Here in Vermont, we don’t have a lot of over-the-top, Bull Connor-style racism. What we do have in unfortunate abundance is white obliviousness, born (in part) of infrequent interactions with people outside narrow racial, ethnic, social and economic boundaries.
That includes yours truly, and I freely acknowledge the limitations of my own insight. I’m sure I have economy-sized blind spots. But at least I’m just a blogger. The stakes are a lot higher when people in positions of leadership betray their cluelessness.
So, in the same week when a Georgia sheriff’s officer made a complete ass of himself in saying that a white guy who’d killed eight people, six of them Asian women, was “having a bad day,” we’ve got two examples of the same phenomenon right here in Vermont.
If you’re only going to read one piece on Weinberger’s blunder, make it state Sen. Kesha Ram’s op-ed on Weinberger and white neutrality. But since she wrote that piece, further developments have made the picture look even worse.
It was bad enough that Weinberger removed Tyeashia Green, his director of racial equity (and sole senior Black appointee), from a review of a study of the city police department before quickly reversing course. But now it’s metastasized from blunder to catastrophe, with the news that Black community leaders had warned him that removing Green was a big mistake. He chose to disregard their advice — until it was too late. As Ram points out, his mindset was that a person of color couldn’t be objective on policing issues. No, only a white person could provide the required dispassionate judgment.
But the worst little nugget was kind of hidden in VTDigger’s story about the Weinberger 180.
Multiple Black leaders in Burlington reached out to Weinberger to express their concerns about Springer’s appointment weeks before the decision was formally announced.
Excuse me? “Weeks before”???
It was only two weeks ago that Weinberger was elected to a fourth term as Mayor. Narrowly elected, despite widespread criticism of the Mayor for, shall we say, favoring the city’s well-off at the expense of the poor, working class, and communities of color. “Weeks before” is an imprecise measure, but it strongly hints that Weinberger had this move in mind before Election Day.
And that makes it look like he was deliberately delaying the announcement until after he was safely re-elected. That speaks of duplicity, not “mere” obliviousness.
He seems to have belatedly grasped the dimensions of his blunder, and what a job it will be to regain the people’s trust. In truth, he may never recover from this. But now that he’s only two weeks into a three-year term, he’ll have plenty of time to mend fences.
And now we travel down US-7 to the picture-postcard community of Manchester, where town manager John O’Keefe led a chorus of dismay over the state’s program of housing the homeless in motels around Vermont. In these pandemic days of limited travel, Manchester has a tremendous oversupply of lodging. Presumably that’s why the state, since the pandemic began, has used several Manchester motels for the homeless.
This isn’t only a racial issue. When a normally isolated community experiences unaccustomed contact with the outside world, the resulting anxieties have to do with class as well as race. But town leaders are blowing the same kinds of dog whistles that you hear in Bennington and Vergennes, nearby communities prone to fears of invasion from “outside.” Such as O’Keefe bemoaning signs of “out-of-state gangs showing up in town.”
Shades of Paul LePage’s “G-Money, Smoothie and Shifty.”
There are claims, with few numbers attached, of an increase in crime. The police department claims “an incredible increase in our call volume,” but I have seen no specifics.
This article is packed with dog whistle upon dog whistle, often fig-leaved in “concern” for the well-being of the poor.
Select Board member Heidi Chamberlain said “she wasn’t against helping people but she had serious concerns.” I suspect she’d be less concerned if the same program were located somewhere else, anywhere else.
Town officials also wring their hands over living conditions in the motels, which are usually quite fine enough for the town’s tony visitors.
“The standards that are being seen right now are really substandard,” O’Keefe said. “It’s subsistence living at the very best. The conditions are deplorable.”
Yeah, I doubt he’d be at all concerned if the “deplorable” accommodations were in Rutland or South Burlington. (And I wonder how the motel operators feel about their lodgings being labeled “deplorable.” One star on Yelp.)
Speaking of dog whistles, here’s board member Todd Nebraska: “The state has basically set up tenement housing in Manchester.” Oooooohhh, “tenements.” How delightfully… urban.
Board chair Ivan Beattie worried about the impact on local schools if they’re having to absorb homeless children, and asserted that Bennington “is better equipped to tackle that number of people.” Yeah, ship ’em somewhere with social problems of its own!
O’Keefe claimed that little tiny Manchester is “shouldering an inordinate amount of the burden.” Maybe. But here’s what I say about that.
Manchester isn’t an island unto itself, much as it would like to be. For every comfortable, entitled Manchester, there’s a Bennington or Rutland to absorb the downtrodden and to house industries too dirty for the likes of Manchester. They’re all part of same society, the same ecosystem. Manchester couldn’t exist without nearby places for the less fortunate.
I’ve spent much of my life in the advantaged side of a pair of very different communities: Montpelier and Barre; Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. These pairs exist in symbiosis, with plenty of hidden and not-so-hidden ties that bind. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that homeowners in Montpelier almost always call on tradespeople from Barre for plumbing, electrical work, and other home repairs. You can’t have white-collar housing prices if you don’t have nearby places where blue-collar and service industry workers can afford to live.
One time while working at the University of Michigan’s public radio station, my reporting took me to the working-class Detroit suburb of Melvindale. It was a whole nother world, full of asphalt, concrete, factories, warehouses, and countless power lines overhead. And I realized that the creature comforts of Ann Arbor or Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe depended on the Melvindales of southeast Michigan — places where stuff was manufactured and energy was produced and trucks crowded the streets at all hours and people got by on working-class jobs and, I’m sure, the air quality was substandard at best.
It’s a real shame, ain’t it, that Manchester is getting a little, temporary taste of the broader world’s problems. It’s a shame if their residents can’t feel quite so detached… so segregated… from the real world’s problems as they’d like to. It’s a shame if their police are a little busier than usual with maybe a few more serious calls than they’re used to handling.
This is the kind of isolationist fearmongering that fuels Vermont’s racial discomforts. It triggers police calls and traffic stops targeting out-of-state drivers, especially those of darker shades than white. It leads us to see white people as “normal” and everyone else as “other.” It makes people of color reluctant to move here and uneasy with living here. It’s why many of them don’t stay very long.
It may be ignorance, not racial animus. But the effects are the same, and we have to cut it out. Just like Manchester, the state of Vermont is not an island.