-sanctioned eugenics policies and related practices of disenfranchisement and ethnocide leading to genocide.

The further action might include a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to thoroughly document Vermont’s eugenics movement and the harm that resulted.

Speaking of T&RCs, H.96 would set the stage for “one or more …commissions to examine and begin the process of dismantling institutional, structural, and systemic discrimination in Vermont, both past and present.”

Its immediate effect would be the creation of, you guessed it, a Task Force “to develop and submit to the General Assembly a proposal for legislation” that would create a commission or commissions.

Normally I’m not a fan of task forces and special commissions; they’re often the last refuge of the timid, used to postpone actual decision-making. In this case, the Task Force would have some value in laying out the case for future T&RCs. Because Vermont has plenty of Art Petersons who believe our state is uniquely immune to racism.

Finally comes a bill that you wouldn’t think we need: H.116 would ban the practice of involuntarily sterilizing “individuals with an intellectual disability.”

What? You might be thinking. Surely we haven’t allowed that in decades?

You’d be surprised. The heyday of this abominable practice was in the 1920s and 30s. But the last known involuntary sterilization occurred in 1957. (The last one in the United States happened in Oregon in 1981.) And apparently it was never formally banned in state law.

Time to close that loophole, eh?

H.96 is in the House Human Services Committee. Let’s send best wishes to all three bills. It’s time we faced our own past clearly and honestly.

We’ll close with a nugget from Rep. Peterson, who stumbled through an exchange with the brilliant Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity. First he asked her to provide “a specific, concrete” example of racial bias in health care. She had one at the ready: a passage from a medical textbook asserting that Black people are more tolerant of pain than white folks. She pointed to studies that show Black patients are less likely to be given pain medication.

Peterson pooh-poohed that as racist acts of individuals — which doesn’t at all explain the medical textbook. He then denied that anyone would read that and underprescibe pain meds for Black patients — which, as I said above, is a documented fact.

In a later conversation with VTDigger, he doubled down — saying that racism comes from individual acts, not systemic issues. (Should have asked him about eugenics, eh?) And then came the topper: He put the blame on the targets of discrimination.

“Some people can overcome it and go right through it and have great and successful lives. Other people let it hold them back,” he said.

Okay, Art. I guess those women who were sterilized without consent shouldn’t have “let it hold them back”? Cripes.


5 thoughts on “Three Atonements

  1. Kathryn Trudell

    I find it hard to believe that you would write an article on the despicable practice of eugenics in Vermont without discussing Planned Parenthood and its founder, a white woman named Margaret Sanger, who was a devoted supporter of eugenics. She wanted to eliminate the inferior races (read minorities) and the poor through abortion and contraception. She spoke specifically of targeting Black communities and the poor of any race. She considered them a drain on society. She was a promoter of the perfect Aryan ideal human: white and financially well-off with a very small family. On the one hand Vermont lawmakers decry eugenics and racism, but continue to celebrate and promote one of its evil stepchildren, abortion. All nine months. Without restriction. With language so broad you could drive a train through it. And even change the Vermont Constitution to accommodate the agenda of Margaret Sanger. Planned Parenthood has never denounced her. In fact, they still celebrate her. An honest article on the whole topic of eugenics must include Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Vermont politicians must stop glorifying both of them and trying to hide their eugenic roots. Are they and you willing to acknowledge that Planned Parenthood itself is part of the systemic racism you say exists in Vermont? Or is abortion such a sacred cow in Vermont that it is exempt from any such scrutiny?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Two things. First, eugenics was widely believed across the political spectrum. At the time Vermont avidly embraced the practice, the state was under complete Republican control. Second, Planned Parenthood’s own position on Margaret Sanger: “Margaret Sanger had some beliefs, practices, and associations that we acknowledge, denounce, and work to rectify today.” Those include her role in the eugenics movement.

      1. H. Jay Eshelman

        “Margaret Sanger had some beliefs,…..”? Is that like Representative Ilhan Omar’s unbelievable description of the 9/11 attacks as ‘some people did something’?.

        In other words, Mr. Walters, you’re saying everyone else at that time was preaching to the same choir, so that alleviates Planned Parenthood’s current position on the matter?

        I don’t think so.

  2. H. Jay Eshelman

    I find it curious when some privileged whites question the existence of racism, while others use their elite status to announce that ‘Black Lives Matter’, as if their presumptive pronouncements are sufficient to assuage the privilege of their whiteness. One can only hope and pray that those privileged whites, arguing amongst themselves as to who is more the racist, will one day judge all people by the content of their character.

    1. Kay Trudell

      I totally agree with you that we should judge people by the content of their character, regardless of skin color, as Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. stated. Agree!! I am a Gentile Christian who attends a church with a mixed-race congregation that preaches we are all one in Christ Jesus. People want to be allowed to judge others as they meet them in their daily lives without having themselves metaphorically put up against the wall and told they must confess the sins that others tell them they have — and tell them and tell them and tell them. And tell them they are racists if they do not comply. This is not Mao’s Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution where the cultural influencers forced people to recant on their knees in front of their entire villages etc. If people do not believe that they are racist, or that there is systemic racism where they live and work, while still acknowledging the evils of slavery and Jim Crow laws, etc. etc. in the past, THAT must be respected. If you keep beating people up who were not part of these past wrongs, you are just making the divide wider. Take people as they are today. If you keep beating people up, you will get either forced confessions while the heart is resentful, as happened in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which will not help racial healing, or a hardening of the heart where reconciliation is not possible. To insist that another person must acknowledge something against their will is tyranny. People need to be free to do so on their own as an act of their own free will. To do otherwise is collectivism and thought and speech control. One way Christians have found reconciliation with their brothers and sisters of all ethnicities is because of the Bible verse that we are all one in Christ Jesus. That we are all equal in Him. But here’s the caveat: it is not possible without Jesus. You can call that observation whatever you want to, but once people of various skin colors, income levels, cultures, etc. unite in Jesus Christ, He helps heal our hearts. It is only possible because He is the Higher Power all Christians who are Bible-believers follow. Look at society today. Many segments of it reject Jesus. Many people say we must not drag religion into it because of “separation of Church and State” (words which are not in the Constitution). Okay, but look at what is happening in our culture without Him. The inner heart must assent freely in order for true reconciliation to take place. Without that, it will not be possible. Humans of one skin color cannot force humans of another skin color to do it without a change of heart. It cannot be forced. Hundreds of millions of people of various skin colors and ethnicities have found the ability to unite and view each other with compassion as equals because of Jesus. Without Him, it is just a case of one skin color telling the other what a bunch of racists they are, and reconciliation cannot happen in a way that is open, honest, truthful, or sincere. The problem is bigger than the human level. It is a problem of the spiritual heart. Some call it a sinful heart. You cannot force a heart. A heart must be won and assent freely.


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